If you have never worked on a fishing boat you may find it odd but there is nothing more comforting than the faint smell of diesel. I was reminded of this as I swung back the door and stepped into the wheelhouse of tugboat Newt, scented strongly by fir with a hint of diesel. It was February and I had just suffered another of the east to west coast returns that punctuate the work I do in the off season to support my commercial fishing habit. The day was tormented by delayed flights, missed connections and the realization that I would not get to Seattle in time to make the last ferry to Port Townsend and home. A call made from Newark, New Jersey secured me a bunk on a 70-foot wooden tugboat in Seattle for the night. Well past midnight came the relief of unfurling the sleeping bag that is always on standby in the back of my car in a warm west coast wheelhouse, floating instead of flying.
The smell of a diesel powered wooden boat is something you cannot shake once you have stepped foot on one. Its warm breath permeates your nose, clothes and memory. The combination of wood and diesel is a different perfume. This is not the smell of diesel vapor that rises from a deck fitting as you nervously fill the boat’s tank at Petro Marine. Not the acrid scent that creeps closer to your nose while you eyeball the level of the tank through the crescent space left between the nozzle of the hose and the wall of the fuel fill fitting. You tune your ear to the sound of free flowing fuel that will change to gurgling foam threatening to gush on to the deck just before the tank is full. The sound of free flow is trance inducing and like a genie from a bottle random thoughts waft up on the vapors, lulling you to another place until you jerk back to the present for fear of over flow. Nor is it the smell left on your hands after you pick up the fuel spattered diaper once the danger of over flow has been narrowly averted by your trigger finger quick reaction to the slightly hollow sound that lies between free flow and the gurgle of full. Another trip to the fuel dock completed without a rainbow sheen of shame surrounding your boat like a slipped halo.
And it’s not the hot smell of steel, leaked oil and diesel exhaust that hits you as the engine room door slides back on its pocket track. That wall of air is just as thick as the door you just opened. Stepping into it is done gingerly while eyes quickly assess belts, gages, Racor filters and shaft for anything loose, leaky or not dripping enough. Back out of that room respectfully as it has been said to you, “Never turn your back on a moving engine.” Close the door on the raucous din of another event free engine room check. Seal in the good fortune of this place specific stink that keeps parts turning freely and water gliding by your hull. Feel lucky as you skip up the ladder for the hard working smell you just left has been known to cause some bellies to boil if the sea is thrashing and your boat is bucking through rather than riding with the waves.
The comfort scent I am recalling is salty and slightly sweet, a combination of past trips, cedar planks and the sweat of hard work. It is a lingering smell that for those of you who do not know could be best described as pipe tobacco when it is sparked but not fully lit, the sulfur from the match and the resulting smoke rounding out the leathery bouquet. It is a smell that for days on end scents your waking hours, tea breaks and dreamless sleeps when the deck work has battered you just enough to hurt but not break you. It greets you as eyes flutter to the sound of the 671 alarm clock or maybe yours is a Deere John. In any case, your good skipper has the coffee on, it’s own aroma a consolation prize for the push out of your down filled nest as you fledge for another day of fishing. Diesel perfume is a smell you eventually wash from your clothes after a few weeks back on land when season is done but one that never leaves you. It will summon all of Alaska back to the surface when on a dark night it unexpectedly greets you at the wheelhouse door in Seattle.