Modern yachts squeeze a lot into their sleek hulls, but they aren’t half as practical as old working boats, reckons Tom Cunliffe...


I have a charcoal filter on the foot-powered drinking-water pump in my galley. It normally catches everything and I never suffer a bad cup of tea. At Easter, I was brewing up in a sea square enough to stir the contents of Mother’s Christmas pudding when I noticed the liquid in my mug was brown before I’d dropped in the bag. How could this be? Dirty tanks, that’s what. I checked the
log book. It was four years since I’d cleaned them and their contents were so horrible that they’d beaten even the magic filter.

A bit of a long interval, you might think, but it isn’t you who has to front up to the job. Whoever built and installed them on my otherwise lovely boat has secured himself a front seat at Satan’s griddle and special attention from those demons with red-hot pitchforks you see in medieval paintings. The first time I tackled it, not only did I find the tanks seriously unreachable, I had to cut out some of the baffles to gain full access, lying on my back with the tools at arm’s length and a rare insight into what I understand marathon runners call the ‘pain threshold’.

How different things were on my old pilot cutter, built before WW1 by realists for chaps who tolerated no nonsense. The original water tank was a cube of riveted iron. Not steel, you’ll note, which rusts, but pure iron. Stainless might seem to be a good substitute until people start welding baffles in with low-grade rods. Result? More rust and misery. Iron is different.

This noble tank resided immediately abaft the mast. It couldn’t go in the bilge because that was full of ballast, so, like Grandfather’s clock, it stood ninety years on the floor. It was disguised from general view by a fine teak table. In the centre of this was a polished brass screw cap, flush with the table, which opened to offer access to a one-foot round hatch in the top of the tank. Since this was in the middle, it could safely be left open in all normal weather, although a watertight cover could be bolted in place by a strongback for Atlantic crossings and the like.

The siting of the tank was significant. Everything on that boat was built to enhance sailing performance, and weight was no exception. Her mighty half-inch anchor cable stowed immediately forward of the mast, keeping its mass amidships where it would do nothing but good. The craziness of a hefty chain stuffed up in the bows wasn’t for her.

The water tank with its contents added a bit short of half a ton to displacement. It sat hard up against the aft side of the mast where the spar came down through the saloon. Again, the weight was amidships, and the fact that it was relatively high by modern standards didn’t matter a jot. The boat was perfectly ballasted. She stood her canvas well and her motion was a marvel only those who experienced it would believe.

Cleaning that tank was actually a pleasure. It went like this. Day one; table off; remove bottom spigot and drain into bilge; lower 60-watt light bulb in through the top after removing cover if fitted; leave overnight. The heat dried the tank completely. Day two: Clean out any crud (very little since the job was so easy it had been done the previous year); open can of International Tank Black (cheap, bituminous and sticks to anything); paint out tank. Day three; fill tank and leave for an hour to absorb any fumes and settle the paint. Empty tank into bilge and refill twice more. Job done.

No bad backs, no bleeding knuckles and no cursing. Just a clean, sweet cup of tea without any fancy filters.

Sounds great? The trouble was, painting the fifty-foot topsides was a major annual event, and don’t even start reminding me about the seventy wooden blocks we had to strip, varnish and grease every season.


Tom Cunliffe