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Head Aches – There are no Plumbers at Sea

Copyright 2007 by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander

Holding tanks are, for better or worse, a reality. We have one aboard Wild Card— plumbed for a variety of ecological, practical and legal considerations. I wish we didn’t. However, we do. Thus we have to deal with it. However, living in a confined space with a holding tank isn’t easy nor fun. It’s nose-wrinkling tough. The sad scientific fact is that every living thing produces waste or, to put it more sailor-succinctly, s**t happens. 

Wild Card is a very small, narrow boat which can’t comfortably carry a lot of weight— which is why I’m not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of occasionally having 20 gallons more effluent aboard than fresh water.

I mean, I like irony as much as the next sailor but when my wife Carolyn says, “The bad news is we’re out of water, the good news is we have ten gallons of urine…,” I’m not exactly laughing.

The saddest part is that in ‘de outer islands of de Turd World’ where we like cruise— the diesel fuel we buy is often… well, it occasionally appears to be dirtier and more polluted than the stuff in our holding tanks.

“…could we save money by cross-plumbing them,” Carolyn quipped once and I shot back, “…cut the crap!”

The vast majority of holding tanks are made of that white plastic stuff… which is completely watertight… but not, alas, odor-tight. Evil marine scientists have formulated a special ‘odor-oozing’ plastic to accomplish this. The bottom line: if you are not sure exactly which your spouse is doing in the head, time to replace the holding tank AND its hoses.

Sound is another problem. If a shaft-bearing in one of our 12 volt cabin fans corrodes and starts to shriek — we don’t oil it, we transfer the noisy unit into the head. (Much more convenient than carrying a small transistor radio which suddenly blares the BBC at odd moments).

There are, of course, legal considerations. In many countries there is a ‘zero discharge’ policy. I abide by this as best I’m able— but not all ocean rovers do. “…arrest that mammal,” I shouted to Carolyn as I peered suspiciously at the white-splotched wake of a passing whale. “…can’t he visit a pump-out station like the rest of his species?!?”

I’ll never forget the first time I… well, ‘availed’ myself of a pump-out station’s services. I was ditch-crawling the ICW and it was a Sunday afternoon at the fuel dock… lots of week-end warriors were there to gawk at the passing yachts. For some perverse reason, the large hose was clear plastic. People gathered around, curious. Once I started, a guy peered at the hose closely, pointed a finger which moved inland slowly with the flow, and said smugly, “…corn!”

“…oh, gross!” Carolyn lamented as she stomped belowdecks.

Some countries allow overboard discharge offshore. This requires a toxic octopus of hoses, valves, tees and clamps. Usually, a large diaphragm hand-pump is involved. Here-again I’m not exactly sure how the evil scientists do it— but somehow they orient the pump so that any diaphragm leak… gets you in the eye.

Yes, you can use an electric impeller pump for this purpose— but I don’t find them dependable… especially for ‘golden-oldie’ cruisers. If you insist on using a pump of this design, lubricate it daily with prune juice, once removed.

And it is absolutely amazing what unexpected ‘marine-thingies’ manage to sadistically leap into the head. Of course, to prevent this we try to remember to leave the toilet seat cover down— but it is easy to forget. Obviously, for ventilation, we keep the head hatch open as much as possible. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of any of the above while I recently furled our mainsail after a daysail—and searched around the cabin top for the lost sail-tie… one of those ‘Sea Ties’ which consisted of a shock cord with one end a loop and the other a wooden toggle. Nor did I recognize the white cord peering out from the bowl flapper… I just gingerly bent down and grabbed it with crab-claw-fingers and a strained grimace… and pulled. And pulled. And pulled. Until suddenly the hardwood toggle became unjammed—and sling-shotted itself into the center of my horrified, dented, brown-dripping forehead.

“…I had no idea a human being could make such retching sounds,” Carolyn laughed later.

I supposed we’ve all got our war stories. Landlubbing guests are the worst. You’d think “…only if you’ve eaten it’ would be plain enough… but, alas, no. I’ve learned a lot about, well, ‘female absorption’ the hard way. It is amazing the non-eatable items I’ve fished out: bottle caps, reading glasses and the odd French letter.

This has become a point of contention between my wife Carolyn and I. I think it is HER job to clue in our female guests as to the realities of shipboard life… but she does not agree.

“I’m not going to pat ‘em down for dildos,” she refuses. “…what am I gonna say, ‘…have you brought Mister Studly along as well?’”

I’ve been forced to become a paper expert. Needless to say, ‘water soluble’ is preferred but… some seem as fragile as gold leaf. They fall apart in the briefest of transits. Others look just as delicate but are actually made out of thin stainless steel sheets… half the sheets can still be on the roll and the other half the sheets trailing forty feet astern in deep ocean.

