Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Wooden Bilge Pump

After two days and nights of easterly gales and torrential rains, the morning dawned with clearing skies and the meadows sparkled in the welcome sunshine as I walked down the path to the creek to see how the boat had fared. It was the sort of morning that made a boy glad to be alive and anxious to be up and doing. I found my row­boat half full of rainwater, and then it dawned on me that I had didn't have a bailer. As I debated the question of whether to go back to the house for a bailer I heard a familiar homely sound. In the doorway of his shanty, his ancient straw hat cocked over one eye, sat "Uncle" Bob, as I called him.

I asked if I might borrow a bailer. He reached inside and handed out a battered old wooden affair, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was made of half inch cedar, about 4 feet long and 4 inches square. As I pulled out the plunger to see how it was con­structed Bob said, "Never seen one of them before, did you? Lots of them around when I was a boy. They don't make no noise, 'n they don't chew up the plankin' like them tin ones do." As an after thought he added, "Don't cost nothin' neither."

The construction of the pump was simplicity itself. The plunger con­sisted of a 3 inch square of sole leather tacked to a 2 inch square block of wood, with a 1 inch oak handle. The valve was a plug of wood in the bottom of the pump, with a 2 inch hole in it covered by a leather flap tacked over it.
The pump raised an enormous stream of water, and after a life­time familiarity with all sorts of metal pumps I was struck by its quietness. There was none of the screeching, scraping, rusty clatter I had always known, and for the first time in my life I enjoyed pumping. All the while there was a faint stir­ring in the dark corners of my mind, something clamoring for remem­brance. Ah yes, Standing on a dock long long years ago, looking down on a big oyster sloop, just docked after dumping a load of "seed". An old man in a derby hat working a pump just aft of the hatches a square, wooden, built-in well from which there gushed a flood of foamy water, fanning across the deck and streaming through the scuppers in the rails.

It was probably the same kind of pump I had borrowed, and a type known to man for hundreds of years, but to me it was an exciting discovery. In the belief that there are others who take a curious inter­est in such simple things, I have felt justified in devoting this space to its story.

Last summer I met up with a sec­ond wooden bilge pump, a different type and rather unique. My good friend of mine had invited me aboard his venerable catboat. He is inordinately proud of his boat, and well might he be, for it falls to the lot of very few boats to have the loving care of a sailor such as he. During the my visit he proudly pointed out that she had two built-in wooden bilge pumps, one on either side of her centerboard trunk, discharging onto the floor of her self bailing cockpit.

The plunger is a very curious affair. A piece of oak, 1 by 3, has a shoulder cut in its lower end on which is tacked a pure gum rubber flapper 1/4 inch thick. To prevent its collapsing on the up­stroke two bronze dowels or pins are fixed in the oak immediately beneath the rubber flapper. The wood is reduced to a round section above to form a han­dle. A pretty neat affair, I say. On reflection I will have to admit that wooden pumps are about as elementary and rude as man could devise, but like many other simple handmade tools of ancient origin they work beautifully. And as Uncle Bob said, "They don't cost nothin' neither." What more could one ask?