This is toilet talk, so if you’re offended by poo, you can stop reading now.
One of the great joys of sailing is independence, but to have this independence we must take on a few shore-based functions: We must become our own electric company, our own phone company, and yes, our own sewer. We must move and store human waste, which we, as a species, have judged to be the foulest and most objectionable substance on earth.
Without a functional head, the rest of the day, cruise, weekend, or passage is at stake. A crew, generally speaking, needs a functioning toilet. When something goes wrong with the head, who’s going to fix it? Is your handy marine repairman going to paddle up in his gondola to unclog your head discharge lines? Nay. On a small boat the duty always falls on someone aboard, usually the captain.
Like a cowboy having to go out behind the barn to shoot a lame horse, or the act of putting the human waste down the toilet in the first place, dealing with a clogged head is a job best done alone. In cramped spaces there is only room for one person anyway, and you really don’t want people remembering you that way. What if your wife imprinted the image of you with poo on your hands, and couldn’t get it out of her head?
We go alone, hopefully with rubber gloves, burning incense, and maybe a spritz of strong cologne.
Everyone has a story.
I wish I only had one story, but I have many stories. Just last weekend my head clogged. I always let it sit overnight, hoping things will just take care of themselves. They never do. This time I just had to take apart the exit elbow on my Raritan PH-II head, where the joker valve resides. Here I found a big wad of jammed toilet paper, and nothing else but pee, which I carefully drained out of the lines into a little plastic dish. Child’s play.
The handle in the jammed-up position...you don't want to see what's under that lid:
Usually disassembly lets me assign blame: I often find a paper towel, Handi-Wipe, or bottle cap, and I can admonish my crew: “What didn’t you understand about ‘nothing but human waste and toilet paper can go down the head’?”
The exit elbow, in which lies the joker valve:
The joker valve, which is no laughing matter: It's designed to keep sewage from seeping from the discharge lines back into the toilet, but it's often where foreign objects jam the works on their way out:
A good friend recently returned from an offshore voyage. They were being so careful to avoid clogs that they didn’t even flush toilet paper. They had a stack of brown paper lunch bags in the head, where they’d put the used toilet paper, then toss the bags overboard.
But somebody switched the Y-valve so that even offshore, all the sewage went into a flexible bladder holding tank, located in a locker. The bladder could only be pumped out through a deck fitting at a pump-out station; there was no way to pump the sewage overboard at sea. The bladder announced it was full by blowing the doors off the locker, cracking the cabinetry, and leaking badly. After fifty trips with a bucket—half to carry loads of raw sewage overboard and half to wash sea water through the bilges—the boat stopped smelling like a cesspool.
The pump-out deck fitting...better if this isn't the only exit for sewage:
Later, a crewmember found the head clogged, and in light of recent events took matters into his own hands. He came running through the boat with one of the paper bags: “Get out of the way!”
“What is it?”
“The toilet’s clogged, so I scooped out my turd and put it in the bag! Get out of the way!”
When I delivered a Santa Cruz 50 home from the TransPac a few years ago, some of the racing crew stayed aboard for a few days, and overlapped with the delivery crew. Two of them kept me awake most of the night, gabbing drunk in the cockpit. Finally I stuck my head up to say hello, only to find that it wasn’t two of them gabbing drunk; it was just one drunk, doing both sides of the conversation. I blame him for what happened next.
The forty gallon holding tank was almost full from a week’s use in the Ala Wai Marina. I figured we’d set sail for California and pump it out offshore…simple. The boat had this substantial diaphragm pump for that purpose, which made about two pumps before seizing up. First I thought I’d just switch the Y-valve to flush directly overboard for our voyage, and let the full holding tank be some else’s problem when we got to California. Nope, the jammed pump and the head discharge shared the same thru-hull, so to move sewage at sea in any manner I had to un-jam the pump and clear the through-hull.
Rubber gloves, Drakkar Noir, and a bucket. Forty some trips with buckets full of raw sewage, from the head to the cockpit, with the delivery crew, one of whom was my younger sister, looking on in horror. I found a wad of paper towels stuck in the exit thru-hull. The paper towels had made it through the toilet, through the lines, and into the holding tank, but plugged the exit when I tried to pump it out.
Another crewmember, a friend of a friend who lived on the Big Island, said, “I’m sorry, I wanted to help you, but I just couldn’t. I felt seasick and it was just a little too much.”
I remember my very first such incident, while taking the maiden voyage on Condesa with a group of six to Catalina Island. As we neared Catalina’s three mile limit, I went to switch the Y-valve on the forward head from flushing overboard to flushing into the cheesy flexible bladder holding tank, just like the one described above. I tried a little test flush after I switched the Y-valve, and found the toilet was already clogged. Somebody had still tried to pump it—hard—and I couldn’t even budge the pump lever. I made a big announcement: “Everybody, the forward head is clogged, so it’s off limits. If you need to go, go now in the aft head, because once we get within three miles we’re not supposed to flush overboard. I’ll try to fix it as soon as we get anchored.”
Half an hour later someone who should know better came into the cockpit and told me, “It’s not clogged that badly. I pumped the handle and it move a little bit.”
I tried my best to keep calm: “What did I just say?”
He replied, “Well, I just thought I’d try it, and it worked…a little.”
“I said the forward head was off limits. Off limits. And what did you do?”
“Well, I just thought I’d try…”
“What did you do!”
“I used the forward head.”
Once we got anchored everyone went on their ways: a swim to shore, a paddle in the dinghy. For the first time in my life, I approached the evil alone.
My suspicion was drawn to the Y-valve, so I undid a hose clamp and removed the discharge hose. Jammed into both the Y-valve and the hose were impacted toilet paper and chunks of poo. It was gross, but I was somewhat relieved, because obviously if I dug this impacted mess out of the hose I’d solve the problem. The hose and Y-valve were in a cabinet, the cabinet doors were open for access, and I sat on the toilet, with the lid closed, contemplating my tool selection.
Called the y-valve, because it makes you ask ,"Why!?!":
A sound started to come out of the hose, at first so quiet I thought it was a buzzing insect. It was like the sound it makes when you stretch the mouth of a balloon and let the air out, ever so slowly. The clogged, disconnected head line then went, “Weeeeeeeeeee….blam!” A toilet paper dam had been holding back all the pressure from my evil friend’s pumping, and that dam broke. Raw sewage and toilet paper blew out of the hose with such force that it made a literal shit storm, and I was sitting right there.
I ran through the boat and jumped overboard, my long scream only silenced when I hit the water. I swam and dove and scrubbed at myself like I’d been attacked by a swarm of bees. I surfaced and it dawned on me: I had to go back. I had to go back in there! Who else was going to clean up the mess? So back I went with cleaner, paper towels, a bucket, and a new stick of incense. I used two whole rolls of paper towels and a whole bottle of cleaner. The sewage had blown out with such force that it stuck to the ceiling.
What can we do to prevent these incidents? Nothing! They’re part of boating. No matter how many times we warn and instruct our guests, no matter how well we maintain our heads and discharge lines, the works will plug up sooner or later, due either to ignorance, accidents, or evil, and only you, oh captain my captain, will confront that evil.