What Is a Bilge on a Boat?

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The bilge is the lowest area inside the hull of a ship -- the space around the keel or centerline. Any water that makes it into the boat and doesn't drain off the sides seeps down into the bilge. The word dates from 1510, derived from Latin and Old French words for "bulging sack," and means both the lowest internal part of a ship and the foul slosh that collects there. Bilge, or bilge water, may contain seawater, oil, diesel, cleaning solvents and other garbage, making it unpleasant and environmentally nasty to dispose of.

Emptying the Bilge

  • Most ships of any size have automatic bilge pumps that prevent the vessel from taking on so much water that it capsizes. But you can empty the bilge of a rowboat or smaller vessel with a bucket -- bailing is a time-honored way of removing water from a boat. Most recreational boating destinations have regulations or laws about emptying significant amounts of bilge water responsibly. You need to capture oil and other fouling substances with separators, oil-absorbent pads and bioremediating materials. Those last are bacteria that break down the hydrocarbons in the bilge water so they are harmless.

Bilge Construction

  • Bilge compartments are designed to keep the bilge water from sloshing around in the boat and destabilizing it in rough seas or when the boat is sharply heeled. The partitions prevent water shifts from port and starboard or fore and aft, and may have vent holes to allow controlled amounts of water to transfer from compartment to compartment. A larger vessel should have a separate bilge pump for each bilge compartment.

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