…in the Mideast, of course, rolls are as scarce as hard liquor. Even if you find such locally produced sanitation products you won’t be happy— revenge-seeking Muslims tend to manufacture toilet paper from recycled Brillo pads.

Why is it that if there’s a deck leak which is unable to fall upon your pillow or bunk it will be directly above the toilet roll?

And why, on a boat with everything corroding shut… does the toilet paper dispensers seem to run friction-free on Teflon bearings… to pool all the sheets silently on the damp floor?

Make no mistake: these rolls are precious! I mean, to sailing wives they are… well, ‘strategic war material’ in worth. Discarded docklines just won’t do. I’m serious. I mean, you have to occasionally be careful around otherwise honest cruising friends.

We spent four and a half months on Chagos in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There are no stores on Chagos, no inhabitants, no nothing… just toilet-paper-hoarding yachties.

…sure dinghy gasoline, booze and sugar are in high demand… but it is a roll of toilet paper which is the REAL coveted trade-good. I mean, name-your-price!

Yes, it is amazing what some multi-millionaires ‘hid in their handbag for later use’ on Chagos.

Just before dinner parties aboard Wild Card I’d unroll to the sixth sheet and write with magic marker, “…don’t be greedy, please!”

Cruising Mexico is ‘special case’ and most marinas now have at least one store on premises which sell nothing else. Look for the sign with the word ‘Montezuma’ or ‘revenge’ in it. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it wasn’t long after Carolyn and I first sailed into Cozumel in early 1970’s when I heard her lament forlornly, “…oh, where is Mister Whipple when you need him!”

 Ever wonder why holding tanks are built of such flexible plastic? This is so they can balloon. I kid you not. It is AMAZING how much pressure build-up an athletic crew member can achieve with a hand-pump-with-eight inch handle.  And, oh, what a horrible ‘dull popping’ sound is heard when the weakest hose clamp finally fails and the fire-hosing-in-confined-space begins.

I’m reminded of the two ship-retched guys I met in Trinidad. They’d just lost their old wooden boat in a gale— and were even more shattered than you might expect. Being a professional marine journalist, I felt compelled to record their story.

“As the seas built, she started leaking worse and worse,” said the weary, wild-eyed captain. “First the port garboard seam opened up and then the aft horn timber started squirting… anyway, soon our engine and batteries were underwater and we were both forced to bail for our lives with buckets. We managed to keep her afloat for a long time, but it was tiring. We only had one flashlight left…”

“…it was around midnight,” chimed in the second guy, “and it looked like we might not see the dawn. I was scared, real scared… so I muttered something like, ‘…what could be worst than this?’”

“…just then a large white disgorging object worked its way up from under a bunk and burst to the surface of the sloshing water… like a stinky white whale… waving its broke-hose holding tank coupling like a effluent-dribbling fluke-from-hell…”

“…I’m sooooooooo soooorrrrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” sobbed the crew.

This whole subject is weird. Why are they called JOKER valves? Is this some ‘sanitation engineers’ idea of humor?

I once owned a boat with the top-of-the-line Wilcox-Crittiten head. It was huge thing with a large bronze base and long, strong pump handle. It was called, grandly, The Skipper. For real! Imagine how I felt each morning as my crew would announce with a sly, smirky smile, “Well, time to show The Skipper what I really think of ‘em!”

I replaced it with a smaller, more modern Head Mate in revenge.

Not all heads work on the same principals. Once I went from swimming to sitting on my Lavac— no need to stock up on laxatives with one of those aboard! (Beware, small children… make ‘em wear a PFD!)

Needless to say, most effluent… er, affluent yachtsmen pay someone else to deal with… such crappy jobs. In Fort Lauderdale, that chap was a British yachtsman known as Robin and the name of his business was… the Head Hunter! Yes, any sailors with a survival instinct would immediately begin, consciously or not, to ‘work his way to weather’ of Robin to converse with him.

But Robin was cheery fellow and always raking it in. “Sometimes I’m up to ‘ere in it,” he’d say with hand under his chin, “and sometimes I’m up to ‘ere in it!” he say with his hand quaking just under his crinkled nose.

Which brings us to how marine toilets got their nautical name. Some say it is because old sailors use to go forward and lean it over the side while hanging onto the anchor davits. Eventually, they built a ‘privacy screen’ around this area at the ‘head’ of the boat.

Maybe so.

However, recently Carolyn and I were dinghying out to our vessel and happened to notice a tradition-loving single-hander in the cockpit of his carvel-planked sloop (which was named something like) Cedar Bucket. He must have been daydreaming… just staring off into deep, vacant space… and we must have startled him as we came alongside. His jaw opened in amazement and his head… all we could see was his head… just sort of got yanked forward into the cabin, as if on a string.

“Ah,” said Carolyn, as the light dawned, “that’s why!”

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