4 March 2007: Somewhat Nasty: Marine sanitation
As this is one in a series of essays on sanitation, some will find the subject matter distasteful. My plumber friend Mike tells me the technical terms for the goods at issue are "fecal matter" or "human excrement." I don't think that really helps much. Shit is Shit. You produce it every day and the last you want to care about it is when it disappears into your head. IF it disappears into your head. Which is exactly the problem. Most heads are designed so poorly or people spend so little money on them that the prospect of going #2 on a boat is enough to constipate most landlubbers. Particularly after you tell them the rules.
Two of my lovely granddaughters, ages five and seven, or perhaps it was my son or daughter-in-law, for no one admits to this if they can escape first, plugged poor La Mouette's (former) head so thoroughly with fecal matter that it took me half a day and several tries to get it unstuck. Actually I am happy they were ignorant enough of the potential consequences of taking a shit on a boat that they felt free to do so. I do not want them to fear the head. I want a head that does what it's supposed to, to take care of business and be neat about it.
In the sailing classes in which I have participated much time has been spent on cautions for avoiding the dreaded Plugged Head. Differing opinions were offered on how many squares of TP were reasonably safe. Which in any case turns out to be not enough to really serve the purpose. The "deposit only what has passed through you" rule is reasonable if overly polite. There is a limit on what you can expect of something that accomplishes as much in as small a space as a boat. That limit does not include flushing cigarette butts, matches, bobby pins (to clear out relics from the 50's) or tampons, cleansing pads or dental floss down the head. La Mouette has a neat little wastebasket in the head lined with a crisp little paper bag for receiving those items. There are spare paper bags readily available without even the need to ask.
Actually, any toilet tissue that does not contain reinforcing fibers will dissolve quite readily in the holding tank. It is only the marginal fixtures that choke on TP. Given sufficient flush water, tissue is no problem. So you will no longer find single-ply "marine" toilet tissue on my boat. I think that is the least you can provide a guest in a delicate moment: tissue that does not dissolve on your hands.
Before describing my ideal head, the one I just bought and installed on La Mouette, I'm going to digress at length so you can fully understand why I dislike the other options. This is not prose for the squeamish.
The typical head fixture on a small boat has a hand-operated pump to the side of the bowl. The bottom of the bowl and the bottom of the pump are connected by a tube not much over an inch in diameter with two right-angle bends. News flash: only small, firm lumps of fecal matter can be sucked through a narrow tube and around two corners. Plus you'd better flush as you go. To much deposit or lumps that are too large will not leave the bowl at all without breaking them up mechanically or letting them sit until they soften up in the bowl water. Yuk. I keep a box of disposable plastic knives in the head for the purpose of slicing the deposits down to size On the other hand, if the deposit is too gooey it will just settle in the horizontal part of the pipe, the worst clog of all. The only solution here is persistent work with a length of coat hanger wire. By the time you succeed the bowl is brimming with brown soup. Triple yuck. Knowing this do you still want to chance a dump on an unfamiliar head? I doubt it. Hence all of the "sailors" you see making a mad dash for the facilities as soon as they dock.
Of all the small, manually operated heads I have had the best results with the Raritan PH-II. I think the long lever on the pump offers enough mechanical advantage to pump vigorously while seated, which is the secret to making side-pump heads work at all. Motorized heads with a macerator built into the unit rely on "macerating" the fecal material with stainless steel blades to make it pumpable. This type of macerator has two impellers divided by a stainless plate. One side pumps water into the bowl and the other side empties it. Sometimes the sides are coupled so some of the waste water is recirculated to help flush the bowl. Watching brown water stream into the bowl has a yuk factor all of its own. Macerator heads tend to use a lot of flush water as well, which fills up the holding tank faster.
In my experience, these heads are far from plug-free. I think they are actually worse than the manually pumped heads once they plug. When the exit passage plugs, the bowl fills rapidly and vastly complicates the situation. As the flusher, unfamiliar with these things, you tend to keep the motor running in hopes that it will all go away. And sometimes it does. Lots of water in the bowl creates maximum suction around the fecal material and finally it gets sucked into the macerator All too often, however, you stand petrified as the bowl fills a little more each time you push the flush button for a few seconds.
As the boat skipper, you might have a clue that a problem is developing if you hear the macerator running more and in shorter bursts than is normal. Mostly you don't tend to find out about the problem until the bowl is sloshing over the rim with every roll of the boat. It's pretty awful. You don rubber gloves, scoop the excess brown water into any available containers and try to clear the passage to the macerator (which is around a 90 degree corner) with a bent spoon handle or whatever. Then you flush everything you scooped out, clean up and disinfect the floor, your bent spoon and all the containers. It takes a strong stomach. After that adventure, which is impossible to keep discreet on a small boat, you can bet everyone is going to hold it until the voyage is over. Who wants to chance putting the skipper through that again?
One small note if you just can't abide the smell: Breathing masks with activated carbon made for working with paint and solvents will also filter out this irritant. A second helpful note: even if you never get seasick, if you are the one likely to have to deal with a head issue, it's a good idea to take a seasickness remedy just in case. Not getting seasick topside and not getting seasick down below, up to your elbows in shit, are vastly different cases.
Reading reference highly recommended: