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Archive for March, 2013

Potty training … or how I got my head on straight!

If you remember, in the initial post of ‘Spiritus goes South,’ there was mention that we had trouble with the marine head.  This was in late October 2012.

We attempted temporary repairs at sea and finally gave up to settle for bleach every use, dry flushing, and closing and opening the seawater cock to the bowl.  To my initial crews’ credit, they both worked hard to keep it flushing.

We never used the ‘flush to sea’ setting and left the thru hull to the ocean closed for the entire trip.  Only once did we use a unique feature on the boat called the THE MACERATOR!

Under the sink, in the kitchen, is a switch.  It is hidden (sort of), hard to reach, not labeled, and until now, its function was unknown.  On the way down, after laboriously tracing the pipes under the kitchen sink, we had theorized that it pumped something to sea … but what?  In the movie Galaxy Quest, ( a Tim the Toolman Taylor … Tim Allen role) Captain Peter Quincy Taggert of the ship  NSEA Protector has a button connected to the ship’s beryllium drive.  No one knows what it does–only that it has a mysterious time function.  In theory, it triggers the “Quantum flux” when employed.  What we found under the sink, in the galley, will now and forever after in the history and tales of this boat be called the “Quantum Flush.”  In the movie, when Captain Taggert used it, he got to go back in time 13 seconds, long enough to correct a single mistake he made.  In Spiritus, when we used it, we got to wish we could go back in time 13 seconds and correct the odoriferous mistake we just made.

Spiritus is plumbed so that there is a macerator motor attached directly to a line to the holding tank for the head.  When activated by an impossibly hard-to-find and only recently discovered switch, sewage is pumped out of the holding tank and overboard via the kitchen sink thru hull.  It is not pumped out via the bathroom thru hull.  This becomes incredibly important the first time you use it.  The way it is plumbed, you have to operate two inline valves on the kitchen sink drains.  One opens the drains to the macerator line, perhaps a better way to describe it would be to say one closes off the kitchen drains from the macerator lines.  This distinction is really, Really, REALLY important.  The second valve opens the line to the thru hull used by the kitchen sinks.

The easiest way to describe the operation of this feature is that if you have everything set right … the sea turns brown …  and you will smell land where there be no land!  Farmland … stockyards … rice paddies … binjo ditches … pick a visual and olfactory image.

On the other hand, if you have the valves set wrong … the line from the Indiana Jones movie The Last Crusade leaps to mind!  ‘He chose poorly!’  The kitchen sinks, the walls, and the counter tops turn brown.  I think I will leave this description at that … except to say that even if you have everything absolutely right, if you have to plunge the sinks within the next few days (to get them to drain after doing, let us say, the dishes) –a normal occurrence since the sinks are almost exactly at sea level in the kitchen– what comes back up the drain will remove all desire you have to ever eat on those particular dishes again.

Now to describe the head that feeds the macerator that paints the sea … that gags the whales … that fells the sea birds …. that fall from the sky … that feed the sharks … that follow the boat … that carries the valiant crew … that refused to use the bathroom all the way to Mexico.

The head is a Raritan PHII.   I want to make it clear here that everything I say here after should in no way be interpreted as deriding the brand and model.  What I will describe is just the nature of repairs of any head on a boat.

After arrival in November at La Paz, I continued to use the head only for relief of bladder.  No other uses were allowed, no matter how dire the situation and need.  I got here in November.  I ordered the parts for a rebuild (not knowing that I had a full set stored away in a hold).  Six weeks later, they arrived at the marine chandlery in La Paz.  This is a fairly normal wait for any unusual part.

Since my wife was not yet in La Paz, I did a guy thing and just kept limping along with the head leaking.  More bleach, more scrubbies, walk to the marina bathrooms …. and so on.  But, like all men with both a boat and a wife, I knew my day of reckoning was nearing.

So, I busied myself with other manly things to repair.  Sails needed washing, wood needed repairs, all metal needed de-salting, halyards needed soaking in freshwater and removal of salts.  The bottom needed scrubbing, the boat finally got a wax and buffing after 20 years in the sun.  Manly Man Does Not Work On Potties!

Yeah!  Right!

One weekend day after Christmas … I remember because writing about the trip south made me feel guilty about not fixing it sooner, I decided to rebuild the head … my parts were in and … how bad could it be?  I had a manual showing the parts and assembly instructions … Tim the ‘Toolman’ Taylor at sea (or in a Marina anyway).

As I begin this description, know that the head is in its own ‘room’.  Ours is off the ‘hallway,’ a little forward of amidships on the starboard side.  The head is the manual version, so you pump a handle to clear it.  It has a knob for Dry …. and when you turn it … Wet settings.  The ‘wiggle room’ you have to fit into is the size of a small broom closet.  It is across the hallway from storage drawers so you have to lay down, or kneel down, and torsion yourself into a 90 degree turn to the left (port) and– for me –work primarily with my non-dominant hand while holding myself up off the floor with the other hand.  Alternately, you can sort of lay on the floor and work upwards like a nightmarish ‘the motor of my VW bug is a toilet’ motif.  This description only touches the gestalt of heads on boats.

In the case of Spiritus, there are four lines from the pump (three really), and it connects to the sea cock that pumps poop overboard or alternately– if you forget to close– lets the ocean in.  One line feeds water from the sea cock in the keel where ‘freshwater” for the head enters the boat then  goes to the kitchen sink area, where it has a filter with a large blue packet that turns the water blue for the head (I am guessing so you don’t accidentally drink it).  One line lets seawater feed the bowl so you can add water to more solid wastes.  If you pump it really fast, the ensuing flood of blue water even swirls counter-clockwise in a beautiful azure whirlpool.  Sort of a version of the blue water that Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman (Ed Harris) gets all over his hand when he has to fish out his wedding ring after throwing it in the toilet in screaming frustration in James Cameron’s “The Abyss”.  His hand is blue for the rest of the show. Manly Man was too smart for that.  I wore two pairs of latex gloves for the delicate operation of head removal …

Holding the pump in place are six screw-and bolt combinations and four hose clamps.  According to the second axiom of Murphy’s Law, these nuts and bolts all have to be rusted closed or the job is just not fun.  Congratulations are in order:  I can now curse and swear in Spanish, fluently!

