Dick Durham March podcast: A fear of propane has led to me sailing with flammable liquids that burn anywhere except where they’re meant to
“Whoof! Up goes the paraffin in a stinking yellow flame”
Gas. The very word is sinister, and I have body-swerved this particular state of matter in various galleys over the years by replacing it with spirit or Primus stoves to alleviate irrational fears of becoming an involuntary suicide bomber. For me, gas aboard a boat creates an illogical terror of death by sudden explosion, which may be more to do with some atavistic trait imparted psychically by my unfortunate great uncle Stanley Durham, who died in the trenches defending Ypres following a gas attack in 1915.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of yachts voyage the world over while cooking with gas does not allay my paranoia. Worse, my cooking system of choice has not exactly alleviated risk on board, as the following account of making a cup of tea in a sea- way will demonstrate.
I have a double-burner paraffin stove, which is gimballed in what on most boats would be the hanging locker. I therefore squat beneath the deckhead on a collapsible canvas angling stool to operate it. Next, I aim a squeegee bottle filled with methylated spirit into the reservoir beneath the burner nozzle. Of course it is too dark to see exactly when the meths has filled the reservoir to the correct level and trying to rely on the gim- bals and the surface tension of meths not to coat the stove liberally with flammable liquid is a skill still undergoing development.
A cigarette lighter is the first tool of ignition, not to reach the meths reservoir – it can’t as flame won’t burn downwards – but to light the matches which refuse to spark on the damp and worn-off striking strip. Several of these litter the grill tray like dead flies before one manages to set off the meths. Now the whole stove is burning with a ghostly galley-form of St Elmo’s fire. Quickly the meths starts to bubble in the reservoir as it burns low and knack number two is employed to crack open the knob, not too soon before the burner is hot enough to turn the paraffin from liquid to gas, but not too late to miss the last flame of meths for ignition. Invariably I wait too long and hurriedly deploy more matches to light the now escaping paraffin which has cooled back to a liquid.
Whoof! Up goes the paraffin in a stinking yellow flame with black smoke billowing over the deckhead. I shut down the stove, which is too cold to burn the paraffin and too hot to receive another dose of methylated spirit without a, wait for it, fireball explosion. Where the paint on the deckhead has not bubbled into glossy blisters it is covered in a greasy soot that only boiling water and the most toxic of detergents will remove and even then only after serious scrubbing.
So last season I did away with all this rigmarole. I bought a blowtorch. Brilliant. OK, I still need a fag lighter to light the matches to light the blowlamp to light the stove, but I can now get the burners glowing red before I crack open the knob. All went well until the blowtorch found its way into the bilges and got wet.
The next time I went to use it, the nozzle appeared blocked. So I unscrewed the front part of the nozzle and got gas coming through. I then screwed it down again but the gas refused to come out. So I then unscrewed the front part of the nozzle again, got the gas coming through, lit it but before I could screw it back the whole unit roared into life and I sat below contemplating a Molotov Cocktail. Although I covered the 1981 Brixton Riots, it did not make me a bomb disposal expert. I decided to employ the Brocks advice printed on the fireworks of my childhood and retire immediately.
I sat in the cockpit watching the blowtorch hiss and bubble away on the ebb tide and made do with grapefruit juice.