Ah, the glamorous life! Exotic ports of call, fruity drinks by the pool, exploding toilets. Seriously. Exploding toilets. Don’t ever envy our lifestyle unless you get a perverse kick out of backed up plumbing in extremely small spaces, because if you own a boat it’s inevitable that you’ll have to deal with your head and a head is not quite like a toilet. A toilet kind of implies that there are solid pipes laid out in a (somewhat) logical format, lots of water to flush through those pipes, and a reasonable expectation that what starts out in the bowl will end up deposited in a sewer or septic tank and well away from your domicile. On a boat there are hoses that wiggle waggle unseen and inaccessible throughout the dark recesses of the bilge, just enough water to maybe flush something through this roller coaster, and a reasonable expectation that at some point you’ll need to dissect the whole system to find out why nothing is getting from Point A to Point B (and hopefully before it starts to smell.) We’ve had the displeasure of doing this several times over the past few years, and it just never gets fun. Not even in hindsight. Because no matter how many times you fix a head, it will crap out again and oftentimes in a spectacular manner.
As you may have guessed by now, one of our heads is “acting up”, which is a more genteel way of saying, “the shitters gone south again, and it’s taken the last of our dignity along with it.” Because the engine may let you down, the generator may disappoint you, and sketchy electrical systems will bum you out, but nothing smacks of betrayal more than your poop deck blowing chunks at you. Editor’s Note: Just out of curiosity, I did a query of how many times I’ve mentioned the head in this blog. The answer was, “There are too many results to show here.” If MS Word has given up, imagine how we feel.
These things always start innocently enough. The pump handle at the bowl starts to get sticky, then it gets stiff, then it gets downright impossible to move. Generally, this is caused by worn duck bills, frayed membranes, and/or “build up” in the pump unit and/or hoses. And yes, “build up” is exactly what you think it is only in calcified form. But no matter what the problem, it’s guaranteed to be a nasty, disgusting, and every other synonym for “shitty” job. Literally. Our first foray into the world of hazardous head repair was in July 2015 in the “Port That Must Not Be Named” in the purgatory known as Canada which, in hindsight, was apropos given the circumstances of the place. The first lesson we learned? Never—under any circumstances—run out of latex gloves. We buy them in bulk now. Upon our return to Seattle, we got to work on the other head. This was followed by various tweaks to both heads during the journey down the West Coast. By the time we got to San Diego, we got smart and just started hiring it out. And that’s exactly what we did earlier this year when we hauled out in La Cruz—we hired a guy to remove, clean, and reinstall the pumps and flush out all the hoses. We should have been good for a while, and yet here we are—a mere six months later— and it’s dawning on us that he didn’t do such a bang-up job if he did in fact do anything at all. Editor’s Note: If I could, I’d go back to La Cruz, track down this “plumber” and chuck our whole sanitation system directly at his head for the trouble he has caused us these past few weeks. Lucky for him they don’t allow hazardous materials on the airplane.
But I digress…
Our head system is a Henderson—which is a type of manual pump. In theory, you close the lid, pump the handle, and it creates a massive suction that seals the lid shut, pulls the contents from the bowl, shoves it through the pump, forces it through a long length of hose, and then deposits it into a holding tank. At the same time, it pulls seawater in through another hose to refill the bowl. If one part of the process breaks down, it brings the whole thing to a grinding halt.
The first step to troubleshooting a head is to disconnect the hose from the pump—which in this case did not go well. To spare you from forming a visual image in your mind—and because I have exhausted my thesaurus—I have omitted the more graphic details of what transpired, but have left in the audio…
“Oh God, no! Put it back, put it back, put it back!”
“It won’t go back! Towels! Towels! Towels!”
“Get a bung, get a bucket, get anything!”
“Plug it! Plug it! Plug it!”
“Holy shit. What just happened?”
“I don’t know. It just…I just…oh Lord that was awful.”
“Uh oh, don’t look down. Don’t look down!”
(Quietly) “It’s on me, isn’t it?”
*DRY HEAVE NOISE*
“I told you not to look down. Don’t move, don’t move. Gah! I said don’t move!”
