Waste not, want not

April 2008

By David Roper

Thousands, maybe millions, of seagulls, geese, cormorants, ducks and fish poop into the water all around me 24 hours a day when I go cruising. But my waste is human waste, which apparently is a special excrement and needs a holding tank. I don’t think this is fair, though I do realize the challenge in retrofitting seagulls, geese, cormorants, ducks and fish with holding tanks.

The idea of storing 20 gallons of human excrement under my bunk, six inches below my pillow, has never appealed to me. Humans invented this concept: Place a 20-gallon plastic box or rubber bladder under the boat’s forward bunk, connect it with lots of hoses – one for intake from the head, one for pump-out, one for overboard discharge, and one for venting – and there you go. All nice and tidy. Then go sailing. Bounce over big waves, shake it all about, even add to it as you go if you feel the urge. At the end of the vigorous day, climb into your bunk above it all. Turn in for the night in the forepeak. Listen to the sloshing. Smell the air. Ah, romance.

No thanks. My entire holding-tank system and its leaky, easily clogged head and I were finished. I was switching to a small, self-contained Porta Potti. I served the entire system an eviction notice in the winter of 2007, and then I waited for one of the coldest days of that winter to effect removal. There was a reason for this: I’d heard horror stories of holding-tank hoses letting go, liberating the tank’s contents into the dark, impossible-to-clean regions of boats, making them virtually uninhabitable – and sometimes unsellable. Since I was doing the removing, I didn’t want any accidents. My logic was simple: the intense cold would freeze any remaining waste in the system and thereby avoid any chance of a Category Five spill during the extrication. Piece of cake.

On Saturday, Jan. 7, the temperature was 17 degrees. Perfect. Though alone at the boatyard, I sheepishly looked over my shoulder as I climbed the ladder and ducked under the tarp. I feared my mission would appear a bit odd and didn’t want to answer any questions. Once aboard, I launched the attack. I removed the forward bunk cushion, and then the bunk boards underneath, exposing the top of the plastic tank. Here, I was able to remove the leather restraining straps that bound the tank to the bunk. But then things began to get complicated. I couldn’t lift up and remove the tank without cutting the intake and discharge hoses that connected at the tank’s bottom, and I couldn’t reach them from the top.

So I removed the two-foot-high by six-inch-wide door from the vertical face of the forward bunk. This exposed the hoses and gave me access. Shivering in the intense cold, I reached in and cut the big discharge hose. It was then that I learned something new: Treated human excrement does not really freeze at 17 degrees. Did I begin to panic? You bet. I shot aft, frantically searching for something – anything – that could catch the flowing sludge. I found a wine bottle. I found a small plastic cup. Nothing would do. Nothing except for my wife’s three galley saucepans. Grabbing them, I dashed forward, dropped to my knees and, turning one of the saucepans sideways to get it through the six-inch wide door, stuck it under the offending hose, breathing a sigh of relief.

Since I thought I was sure I’d pumped out the tank in the fall, I knew the flow would soon stop. It didn’t. OK, fine. Gingerly, I moved the now full saucepan to the remaining small space beside the tank and tipped and slid in another one. And still it came, like ooze from a Grade B horror film. With only one pan left, I began to get really nervous. I’d soon have to remove the full pans and empty them (where, I wasn’t sure) and start all over again.

The second pan filled; there was just enough room to slide it over by the first and insert the third. And still it came. It was then, as with a drowning man going under for the third time, that I realized the end was coming. I felt this way because what leaked into my mind at this point was that the only way I could remove the three full saucepans was to turn them sideways to get them back out through the opening. Understanding clearly what the result would be, I refused to suffer that final, gross indignity. So I simply got up off my knees, slowing returned to the main cabin, sat down on the port settee, and poured a shot of rum down my throat.

Epilogue: Should any of you become a dinner guest aboard my boat this summer, don’t worry about any bad smells or E. coli bacteria. The flow stopped just as the last pan filled. And my dear wife gave me new saucepans for my birthday. But if you go swimming, for God’s sake watch out for cormorant poop.

Dave Roper, who lives in and sails out of Marblehead, Mass., will be sharing his experiences on the water and his distinctive perspectives with us each issue of Points East.