In coastal New England, a gunk hole is a small, out-of-the-way harbor or a nearly unnavigable shallow cove or channel. Dictionaries insist that gunk enters the language as the trade name of a “self-emulsifying colloidal detergent solvent” patented by the A. F. Curran Company of Malden, Massachusetts, in 1932. But citations of gunk hole go back to at least 1908. Either way, the word connotes greasy, gooey, yucky, mucky stuff, whether found in a tidal marsh or in the sump of an engine. Gunk hole seems uncomplimentary, as though implying the deepwater sailor’s disdain for the shallows. But in fact the term is generally used affectionately, and gunk holers constitute a secret fraternity of navigators who happily abjure marinas, mooring fees, and the beaten track.

Franklin Burroughs