Living in the desert, there were inevitable questions about boat life that came up any time we talked about our plan. I had several students who couldn’t grasp the concept we could dock the boat and fly to relatives for holidays. “How will you ever see your kids and grandkids?” they’d ask. I got asked a lot about fresh water supply when we were traveling or anchored. (There is a freshwater tank for potable water.) Then inevitably, I would get asked about where the water goes. (Water from the sinks or shower is called “gray water” and goes directly into the lake, river or ocean you are on. Its allowed because that water is not considered harmful but I’m glad we use eco-friendly shampoos and soaps nonetheless.) Finally, the question of toilet waste gets thrown out there. (Waste goes through a macerator at the toilet to chop up waste and easily dissolvable marine toilet paper, then goes through pipes to a separate holding tank. When full, you go to the marina dock and pump out, similar to an RV.) Sometimes there is a fee involved and sometimes, as with our current marina, its included in the cost of the slip.
We learned early on about the process behind the waste system because our master head wasn’t removing waste well. The inspection showed water flowing so we assumed it was working fine when we bought the boat. We had an unexpected expense on day one when we learned the pipe leading from that head to the holding tank was so gunked up from years of use that it couldn’t make its way to the tank except in tiny increments. It had to be replaced. (That was a job we paid someone else to do. Well worth the cost at ANY price.)
A little aside here, according to an article on nautical terms by Russ Moran, a writer and former Navy vet, “Head is an old Navy term for the place where sailors would go to relieve themselves before the advent of modern plumbing. The forward most part of a vessel was called the ship’s head. It often protruded out beyond the bow (aka the front of a vessel). There was a grate through which the waste went into the ocean.” Nowadays, the term is used for the bathroom.
Our wastewater tank does not have a gauge to determine when its full. We’ve learned to take it for pump out once a week. However, a few weeks ago, we woke up to the tell-tale smell that we had waited too long. Time had gotten away from us; it had been ten days. So we headed over to the pump out. The pump didn’t work. Think about that for a minute. We had sewer smell in our home, a full wastewater tank, and the pump out DIDN’T WORK. Rick fiddled with it. He talked it through with the mechanic (who was not working that day), and eventually we gave up and headed back to our boat slip wondering how long it would take to fix. My worst fear had been realized; it was just like camping now. We had to go up the hill to the communal bathrooms.
The next day, the mechanic gave us more bad news. He couldn’t fix it and the owners weren’t too interested in paying for a new pump. They dragged their feet asking him to do research, research, and more research. He found a small pump at the tractor supply store for only $100. The owner refused to allow him to purchase it because he didn’t think it was beefy enough to work. The mechanic argued if it didn’t work it could be taken back for refund. The owner still refused. The search continued. The “proper” type pump was found but the owners wouldn’t spend the money. Two days went by. Five days. We got the owner’s cell number and left messages. None were returned. We drove to the Coast Guard station to see if they could pump us out. They couldn’t and confirmed the nearest marina was too far to go there and back in a day. At six days we got the idea to call septic tank guys. No help. Then it was a week. We had family coming to visit. They were seeing our place for the first time and it STANK. I jumped on the internet to read about the gas emitting from our tanks. I felt it was becoming a health issue. We were told to go into the river and dump overboard (not allowed but we were desperate and actually thought about it). Our boat did not have that capability and in retrospect, I’m glad it didn’t. We solicited other suggestions and bought a large shop vac. But the length of pipe from the tank to the pump out valve was too far for the suction of the shop vac. We used fans to blow the smell out the hatch in the forward head. I cooked lemons and limes in the slow cooker as air freshener. Family arrived and everybody understood. Even though the smell was sort of manageable with our fixes, it was embarrassing. We offered and paid for a hotel room for the boys. By the time everyone left, it had turned into TEN days. I’m gonna leave that there for a minute.
Close your eyes (well, read this first, then close your eyes). Can you smell it? Could you sleep with that? And can you imagine taking that long walk down a virtually unlit pier to the bathroom in the middle of the night in your PJs? I’m a 53-year-old with a tiny bladder. Yeah.
So at ten days we felt we had two options. We could use the shop vac direct at the tank site and carry the full vac through our home, off the boat, up the hill, to dump it in the toilet. (The tank was 50 gallons and the shop vac was 6 gallons. You do the math—It makes me too tired.) Option two was to go to town and buy the damned pump ourselves. If it didn’t work, we could take it back. If it did work, we’d be home free. The mechanic agreed to try it against his boss’s wishes. We told him it would be waiting for him in the morning.
As I headed up the hill for my morning constitutional the next day, the mechanic was at the pump out area. He saw me and shouted, “It’s working!”
“You already have it hooked up?”
“Yeah. I’m pumping out the cabin now.” (Not even going to complain that we bought it and didn’t get to use it first.) “It works better than the old pump ever did.”
All of a sudden, the sky was bluer. The air was crisper. The sun was brighter. I was smiling. I practically danced back to Nautical Dreamer to wake Rick so we could head to the pump out. Best $100 we’ve ever spent. It just needs to last for another three weeks and we’ll be at our go date, leaving behind an overly lackadaisical owner of an abused marina.