The Definition of “Beer in the Bilges”

Beer in the Bilges, sailing adventures in the South PacificWhen people first hear the name of our book, Beer in the Bilges, they usually have one of two responses. For sailors, it is one of confirmation, and for non-sailors it is one of confusion. After having read the book, everyone gets it, but since you might be wondering, and are too shy to ask, we thought we’d better tell you. But first some history.

For hundreds of years, British sailors depended on alcohol to make the brutish task of sailing bearable. Whether they were volunteers or pressed into service, a sailor’s lot was a hard one, and being slightly sloshed soothed their demeanor and made them easier to manage. The British navy had the bright idea of giving the sailors a daily ration of a gallon of beer each to keep them suitably intoxicated. The problems with beer, though, were that it took up so much space and tended to go off after too long in the keg, especially in the warmer climates. In 1655, however, the navy discovered the benefits of rum, and continued the practice of the daily tot of an eighth of a pint until 1970.

While not so formal a tradition in the recreational sailing world, beer has persisted as a necessary cargo for many sailors. Even though today’s voyages are usually shorter than a naval assignment, the problem with temperature is still present for the many boaters who do not have the luxury of refrigeration. The solution today, as it was centuries before, is to place the beer in the coolest part of the boat, which is below the waterline.

Here is where knowing a little bit about the construction of a ship is important to solving the puzzle of the book’s name. In a ship, the lowest part of the inside space is called the bilge. In a modern yacht, this is the space under the cabin sole –the nautical name for the floor—where the water tanks are often located and where other goods are stored. It did not take long for modern day sailors, too, to realize that this was the coolest place on the boat, hence the general practice of keeping the “beer in the bilges.”

The credit for naming the book goes to Bob and Hal. They came up with it one Christmas early on in the book-writing process. I don’t think we could have hit upon another title as emblematic as this. We will have a challenge to find as good a title for the second memoir.

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2 thoughts on “The Definition of “Beer in the Bilges”

  1. Jim Reed

    Alan, Jim Reed here,author of “Turning Final, A Life Complete” Would love ot touch base and talk about similar adventures. I spent an entire summer in Pago Pago while I was in the Air Force. Also, I retired from the Air Force in Key West and we elected to take a month or two trip throough the Bahamas aboard our 44′ Sparklman And Stevens cutter riged classic (old)sailboat. In order to have enough beer to drink but primarily to use it as barter for Lobster and shrimp from those fishing vessels, I loaded 23 cases of beer on board. I took all of the cans out of the cardbord box and lay them in the bilge.

    After about a week I found that the constant motion of the beer cans against e ach other had worn pinholes into many of the cans. Without knowing it I lost about 2/3 of the beer, pumped over th side..

    JIm

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    1. alanpeterbob Post author

      What an unfortunate waste of beer! You must have been terribly disappointed. Yes, it would be good to share stories about Samoa. Among us, Hollywood Bob has spent the most time there, beginning back in the 1970s. We should find a way to connect.

      In the meantime, I hope you and your family enjoy a very merry Christmas!

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