IN MY LAST COLUMN we were discussing a little bestselling book called How to Shit in the Woods. Well, let me tell you that doing your jobbies in the woods is a piece of cake compared with using the head on a small sailboat.
In the first place, everyone has to sit down to use the head. Men who need only to pee, and think they can aim accurately while standing up at sea are greatly mistaken. On boats where they have tried, the head smells like a month-old cat litter box. The traditional male pee posture is standing at the leeward shrouds, with one arm around the shrouds for safety. Urban legend says more men are lost this way at sea than any other, but I don’t believe it. It is illegal, of course, to pee overboard within three miles of the coast, and completely forbidden in many eco-sensitive areas closer in. Illegal for a human, that is. Legal for a whale, though. Go figure.
But the main trouble with a boat’s sewage system is that you have to carry the poo from your loo with you. It goes into a holding tank that is carefully hidden from delicate human eyes. And how can you tell when the holding tank is full? Well, when you’re pumping out the loo it gets a bit more difficult to move the handle. So you give it an extra-hard pull and suddenly there’s this kind of dull thud noise. A sort of muffled burp, followed by slopping noises as a murky stream slithers from the holding tank into the bilge. And loud screams from the First Mate in the galley. Big-time problem.
You should, of course, have visited a pump-out station, if you could ever have found one. But it’s embarrassing, because people on shore stand around and watch for boats approaching the pump-out berth. They find it kind of amusing to see the skipper and crew trying to figure out how this particular machine works, which switch does what, and which hose goes where. And if they accidentally switch the pump motor to “blow” instead of “suck” will it explode the crap into their cabin? Such fun, as long as you stand upwind.
Another trouble with boat heads is that they are right there in the main living accommodation. There is not a hint of privacy. Using the head is not for people with delicate susceptibilities. Strange noises from the loo have been known to seriously frighten nervous young ladies, and no boat that I have ever owned was able to overcome this sound-proofing problem.
The whole system is susceptible to blockage in the pipes, of course, and putting things right is a terrible problem, especially if you’re at sea and people are standing around with their legs crossed and panic on their faces. To overcome blockages, some head systems incorporate an electric macerator. A macerator works like your kitchen blender. It makes a frothy poo purée, a sort of crap-à-la-crème, that passes smoothly along the tubes into the dreaded holding tank.
On boats without macerators there is often a large notice in the head that warns landlubbers: “Put nothing down the loo that you haven’t eaten first.” I always think that’s silly. I mean, what about the paper?
There is, however, an alternative to the traditional pump-out head. It’s called a Porta Pottie. It’s really just a large modern chamber pot. But, once again, it has its drawbacks on a boat. You can’t simply yell “Gardy loo!” and hurl the contents into the street, as they used to do in the old days. You have to take it off the boat, smuggle it to a public toilet, and try to pour the contents into the porcelain bowl without alarming the man in the cubicle next door when he hears the worryingly prolonged glug-glug-glug, plop-plop-plop noises you’re making.
Some people who don’t like carrying their loaded chamber pots around in public have now gone over to composting toilets. They place them right there in the head compartment. There are no pipes to clog, no holes in the boat to let in flushing water, and no pumps to break down.
Even with all those advantages, I still can’t stomach the thought of living cheek-by-jowl with growing piles of my old poo rotting away in the corner, being chomped on by millions of starving little bugs. I mean, what if their tiny appetites wane one of these days? What if they get tired of the same old crap, day after day? Now, instead of a Porta Pottie to empty ashore, I’ll be stuck with a whole barrel-load of you-know-what right here on the boat with me.
But maybe I’m attacking the problem from the wrong end, as it were. I have just researched a list of foodstuffs on the Internet. It includes ice-cream, cheese, meat, chips, pizza, hard-boiled eggs, and instant mashed potatoes. And what, you ask, do they have in common? Well, they all cause constipation. Next time I go cruising, I shall put the ship’s company strictly on my new diet. I shall call it the Don’t-Do-It Diet, and come back from my cruise two weeks later with an empty, sweet-smelling holding tank. Now that’s something to aim for.
To what purpose is this waste?
— New Testament, Matthew, xxvi, 8
“What’s your opinion of my new book?”
“It’s absolute drivel.”
“I’m sure it is, but I’d like to hear it anyway.”