“Where’s the Purell? I need Purell!”
“You’re beyond that. You need bleach. Now take those off. Careful!! Put them in this bag. Careful!”
I wish I could say that was the worst part of it, but the stench said otherwise.
At this point, the Captain was able to remove the pump—with some difficulty I might add, because it was obviously “the more screws, the merrier” day at the manufacturer’s and “how much room should we put between the pump and the wall? Half an inch? Don’t you think that’s a bit too generous?” day at the builder’s. I then took the pump out onto the dock and proceeded to spend the next two hours soaking, scrubbing, scraping, beating, cajoling, and every other manner of “ing” in an effort to remove the “build up” from inside the pump. The Captain, meanwhile, tried his best to clear out the hose which went up, down, around, backwards, and forwards all within the confines of a one-foot by two-foot cabinet and which absolutely refused to budge more than three inches in any direction. Over the course of the next couple hours, he poured in baking soda, vinegar, boiling water, and—finally—copious amounts of Drano, to loosen the offal inside then utilized a plumber’s snake, a steel rod, a clothes hanger, and a fish hook on a stick in an attempt to dislodge the “build up” before finally giving up and hitting it with a hammer and blasting it with air from a compressor. Now here’s the kicker…with each dislodging attempt, some newly liquified “build up” would begrudgingly sludge its way up and out of the hose like Hell’s own Play-Doh Fun Factory resulting in yet another round of the audio transcribed above. Editor’s Note: If the Captain survives this ordeal without a severe case of PTSD and a raging case of hepatitis, it will be a blooming miracle. But finally, the sludge abated, and water seemed to be going through. The newly-cleaned pump was put back on, the hose reattached, and….it not only didn’t work, but it now leaked like a sieve. And what water it did retain, backed up into the bowl and proceeded to stink up the place even worse than when we started. It became obvious that there was still “build up” in sections of the hose that we couldn’t get to and we decided it would probably behoove us to just replace the whole thing. We contacted Willy, our mechanic, because we knew he’d be able to procure us some new hose. Two weeks later*, he arrived with the hose and—to our pleasant surprise—a team of workers ready to install it. Did it go well? No. It did not.
*Yes, it took over two weeks to procure the right hose. Two weeks of three people sharing one head aka Exhibit A at Family Court.
Now had they been able to extract the existing hose from its confines, all would have been peachy. But it would not budge. Best we can tell, there is approximately 10 feet of hose that traverses from the pump in the bathroom to the y-valve underneath the floorboards in the hallway--about four feet away. Three feet of this hose is stuffed into the cabinet under the sink; two feet is visible at the y-valve. The extra five feet is crammed lower intestine-style underneath the shower and is—short of taking a jigsaw to the floor—not accessible. We also suspect it had been zip-tied in several points along its journey, rendering it virtually immovable. Simply put, removing and replacing the existing hose was not an option at this time. It would have to be cleaned out.
With that, Jose disconnected the hose from the pump while Jorge disconnected the other end from the y-valve. They positioned two buckets at either end of the exposed hose and readied a garden hose that they had attached to the dock spigot outside and snaked through the boat into our cabin. They then filled the hose with muriatic acid, waited a few minutes, turned the water on full force, and blasted it through one end and out the other. The first go-round yielded sludge, small rocks, full-grown mussels, and what may or may not have been a corncob. On the second round, the hose pooped out another hose which I thought was weird until I realized it had finally dislodged the “build up” that had been coating the walls. At this point, water was running freely along the length of the hose and we were going to call it good until someone uttered that fateful phrase, “we should do it one more time…for good measure.”
