A temporary solution to serious problem
Alameda, Ca- People take toilets for granted.
They sit, usually shiny and quiet, until needed. Then they work.
We don't have to think about them, fortunately, and we assume they will always be there, working, playing their part in modern America's disposal systems.
But not on a boat.
First off, and toilet is not a toilet on a boat. It is a head.
I do not know why.
It just is.
Sailors don't say words like "left" and "right." It's "port" and "starboard." "Up" and "down" become "topside" and "belowdecks." And "front" and "back" are "fore" and "aft."
And even though lots of ropes are all over the place, we never call a rope a rope. It is a line or a sheet.
That's probably why everything on a boat cost more. We have to pay someone to think up different names.
So a toilet on a boat is a marine head.
And the electric marine head on our boat "Good News" died.
Marine heads are so complicated they come with written instructions and warning labels. The boat will sink and "death or dying will result" if you do not follow instructions.
You can't put hardly anything in a marine head without breaking the rules.
We are people who always obey the rules, but the old head still broke.
I will never take the head on our boat for granted again after spending the better part of a week replacing it.
Unlike normal toilets, heads get old. The corrosion associated with salt water and other stuff destroys whatever it is that makes a head work. We had a ten-year-old electric head on our boat, and the signs had been more and more obvious in the past few months that it was dying.
Instead of a satisfying and steady WHIRRRRRR when you pushed the button, it tended to sound more like Whir-WHIR whir-whir WHIR-whir.
Then it stopped whirring completely.
Push the button, and the lights dimmed.
But nothing went away.
Fortunately we spotted this tendency before it became a crisis.
So I did what any sailor would do: I got my credit card out and went to the marine supply store (a hardware store for the incredibly wealthy) and bought a repair kit for only $65.
Shopping by Internet only works sometimes
Question: Why to they call it a boat?
Answer: That is an abbreviation for "Bring Out Another Thousand."
I went back to the boat, read the instructions, and discovered I had the wrong repair kit.
It turned out, after a day or so of wrestling with nuts and bolts and non-flexing flexible pipes, that hidden next to the head was a pump. A dead pump. A pump without which the electric marine head would not work.
No problem. I took the pump to several experts who know how to repair pumps. The first one told me he would charge $105 an hour to look at the pump, though he didn't want to. And it probably was dead anyway.
The second one said buy a new pump; old pumps rarely can be repaired. His advice was free, but the replacement pumps I found in the Internet cost around $400. For a lousy little pump.
Consensus was quickly reached: buy a brand new complete head, including pump. They are cheaper than the pumps alone.
Like I said, it is a boat. Logic does not apply.
The options ranged from a simple non-electric hand-pumped model for less than $200, to the whiz-bang super-duper electronic/vacuum model for somewhere around $800. Installation extra.
After two weeks of research and looking I bought a nice new electric head for about $400.
I considered briefly paying a professional to install it, but thought to myself, "Self, how hard can it be?"
Besides, it would probably cost $105 an hour plus travel time to get a specialist to deal with a marine head. A mere plumber would never do.
Fortunately, because I own a boat I have enough tools to rebuild the Space Shuttle so I did not have to buy new tools. I am somewhat limited in the skill area, however.
I began taking out the old plumbing on Monday. I finished the job on Friday, or at least I think I did. My wife requires at least one more series of leak tests when we get back to the boat.
Between Monday and Friday I found old pipes, theoretically flexible, needed replacing. A disgusting but manageable job, if you have a week to spend on it. (Note to do-it-your-selfers: when you remove an old pipe connected to a head, very quickly cap the pipe to avoid the dreaded septic scent pervading the atmosphere.)
That simple job required every tool I own, including a heat gun and a kitchen knife, plus more strength than I have.
The old head came out easily except for scrubbing down the entire area with chemicals and disinfectants. Several times. The pipes were not so simple.
More trips were required to to marine supply store where I bought the world's most expensive pipes and clamps. Did you know that a flexible pipe can cost as much as $3.99 a foot, and simple clamps can be almost $5 a pop?
I thought I would be done on the third day, but everything took longer and required more trips back to the store.
On Thursday, the fourth day, I thought I was done. Time for the fresh water test.
The head leaked. As if it had never been connected.
Fortunately, it was clean water pouring onto the floorboards (nautical term: "the deck.").
It turned out that the brand new fittings to connect various pipes, provided thoughtfully by the manufacturer, did not fit at all. Totally worthless, even when I tried my patented repair method of applying mountains of goopy stuff on them. I keep large quantities of goopy stuff, and duct tape, in my tool kit.
But every problem has an answer. Undaunted, I rescued an old pipe with good fittings from the trash, made sure they were thoroughly cleaned, and after several hours of ripping and sawing out the brand new expensive fittings and reinstalling the old, had the problem fixed.
It passed the leak test, and so we went sailing. Which is what sailing is actually supposed to be about.
A beautiful Spring day on San Francisco Bay
The reward for a job well done: a lovely afternoon on San Francisco Bay, and a good Mexican dinner with a cold Negra Modelo that night.
As we were getting ready to leave the boat for home the next morning, my wife pointed out as gently as possible that she detected a tiny bit of a fresh water had leaked around the base.
I thought about that briefly.
Then I decided to use what my generation knows as the "Vietnam Solution" adopted by Lyndon Johnson: I declared victory and left for home.
It'll be there when I get back.
The new head: it works, I think
But I may rename the boat.