Marine toilet paper, my arse

This is probably a good time to mention that I know very little about sailing, apart from what I’ve learned from co-owning a boat with Ryan and our friend Rich for the last 5 years. But, truth be told, I haven’t taken much responsibility for learning everything I could about sailing.

Ryan, however, delved with unfailing enthusiasm into sailing the moment we stepped foot on Hideaway, chatting up sailors for advice in bars, participating in J-24 race nights, reading countless books about sailing and generally taking every opportunity possible to take the boat out and play around with the sails. I, on the other hand, have managed in that same time to learn how to respond to commands to pull lines, dock and un-dock rather clumsily, trim the sails (with explicit instructions as to what “trim” means), and I’ve occasionally been known to make cocktails and snacks for the crew and guests, transforming myself into some kind of 1950’s housewife who thinks the heavy lifting and decision-making should be left to the boys.

Pathetic, I know. Gloria Steinem would not be impressed. Which is why this year, as soon as I knew we were actually leaving for real, I’ve tried to undo some of the lazy damage of the last 5 years by paying more attention to the points of sail, learning how to check the engine oil, knowing where all our through holes are, and I’ve taken – quite enthusiastically – to driving our dinghy, Mighty Mouse, around as much as possible at full throttle. It turns out that our little 3.5 horsepower dinghy goes fast when Ryan’s not weighing it down! Yes, we named our dinghy Mighty Mouse. Isn’t he beautiful?

Oh and I shouldn’t discount that I agreed to move onto the boat, which has been moored at Manhasset Bay Marina in Port Washington, Long Island, as our permanent residence for the last 6 months. After all, living on a boat is way cheaper than living in a Manhattan apartment (and often larger), it’s like luxury camping (and I love camping) and it gives me the chance to get to know the boat and its idiosyncrasies better.

I’m ashamed to say, though, that I still don’t know what anything on the boat is called – for example, I still call the charts “water maps,” lines “ropes,” I’ve never taken the boat out on my own, and I’m never quite sure what “point of sail” we’re on when Ryan quizzes me.

I also only just discovered that a bedroom on a boat is called a “state room.” I had been calling it an “estate room,” which is what I thought people were saying, though this term makes little sense on such a small vessel. And the other day, when Ryan mentioned that the “joker” valve on our head was not working, I began referring to it as the “jerker” valve, which is what I understood it to be in Ryan’s British accent. He laughed, but I pointed out that “joker” valve didn’t make a great deal of sense either… was he sure it wasn’t called a “choker” valve? As that would make much more sense…it does, after all, “choke” the flow of waste from coming back into the toilet bowl. You see where I’m going with this??? I had to Google it to make sure, but it is, indeed, a “joker” valve, it turns out. Most importantly, though, ours does not work, which means our toilet is constantly filling up with smelly waste.

Speaking of heads (toilets, to you lucky land-lubbers), ours has not worked very well these last few months, and the problems all started with the “marine-safe” toilet paper we bought. In fairness to us, we bought it at West Marine, so it must be good for boats, right? At the time, Ryan convinced me that the paper was designed to break down in water (if you’ve ever been told this, you’re probably chuckling, as this all depends on how much paper needs breaking down), but I had a nagging memory of Hideaway‘s previous owner bragging that he’d never had a clogged head: he gave us an explicit warning that we should always follow the rule he had plastered to the wall for us:

clogged head marine toilet paper

Sure enough, about 1 month later, we encountered a blockage that no amount of pumping could budge. Shouting “I told you so!”, I insisted this was a “blue” job, rather than a “pink” job, or at least a pay-money-to-hire-someone job. We had been without a working toilet for more than a week, which meant that I had grown accustomed to peeing in the sink (an acrobatic feat, to say the least), or off the back of the boat after dark (we live on a mooring, so it’s easier to hide after sunset), and therefore it was time to take matters into my own hands.

Which, in my mind, meant throwing money at this nasty problem. To complicate that plan, however, it was Saturday by the time I got hold of someone who could help, and it was the weekend of the Round Long Island Regatta, meaning Ryan had left the day before with his friend Bill and 2 other crew on Bill and Grace’s boat, Calico Skies, to do the race. Therefore Grace and I planned to hang out for the weekend on Hideaway and have some fun… and that fun was not to involve peeing off the back of the boat.

So, I called a marine head guy named Dan and he quoted me the rate of $475/hour to drop everything and come help me with this “emergency” on a Saturday. $475! I only slightly hesitated, and then I asked him if he could guarantee fixing the head in one hour only. Of course, he couldn’t.

Dan said, encouragingly, “Listen, it really isn’t complicated. I do it every day. You’ve probably got one of 3 types of marine heads and they’re all bolted down pretty much the same way. You just gotta unscrew the bolts and pull out the pipe. 99 times out of 100 the problem is a simple clog.”

“And what happens to all the stuff in the toilet when you unscrew the bolts?” I asked.

“Well, it comes out. Listen, you got kids? It ain’t nothing you ain’t seen in a baby’s diaper. And it’ll save you 475 bucks. If you need me to talk you through it, gimme a call.”

Fair enough. Except I don’t have kids, and this problem sounded disgusting to fix. But not impossible. Luckily, Grace isn’t squeamish and didn’t mind, after a few cups of wine, being my cheerleader as I pulled on the rubber gloves and disappeared into the head with the plunger and garbage bags we’d picked up for this job. “Just think of the brownie points I’ll get if I actually fix this thing!” I said. “I’ll never have to fix anything again!”

Right, because that’s exactly how boats work.

Sure enough, in about two hours, with the help of an unraveled coat hanger, some pliers, rubber gloves and a plugged nose, it looked like I might have loosened the blockage. I pumped the handle and, wondrously, the smeggy brown water disappeared down the pipe! I lunged into the galley victoriously, gloved hands punching the air like I’d just scored a touchdown, screaming victory at Grace. I fixed it! I was so proud of myself, I immediately took a swig of wine and posted the pic of my newly unclogged toilet on Facebook, which I hoped would reach the boys somewhere on their sleepless journey around Long Island so they could give me a mental high five.

marine toilet paper clogged head

And ever since then, I have been dropping “that time I fixed the head” story into conversation at least once a week. But c’mon! Wouldn’t Gloria Steinem be proud?!

Keep in touch with us as we sail south by connecting to Turf to Surf’s Facebook Page, Twitter Feed, or Google+ Page.