At this point, I’d like to go on the record as saying that neither the Captain nor myself advocated this “good measure” idea. We were ecstatic that the hose was finally clean and eager to get on to the next phase of the project aka fully functioning head (and hopefully before the pervasive odor necessitated burning the drapes.) But the guys were gung ho and, emboldened by their previous success, proceeded to fill up the hose with muriatic acid, plug up both ends this time, shake it around a bit, and before anyone could say “Basic Chemistry 101” the acid became gaseous, quickly pressurized, and exploded out both ends sending the plugs flying and acid spewing out all over the cabin and—horrifyingly—right into Jorge’s face. What happened next was a blur of activity. The sink in the bathroom was too small and we couldn’t get his head under the faucet, so we got him outside and under the dock water spigot. Unfortunately, the dock water has a high salt content, which only seemed to make things worse so while Willy took him up to the resort to stick his head into the swimming pool, the Captain and I went back to the boat to help Jose who was desperately hosing down the entire cabin before the acid ate away the varnish, burned holes in the upholstery, and melted any man-made fabrics. Half hour later and Jorge is on his way to the emergency room, Jose is mopping up water, the Captain is triaging items that were blasted by acid, and I’m trying to salvage the laundry which took a direct hit. The whole cabin smells like chlorine, salt, and open sewer because on top of this small disaster, we still have exposed plumbing. Once everything was cleaned up, we reinstalled the pump, reattached the hose and….it didn’t work. This is when we discovered that the pump itself had developed a small crack at the back and was no longer operational. The silver lining to this shitcloud is that Jorge did not suffer any serious or lasting injury. The doctor further rinsed his eyes with a special solution, gave him some balm, and told him to take it easy for three days. The only permanent damage done is that to his psyche. In the meantime, we got to take it not so easy and wait about three weeks* for a new head pump to show up.
*Yes, it took almost three weeks for the pump to arrive. That’s more than a month of three people sharing one head aka the arraignments are next week.
That’s the pump peeking out from behind the head. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with its placement…until you install the toilet. I guess it could be less accessible. It could be outside.
The offending hose runs from the head on the right, underneath the floorboards, to the y-valve under the sole to the left of the door. Ten fricking feet of hose. Because of course you want your poop to take the scenic route.
The new hose. Someday it will go in. Or else we’ll just build a new boat around it. That’s obviously what they did before.
This might be a good time to talk about shipping…and world politics. I always used to think that first world and third world monikers were indicative of a country’s quality of life—GDP and indoor plumbing and all that. Come to find out, the term “First World” refers to those countries that aligned with the US during the Cold War while everyone who backed Russia were classified as “Second World”. The “Third World” was simply all those countries that could really care less. But now we have the new global marketplace and the criteria is more shipping-based…the First World is everyone with Amazon Prime, the Second World can generally expect delivery within a week, and the Third World could really care less if you get your package or not, so long as someone pays the duty on it.
The Captain and I had some bikes shipped to El Salvador a few months ago. We would have bought local, but the average Salvadoran is a good foot shorter than the Captain and we couldn’t find a frame that didn’t make him look like a chimp on a low rider trike. We found a great deal on some bikes in Germany, made the purchase, and then diligently tracked our shipment every thirty minutes (aka the online equivalent of repeatedly pressing the elevator button in the hopes that it will arrive faster.) The bikes were picked up by DHL at the vendor’s facility in Germany, loaded onto a flight in Frankfurt, changed planes in Miami, arrived in El Salvador the next day, admitted into customs, generated some paperwork, and then promptly got lost in the system.
Why? Because even though DHL advertises door-to-door delivery, what they actually do is bring the package into the country, hand it off to the locals, and then hope for the best. In this instance, DHL delivered our bikes to the Salvadoran Postal Service who promptly assigned them new tracking numbers, which sounds efficient but only if all the other parties are brought into the loop. Which they weren’t. DHL didn’t have the new tracking numbers. We certainly didn’t. And the Salvadorans couldn’t find the packages without them. Luckily, some friends here know one of the local postmasters who after considerable effort procured the tracking numbers and discovered that the bikes were being held in customs (Aduana) at the main post office in San Salvador, pending payment of duties. And thus began the battle for the bikes. Because you can’t just go into customs, present your paperwork, pay your duty, and assume you will take possession of your package. Oh no. Get ready. Because here are the top five reasons why you won’t get your package today…
It’s not here. The Aduana agent proclaimed this while eyeballing a room not exactly crammed with packages when, in fact, we could clearly see a large box against a back wall in the office that says, “Bicycles” and “Product of Germany” on it. To get around this, we asked him to check the tracking numbers on his computer. He does, he frowns, he looks around, he spots the box, he takes a wand over to it, scans the paperwork, returns to his computer and says, “Hey! There it is!”
