Horror of all horrors
Date: Saturday 8th March 2014
If you were to ask a non sailor what would strike the greatest fear into a mariner’s heart they would probably think of mega storms, sinkings or something that would make a good story in a hollywood blockbuster. Although sailors are not exactly fond of such calamaties they do not come top of the list of most mariners horrors. There is one particular terror that is only spoken about in hushed whispers. The very thought of it can induce nightmares or reduce a sailor to a quivering, jibbering soul hunched in a fetal position in some dark corner biting their nails with trembling limbs and wide wide eyes.
I am speaking of course about .. A Blocked Head .. or for non sailors a blocked toilet. And horror of horrors, this dark spectre paid us a visit on Friday afternoon, just as we thought that all of our problems had been fixed.
The problem is that with one toilet on a boat, and being away from land at anchor, bodily functions soon regress into something that would be familiar to anyone living before the civilising inventions of Dr Thomas Crapper. Furthermore any attempt to clear the problem inevitably results in the practitioner gaining intimate contact with material he (it is invariably a he) would rather remain out of sight. As I have just intimated it is a reflection that must shed light on a deeply entrenched cultural phenomena but it is always a male member of the boats crew who is expected to perform the unblocking ritual. I cannot recall emancipationistas demanding the right to undertake this particular task.
As an extra dimension to this dire situation, anyone unfamiliar with a boats plumbing needs to be told about The Holding Tank. For obvious reasons it is a strict ‘no no’ to pump toilet waste out of the boat into an anchorage. Instead waste is pumped into a holding tank and when subsequently offshore this tank is then emptied to discard its contents where it can do no harm. Of course having been in an anchorage for 24 hours our tank was not empty and would not empty until the blockage had been cleared. So this particular parcel of joy would also have to be dealt with.
So I set about the task of trying to clear the tubeways. Extra pressure from the pump achieved nothing. I dived under the boat and tried to ‘rod’ the pipes from the outside (just think about the consequences if I had been successful) but achieved nothing. It was looking as though some dismantling of the pipes was going to be necessary, but there were problems. The thick rubber pipes had seized onto the brass fittings to which they were attached and I could not shift them. My efforts were not helped by the way the arrangement had been designed by Messrs Hallberg Rassy who had fitted everything in positions behind fixed cupboards where it was almost impossible to reach.
It was clear that help from outside was going to be necessary. But who could we turn to? Most marine engineers if approached with a problem like this would suddenly remember a distant relative in Burkino Faso that required an urgent visit. With some trepidation I phoned Geoff Cook and he in turn told us that someone called Polo would be able to help us. I phoned him and he agreed to come out to us on Saturday morning.
Saturday morning did not get off to a good start. Just before Polo turned up, a bunch of what I can only describe as complete idiots on a brand new Hanse 45 dropped their anchor right in front of us. When it became clear that they were about to hit us they tried to lift their anchor only to find that it had become entangled with ours. I was on the bow of our boat trying to stop the idiots from doing some real damage whilst Polo was tying off his dinghy to our stern and wanting to talk to me about the problem. When I was happy that our anchor had been reset correctly we set about trying to resolve the toilet problem.
Polo’s first attempt involved yours truly getting back into the water and diving under the boat again but this time armed with a flexible hose which was connected to a diver’s bottle containing air under high pressure. When I had inserted the tube deep into the toilet’s outlet pipe he would then turn on the air pressure. We did this several times but it didn’t work.
His subsequent effort was comically disastrous, mostly it has to be said for him. He disconnected the waste pipe at the back of the toilet pump, having forgotten to seal the contents of the holding tank. Gravity did its work and the floor of our bathroom was soon covered in matter that really had no right to be there. After having quickly sealed the tank and washed himself down he then inserted his high pressure hose into the exposed pipe, sealed the surround with some putty and whilst he held it tightly in his hands asked me to slowly turn on the air pressure. Pressure slowly built up, but the blockage would not move. Something had to give. Unfortunately what gave was the putty seal that Polo was holding a foot or so away from his face. A thin high pressure film of waste matter emerged at speed and covered the face and upper body of poor old Polo.
I just have to say it, but Polo was not in mint condition. I have to hand it to him, in his place I think I would have jumped straight into the sea screaming obscenities, but he just stayed cool. I apologised for what had happened, but he just carried on working.
At some stage in his past he must have been a yoga grand master because he then managed to fold his body into the most impossible shape and squeeze through the tightest of cupboard spaces head down into the bilge where he struggled and grunted for 10 minutes or so until he had managed to separate the toilet tube from the lower exit sea cock. His body shape was similar to mine but I would never have been able to get into this position. But his efforts were successful because this was where the problem lay, the pipe and sea cock were completely blocked with calcium deposits.
He cleared what he could and re-assembled the pipes. I was so grateful to the man. He had stepped in where most others would justly fear to tread and resolved what was a major problem for us. In the process he had been covered in stuff that really no one should be exposed to.
As soon as he was gone the process of cleaning up began. It was clear that we would need copious quantities of fresh water, so we went into the marina to do what was necessary. As a precaution I applied Muriatic Acid (Hydrochloric Acid) to the holding tank and toilet pipes to dissolve any remaining calcium deposits.
So maybe you will now understand why sailors live in abject fear of ..The Blocked Head!