‘Boston, we have a problem…’

September 2021

By Christopher Birch

“Send me a photo of the toilet,” I instructed. Photo courtesy Christopher Birch

“I just clogged up the toilet on the company plane and I need your help,” was how the scandalous text chain with my boat service customer started.

“We’re going to be up for another four hours. There is only one toilet on this thing and eventually some of the other five people aboard are going to need to use it,” he bemoaned.

“And what do you think I know about airplane toilets?” I texted back.

“Well, you know how to fix a boat toilet, and this doesn’t look much different,” he replied.

“You won’t be able to just plunge it. You’d need to systematically take that thing apart until you can find and remove the blockage.”

“Okay, let’s do it!” was his unjustifiably confident reply.

“Isn’t there a thing about tampering with equipment in the lavatory being a federal crime?” I asked.

“That just has to do with smoking,” he assured me.

“Okay,” I replied, trying to get my head into this new gear, “do you have one of those four-way orange-handled screw drivers from Home Depot with you?”

“Yes!” he replied emphatically.

Not many suits who fly around in Lear Jets carry an orange-handled screwdriver. This guy is different though. Judging by the magnificent collection of tools he kept aboard his boat, I somehow guessed he might also have a few tools in his briefcase, and I was right.

“Do you have blue gloves?”

“No, but there’s a sink in here.”

“Send me a photo of the toilet,” I instructed. “And take off the necktie that I’m sure you’re wearing. This is no longer the time or place for that thing, and you don’t want it dangling in the sludge.”

And so began my foray into airplane repair. I once fixed a toilet on a rock band’s tour bus when the same logic was applied (southern rock met northern winter and ice happened), but never on an airplane. And never remotely. This was starting to feel like a NASA mission, and I was getting excited. That worn-out, business-speak metaphor: “We’re going to have to fix this plane while it’s still in the air,” came to mind. I was humored to realize that while most middle management commandos were busy rhetorically “drilling down” on stuff, and “socializing ideas,” and “closing loops,” this customer of mine, was actually going to attempt to fix the plane while it was still in the air.

Regrettably, in the end we came up short by one metric Allen wrench. The toolkit this man kept in the corner of his briefcase was surprisingly robust and almost versatile enough for the task at hand. With that one additional tool, we probably would have been able to disassemble the toilet enough to pull off the mission.

Plan B went nowhere when the pilot refused to even consider the idea of sharing his tools or lending any help of any sort. So, we landed on plan C: My man in the plane emptied five Evian water bottles in that same valuable sink and apologetically distributed these personal latrines to the crew and his fellow passengers.

A proper airplane tech at LAX would end up fixing this toilet on the ground.

I was impressed to see this man carry a toolkit with him on his business trip. I was shocked that most of my other customers carry so few tools and spares on their boats. We might not all have room for a complete set of metric Allen wrenches in our briefcases or purses, but we do have room for them on our boats. Even if we’re out there sailing around on something a bit smaller than the Ever Given, there’s always room somewhere for tools. Plan C, oftentimes, is just such a bad option.

I encouraged my co-airman to pack blue gloves on his next trip and left him with a final bit of business advice as he headed off to his meeting in a black Town Car, “Don’t bother putting the necktie back on. It’s L.A.!”

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years.