The name on the package does not 100% match the name on your ID. “Sorry, *looks at Passport* Neil Aaron Armand, but the label clearly states this is for someone named Neil A. Armand.” I can’t release the package to you. To get around this, we had to fill out a form verifying that he was the same person, go to one of the makeshift kiosks behind the post office to make photocopies of the form, and submit two copies along with a 150%-sized copy of the Captain’s passport.
You don’t have a copy of the packing slip currently on the box. We tried to explain that this was an internet order from the other side of the world and that it just wasn’t feasible to have the green portion of a three-part carbon copy manifest. To get around this, we had to go to one of the makeshift kiosks to access a computer and print out a page from the bike manufacturer’s website showing their name and address at the top and our name and address at the bottom and submit two copies along with a 150%-sized copy of the Captain’s passport.
You do not have the invoice currently attached to the package. Yes, you read that right. We had a bill of sale from the company in Germany showing the order number, product description, color, quantity, cost, and price paid but could not verify that it matched the invoice attached to the box because they would not open the shipping pouch to look at it. Why? Because we couldn’t provide an invoice to prove the package was ours, even though we had just established that the packing slip was valid. This is when we learned that in Aduana-land, a bill of sale is not an invoice, especially when you don’t know what the invoice looks like. To get around this, we had to fill out a form verifying that we were certain that our bill of sale would match the invoice, go to one of the makeshift kiosks behind the post office to make photocopies of the form and submit two copies along with a 150%-sized copy of the Captain’s passport.
The value of the shipment is over $500 and therefore requires the services of a customs broker. This is where things get hazy because common sense would say that the value should be of the item itself--and the bikes were valued at $425—but the customs agent insisted that the $60 we paid in shipping was part of the value, as was the Salvadoran sales tax he was going to levy on it, putting us at a grand total of $517. Luckily, there is a thriving community of customs brokers operating out of makeshift kiosks behind the post office. Unfortunately, we’d spent so much time getting to this point that the Aduana office was closing for the day.
Day two did not go much better. The Captain returned to Aduana with our friend, Ernesto, acting as interpreter to ascertain why we needed to hire a broker when the value was technically under $500, but that we would be happy to pay the duty on the sales tax if it would mean getting our package. The agent seemed receptive until the supervisor got involved. Needless to say, a broker was engaged. And needless to say, the broker was made to jump through the exact same hoops as we were in regard to recipient names, packing slips, invoices, and paperwork. Although the broker did get one step closer. He almost got to pay the duty. Of course, by the time he had the payment form in his hand to take to the bank, everything was closed. End of the day…still no bikes. Just frustration.
See what I mean about a battle? Of course, when dealing with Salvadoran Aduana, it’s more of a war of attrition. Because it would take Ernesto and the broker THREE MORE TRIPS to customs to finally get our bikes (at this point, we had gone to Miami to extend our visas where, ironically, we found out upon our return that could bring in a LOT more stuff on our person through the airport—including a welder! —without anyone in customs even batting an eye.) We were told after the fact that had each bike been packaged separately—bringing the value of each way below the $500 threshold—that we wouldn’t have had any problems. But I’m not so sure. Because we had some minor welder parts shipped to us under warranty—value was shipping only—and we still spent over three hours shuffling back and forth between DHL, the various service kiosks, and the customs warehouse only to reach the “inspecting the merchandise” stage before finally giving up and walking away. Why? Because when the agent told us he would retape the box, complete the paperwork, and get us on our way “as soon as he returned from his lunch break” we basically told him he could stick that package where the sun don’t shine. And by we, I mean Ernesto. Because why else would you bring an interpreter to customs if not to convey what you’re really thinking?
So back to our head. We had the new pumps shipped via Aeroposte which is truly door-to-door. It costs a lot more, but the price includes shipping, all import duties, and the guy they hire to fight with Aduana for six days. But it was well worth it, because at least we didn’t have to spend our entire summer sitting in customs. But I guess it wasn’t all bad…at least their toilet worked.