The bilge, sometimes spoken as "bulge", of a ship is its lowest deck. The lowest useful deck on ships of brigantine size or larger is the orlop. This is generally used for storage and cargo. In naval sailing ships, frigate size and up, the fore of the orlop deck is also used for the sick berth because of the potential for good ventilation in that below deck area. The bilge sits below the orlop and, though it has a horizontal floor, is not put to use.
The main reason for this is that the bilge is where water (and other less appealing detritus) from the usual running of a wooden ship collects. The bilge has an important job keeping the keel together and if it is fractured, repairs need to be effected immediately to avoid foundering. A ship with an injured bilge is said to be bilged.
The bilge of a cask or barrel is the area where it is the largest around, usually in the area where the bung hole is drilled. (Yes, I did mention that solely to be able to use the term "bung hole". Sue me.) Casks are said to be "bilge free" when they are stowed on their foot or head rather than lying sideways.
Flatter bottomed boats can be fitted with bilge-keels, sometimes called bilge-pieces, to help them run better in the wind. Bilge-keelsons can be fitted on the interior of any ship to help support the orlop deck when heavy cargo is being shipped.
Bilge water, of course, is that noisesom mix of effluvia that collects in the bilge. Usually this is water that has run down the walls of the ship from the main deck, not leaked in from below, and sits stagnant because the flat floor of the bilge prevents it from running out to the well of the ship's pumps. Other things can seep into the mix, from tar to human or animal waste to food stuffs depending on the nature and duties of the ship in question. As The Sailor's Word Book tells us "The mixture of tar-water and the drainings of sugar cargo is about the worst perfume known." Even worse, though, was the bilge in a slaver. Of course truly horrific buildup in the bilge will cause bilge-fever, killing living cargo and sailors alike.
Most ships have a bilge pump separate from the main pumps. In the popular mind "the pumps" and "bilge pump" mean the same thing but that is erroneous. The bilge pump is sometimes referred to as a bilge monkey. This reflects the fact that younger reefers, known as "monkeys" because of their simian-like skills among the tops, were frequently given the task of pumping the bilge. It is now the moniker for a fine pirate website/radio as well. Find Bilgemunky here on Twitter.
Finally, the word bilge comes in handy when cursing. How many men have been dubbed scurvy sons of bilge rats can only be guessed at now. Hardly a single pirate movie or novel misses that chance, it seems.
Happy Saturday, Brethren. I hope it is as sunny and breezy where you are as it is here by Turnagain Arm
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