Continuing the Voyaging with Velella series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie have just finished a 6-month cruise in Mexico and are now sailing the Pacific Northwest.
or, “Oh, I thought you said LABOR day!”
We’ve lived aboard for almost two years now, and during that time have fixed almost every single thing on this boat. In the beginning, it was daunting when things would stop working—we invariably would call a professional to come fix it, but after being shocked once or twice by $90/hour invoices, we started teaching ourselves how to repair just about anything on our sailboat. If you’re going to buy a boat, live on it, learn to sail, and cruise the seas, you’re going to have to do some handiwork.
Bilge pump broken? We can replace and rewire that. Barnacles slowing us down? We can replace zincs while we’re down there scraping off the bottom. Masthead light out? No problem. Ripped sails, busted oven thermocouplers, clogged injectors, corroded wires, I feel like we’ve done it all. But the one thing I swore up and down I’d always, always cough up the cash for someone else to deal with was… dun dun dun… the head.
There’s nothing pretty about a marine toilet, so we’ll avoid using any “head-shots” in this blog. And, jammed as it is in a 2-foot-square, poorly ventilated room, doing work on the head is the most distasteful job I can imagine. The people that do that for a living really do deserve my $90/hour. Luckily, the head on Velella is a top-of-the-line Groco manual (a veritable “throne”), so we don’t have many problems with it. That said, I’m pretty sure it was the original head, and this boat was built in 1982, so… It’s as old as I am. When the flushing handle seized up completely this weekend, I called the manufacturer to see if he could help me identify the problem, and he basically told me it was time for a rebuild.
Hm. A rebuild. Like, take it all apart, wash the pieces, replace some gaskets and seals, and put it back together? I asked the manufacturer if maybe I could just spray some WD40 on the external parts…? No. I’m all for self-sufficiency, but this was too much. I just. Couldn’t. Go there.
So, I called “The Head Guy” in Seattle, who told me he’d charge $200 to come take it out and put it back in, but that he’d simply take it to the Marine Sanitation store for a rebuild. I could just take it out myself and bring it down there and save myself $200 bucks. You just have to unscrew the whole thing from the floor and disconnect the hoses, he said, it’s quite simple.
Well, it was the last hurdle of boat maintenance that we hadn’t yet tackled, and for some sick reason, I felt challenged. I asked Prescott if he was up for this. He wasn’t really, but he also wasn’t up for spending $200 for something that “simple.” So, I put on my grody old jeans and a T-shirt and started prepping the “workspace.” We agreed that I would scour everything superclean and disconnect everything, and he would carry it out onto the dock.
First, I doused a ton of white vinegar through the lines and closed off all thru-hull valves so water wouldn’t gush in when we disconnected. I scrubbed the whole area clean and laid down disposable towels and rags. I unscrewed the hose clamps holding the saltwater intake and discharge hoses onto the toilet. Then, Prescott came in and muscled the hoses off, I was ready with buckets to catch the gunky mess that fell out of the open lines, and he carried the whole toilet out to the dock. I immediately plugged the hoses, scoured the entire bathroom again, washed my hands about 7 times, then took a very, very long shower. We wrapped the head in a big tarp and drove it over to the shop, then came home and showered again.
I’m not gonna lie, it was a thoroughly disgusting job to have to do. It stifled conversation between us for hours afterward. But you know what, I felt pretty dang proud of us for just biting the bullet and getting it done. And it was awesome how sympathetic sailors on the docks practically applauded when we emerged from the boat and loaded the toilet into a dock cart.
So, our head is currently getting rebuilt (by someone else, thankfully), and sanded and repainted bright white, so when we get it back it’ll be like new! In the meantime, we’re headed down to Hood River, Oregon, to get married, but when we come back, we’ll have a shiny new head waiting for us. What an unusual wedding gift to ourselves. Instead of carrying me across the threshold, Prescott will be carrying… that toilet.
But with crappy plumbing projects in our rear view, play time ahead is that much more beautiful. We get to honeymoon aboard Velella while sailing the San Juans and Gulf Islands in July—you can’t beat that. And, thanks to this weekend’s DIY project, we have a little extra cash to enjoy!