Garry Flashman swaps gas for meths to make cooking and a cuppa much safer, easier and cheaper, by fitting a Spirit Stove on his replica Nobby boat – a Morecambe Bay Prawner.
Some years ago I was working on my boat, ashore in the yard. I felt, rather than heard, the explosion and by the time I’d scrambled the few yards to the mooring pontoon I was confronted with what was left of a Westerly Centaur.
The whole deck assembly, including the mast and spars, had been blown the height of a three-story building before landing back on top of the remains of the hull.
There had been one person on board and of course he was rushed to hospital, fortunately with relatively minor injuries. It seems that having been at the centre of the explosion the shock wave rushed away from him.
The experience left me with a permanent concern about explosives in boats.
As most skippers are aware, gas and petrol fumes are heavier than air and will sink into the bilge from where there is nowhere to go.
The resulting mixture of gas and air is of course highly explosive and can only be cleared by pumping, and then only if you are lucky.
Getting rid of gas
When we bought Freda one of the first jobs was to have the gas installation checked. The engineer made a few changes before signing it off, and of course we had it checked every couple of years after that.
Nonetheless we were increasingly uncomfortable with having gas on board, to say nothing of the cost of the stuff.
Just for fun compare the cost of a cylinder of Calor gas with a tank of petrol, bearing in mind that petrol is taxed. As with most boats, on Freda gas was used solely for cooking.
The only alternative fuels were paraffin or meths, and in the distant past I have come close to setting a boat on fire trying to light a paraffin cooker.
We took a closer look at meths (denatured spirit if you want to be pedantic).
The people we met who used it were perfectly happy with meths so we did more research into spirit stoves. A Google search threw up the Origo 3000, a totally self contained two burner unit, and it looked as though it would fit the galley space.
We checked availability. Originally manufactured by Dometic it soon became clear that Origo cookers were no longer in production and the few that were on offer on eBay were fetching ridiculous prices.
A chandler in Germany listed it in their catalogue accepted our order, only to cancel it when they discovered they couldn’t find a supplier. We put the project on hold.
Several months later the chandler (Compass 24) emailed back to say they had begun to manufacture the spirit stoves themselves and were we still interested?
We ordered one. It arrived, all gleaming and lovely.
We bought a couple of litres of meths (£3.83 per litre online, and a litre lasts 4½ hours in continuous use).
Because the spirit stove is totally self contained we could try it out at home.
It worked a treat, boiled a litre of water in the six to eight minutes it was supposed to, was absolutely silent and gave off just a very slight, rather pleasant odour.
New stove installation
Off to Freda to check the dimensions in detail. We disconnected the old unit and removed it, sealing the gas pipework but leaving it in place in case a future owner wanted to use it.
We slotted the new spirit stove into the galley. Perfect fit!
We removed the gimbals and pot clamps from the old stove and offered them up to the new. With a bit of tweaking even these could be made to fit.
This was important because although gimbals were available on eBay they were fiendishly expensive and there was no guarantee they would fit our galley.
The old ones certainly would. We needed to drill a few holes in our lovely, gleaming new spirit stove to take the gimbal assembly.
It would be a shame to make scratches or marks on it – even though they would be out of sight we’d always know they were there.
Covering the surface with masking tape was the solution, and also meant that the marks necessary to measure up were much easier to make. If I made a mistake the offending piece of tape could simply be ripped off and replaced. Also, when I came to do the drilling the tape would mean that the bit would be less likely to slip.
Clearly we needed to get the balance right. We measured the centre line as a starting point then sat the unit on two pencils and marked off the balance point which, as it turned out, is not the same as the centreline.
This balance point then became the centre line for the gimbal mounts. The gimbal/pot clamp assembly is bolted to the side of the cooker using M5 stainless set screws.
The sides of the unit are fairly thin stainless sheet and we were concerned that the screws could vibrate in their holes, making these oval and weakening the joint.
To overcome this we fitted stainless steel penny washers on each side to clamp the steel and spread the load. In addition also used Nyloc nuts for added security.
The time came to actually fit the assembled spirit stove. I had carefully measured everything, of course, but there’s always a nagging doubt.
Having decided exactly where we wanted it mounted to be comfortable in use, I screwed the gimbal mounts in place then dropped the spirit stove in. Phew!
I made myself a celebratory coffee.
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Storing gas on a boat is a major issue. A gas locker is required, big enough to hold two large and heavy cylinders plus the piping and regulator valve, and of course it must drain overboard.
In Freda’s case the gas locker was under the afterdeck where access was awkward to say the least. The exhaust loops through the rudder post. The drain would flood occasionally and the gas bottles rusted, so the whole thing was messy.
With the drain sealed up it will now be very useful storage.
Now we just need space for a few small plastic bottles. We can seal the old gas locker and use the space for warps etc. Much more useful.
As far as we can tell so far cooking with our new spirit stove shouldn’t be much different from the old.
We don’t have a grill, but then we never used the old one. As with a lot of gas grills the heat was very uneven which might be OK for a single slice of toast but wasn’t much use for anything more demanding.
Topping up the fuel is a doddle. Just open the unit and pour it into the tanks. These are filled with absorbent material which soaks up the meths so there is minimum risk of over-filling.
However, as a precaution we’ll probably make a habit of filling the spirit stove in the cockpit, where if there is any spillage it can just be wiped up and will evaporate.
It goes without saying that the tanks should never be filled hot. Our existing pans fit nicely, and we can use our griddle for chops, steaks etc.
It will be interesting to see how Mr D’s* thermal cooker works on it. We’re looking forward to using it.
A major plus point is that the ship’s cook is no longer tied to the galley. Being self-contained we can lift the spirit stove out of its gimbals and use it on deck in the cockpit.
Just think. Moored up the Beaulieu river on a lovely summer evening, watching the birdlife and cooking a delicious supper. Glass in hand, of course. Can’t wait!
*Mr D describes itself as a modern-day haybox. Essentially a large, vacuum insulated slow cooker pot in which you can prepare, say, a stew. Once heated through the meal can be left to itself for several hours without risk of over-cooking and will still be piping hot when you’ve moored up and are ready for dinner.