I need to remind you here that I have worked most of my adult life as a paramedic.  I have a high tolerance for yuck … poo … feces … ka ka … and bodily fluids of most kinds.  But nothing I have ever done prepared me for what befell me in that small room.  I found that there is a rule of the universe.  No empty toilet ever fails.  Why would you be pumping it if it was empty?

Humor aside, I had run two gallons of freshwater thru it to fill the lines with clear water in preparation.  Had I only known!

When you make a mess in the head … on my Ingrid at least … under the floor that gathers waste water from the “shower” is a small drain that I naturally assumed led to the bilge.  We will return to this assumption later in the story.  Part of the mess went down that … bleach too …. fresh water … bleach.

Once the god-cursed nuts and bolts were removed … the head was carefully carried to the kitchen (yes …. cause it has a counter top and sinks) and placed in water.  I took a picture, but I honestly –in good conscience– can’t post it.  I will just say that the next two hours of cleaning and diss-assembly were some of the nastiest, most fowl, filthy and disgusting I have ever experienced.  But,  I had paid for the parts.  So disassemble, clean, soak, pump water through, reassemble, add seals, grease,  pump water thru.  During all this, I noticed that the piston chamber for the pump was badly scarred and actually impossible to fully clean ( so I ordered a new pump in its entirety .. .only six weeks to wait).

I finish the reassembly, contort myself back into the small room … reinstall.  Cross fingers, add water and pump.  I have a stroke length with the handle of about 4 inches … should be almost a foot but it ‘works’.

Merry Christmas!  New Years !  Or just plain old HAPPY DAY!

Time flies … my wife writes and lets me know she will arrive in February and not March …. parts still not here.   Wife arrives … pump now has a three inch throw … stroke … and is pressurized.  My wife just loves walking to the marina bathrooms at three in  the am.  Coffee is becoming tense in the mornings … I can sense there is ‘something’ she is not happy about ( or maybe she just needs to go to bathroom because of the coffee?)………………….

About a week and a half ago … February 20 or so (yes, 2013 now) … the new pump arrived.  We now have two inches of throw … stroke distance.   My Beloved has stopped flushing at night as a form of rebellion … because she knows if the pump fails .. while she is pumping it … it will somehow be her fault.  So first thing, every morning  …. the full head has to be emptied … takes about 30 strokes of the pump … give or take 10 strokes !

Yesterday, March 8, 2013 (yes 2013), Manly Man decided to replace the pump before it failed.  You can probably hear my wife laughing in the background.

I ran two gallons of freshwater thru the old one … 80 strokes or so… took the new shiny white replacement pump, disconnected the old one, reconnected the new one.  Took 45 minutes total.  No mess, no poo anywhere … and when we tried it .. my wife could make a 10-12 inch stroke with the new pump with one finger.  The entire bathroom floor no longer flexed … and the head did not torsion with each stroke.  Took three strokes to empty a bowl that was full to brim.

There was great rejoicing in Mudville!

BUT, I had forgotten to check the holding tank … to see how full it was.  Remember, I had been running full bowls of water thru it to work on it.  Hmmmmm … it holds almost 17 gallons.  It has only been a few weeks since we had the tank pumped.  Did you hear a little belch sound last night when you pumped the handle?

Like all good home (boat) handymen … Manly Man decided to see if there were any leaks with the new pump.  I checked everywhere … nothing.  Then I checked under the floor “just to be sure.”

Do you remember the small drain that I thought led to the bilge for shower water ? Well nope!  That’s not where it goes!

Turns out that  boat designers and the gods have a great sense of humor.  It is actually the overflow valve for … guess what … that is right … the holding tank.  Ask me how I can be so sure.  An hour ago, when I lifted the floor … there were four inches of melted yellow snow sloshing about.   I thought $#%! … so I plunged it … now the melted ‘yellow snow’ is a disgusting brown.  Hmmmm … must be plugged.  Ran a wire down it … goes on forever … then drain works for a few seconds … then ….stops draining ….  This is definitely not a good thing!

Pumped all the ‘yellow snow’ out by hand with small hand pump … drained it down the kitchen sink … filled a teapot with fresh water … poured it in potty … stroked the pump … and … up from the floor ‘came a bubbl’n crude … toilet tea …. night soil …  poo  ….

Each pump shot brown water back up thru the floor drain … it is the vent/overflow for the holding tank.  There is no connection to the bilge … the shower actually drains into the holding tank .. don’t know why I never figured that out.  Duh!

After two showers, in the marina showers, and a beer (might have been two beers)… I am actually smiling again.  Repairs are finished and the head is functioning as it should … it is just that the holding tank is full.  The project just took just a little longer than I expected.  It took about four months longer than I originally estimated.

Oh, and now that it is ‘fixed’?  It is Saturday afternoon and the dock crew just left for the weekend … including the people who pump the holding tanks dry!

As I sigh and break out the bedpan to put on top of the toilet seat, I can hear the voice of my Master ( and Beloved) asking … ‘what have you learned, Grasshopper?’

1)  I am never going to rebuild a head again … EVER!

2)  I now have a spare pump unit!

3) If you walk thru the melted ‘yellow snow’,  the toilet paper sticks to your feet!

Looks like Manly Man is not yet a Shaolin plumber!