How to Fix the Head

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Now this is a pretty sensitive subject, and I am sure there are some readers who will find the subject matter of this guide offensive. I assure you, I will do my best to minimize as much as possible the discomfort you may feel. First, let’s ju...

Now this is a pretty sensitive subject, and I am sure there are some readers who will find the subject matter of this guide offensive. I assure you, I will do my best to minimize as much as possible the discomfort you may feel.

First, let’s just get this important fact out of the way. We all use the head. Some of us use it more than others, but we all use it. For those of you who use it properly, this guide is not for you. Your heads are perfect, shiny, gleaming, and in no way neglected or in need of attention.

This guide is for the rest of us. In the smallest compartment in our boat, lurks a mystery, a machine so enormously complicated, we’re terrified to even think about it.

For the land lubbers who may be reading this, some proper terminology and definition is important. The ‘Head’ is what you refer to as a ‘toilet’. Because the room where this bit of ironmongery is located normally doesn’t contain a bathtub, we don’t call it a bathroom – we call it a heads compartment, because that’s the proper nautical term, and that’s how it is. You may say that you need to ‘hit the head’ and no sailor will assume their skull is in danger, unless, of course, you are holding a belaying pin at the moment, and have a vicious gleam in your eye.

So you’re up to speed and on course, ready for action, and ready for anything. You’re well-rested and raring to go. Good thing too, because your crew just told you there is some sort of brownish yellow fluid leaking out from behind the head.

Now we won’t go into intimate details on what makes the fluid brownish, or yellow – we will leave that as en exercise for the imagination of the reader, because it’s very good for your character to have a good imagination, and not at all worthy of mention, at any rate.

Suffice to say, it’s foul, nasty, and indeed it would seem to be dripping, at an alarming rate. It is now time to get some tools, and get to work!  Which tools? The only safe assumption you can make at this point is all of them. You will never be penalized for having too many tools available.

So now that you’ve found some old rusty pliers, a flathead screwdriver, and a framing hammer, let’s consider proper footwear, safety gear, eye protection, and anything else you may not actually have aboard. Well, at least we considered it.

Now we’re in position, let’s first address the seacocks that are supplying the head with seawater, freshwater, and any other fancy flavors of water your particular bit of kit requires. For the sake of sanity, I am going to assume you have no less than 2 seacocks, one for highly illegal dumping of raw sewage overboard, which you only open when you are the proper distance offshore (or never) and the intake valve, which you normally close only when you leave the boat for any extended amount of time.

Both valves will of course be immaculate, well maintained, lubricated, smooth operating, and have a properly sized soft wood or rubber plug tied to the shiny, perfect stainless steel hose clamps.  I know it’s completely unlikely, but for the sake of entertainment, let’s just pretend your thru-hull fittings look like a green corroded block of corrosion with some sort of flappy handle thing on one side, a vaguely identifiable nut on the other, and what may have been a hose clamp at some point, but is now a rust band of misery and pain, waiting to gouge your hand at the earliest possible opportunity.

When working with corroded parts, the first thing to do is not break them. This is very important. While it goes without saying, before you start banging on it with a hammer is the proper moment to go locate a plug for the thru-hull, on the off chance you break it. Not that you will, of course, because you are conscientious and careful, and you know from experience watching submarine movies just how terrifying a solid jet of water looks flooding into your boat.

The next thing to do is not break them. As it turns out, this is also the third and fourth most important thing to remember, when working with thru-hulls. They’re mighty important, so let’s just assume for now that you have learned this important lesson, and proceed. Carefully work them back and forth, very slowly, very carefully, not forcing them – just wiggle them, coax them, talk nicely to them, and try not to be at all concerned about the fact you’re currently laying in an ever-growing puddle of what certainly isn’t mud, busting your knuckles off on every sharp thing ever invented by a shipyard and shoved into and around the fittings.

Once you have them working, make a mental note to attend to them more properly on the next haul-out, but for now, just close them. Hopefully you’ll be able to open them — - but that’s for later. Now, it’s time to somehow crawl back up from underneath the head, up along the bulkhead, carefully refrain from breaking your kneecap on the flapping head compartment door, and using one or two functional fingers, pull yourself back up to a standing position.

Ignore the laughter from your crew and any other hangers-on that might be peeking in from the companionway. They have clearly lost their collective minds, and you should pity them, rather than keelhaul them.

That can come later.

Whatever you do, don’t test the pump. Not only will it not pump, because you shut the seacocks, it will almost certainly just spray goop around. You of course, didn’t read this paragraph in time, and your hands are at this moment reaching slowly for a towel to try and clean off your face. Good news, we now know where the leak is coming from!

Now here’s where we need to do some soul searching. We have to move fast too, before bacterial sepsis sets in, because it’ll be pretty nasty. If you have any high octane jet fuel sort of wood grain alcohol handy, now would be a perfect time to drink a bit and / or splash it around on any open wounds you may have.

You may want to consider options for fixing this beast of a machine, overhauling the gasket, pump, or hoses (depending on which part is currently spewing the goodies) or replacing bits and bobs here and there wholesale (depending on which part is cracked, corroded, split and / or clogged beyond all hope).

In some cases, it may be more economical to toss the entire hootenanny into the municipal waste stream, and replace it with a shiny new, clean, perfect, glistening and completely functional model, from whichever marine supply store is closest. If you are considering this option (and frankly, who would blame you, with the unmitigated disaster crime scene of horror you have unfolding in front of you at the moment) remember this, and remember it well: in life, you get what you pay for.

It may seem like money well-saved to spend a mini boat buck on a plastic head with integrated pump – but you’re going to lose that nice ceramic bowl, the brass fittings – and you know it won’t actually work all that well. The last thing you want to do, is be somewhere inconveniently located at great distance from convenience, with a non-functional head.

Let’s pretend (again, for the sake of entertainment) that you’ve decided to simply replace the pump unit. You found a split in the housing, where some complete dolt we will agree to not refer to as ‘you’ over-tightened down the flange on the back. It was one of those hairline splits you may have never noticed, had your crew member not been so vigorously pumping the handle to flush what we can only assume was, completely unmentionable and not fit for a family publication.

Luckily, you happen to have a spare pump because you are an incredibly conscientious and well-prepared Captain, a veritable master of the Ways of the Sea, who understands the only two things that are guaranteed to break, are Anything and Everything. 

Now you only need to get the hoses loose from the back of the old unit. This is very simple. First, lean forward until your forehead is sort of sideways between the instant hot water shower unit on the bulkhead, and the shut off valves for the gas line. It’s a tight fit, and none too comfortable, but that’s okay, you’ll only be wedged into this roasting firebox of a tiny little room for the next 27 hours trying to get the hose loose.

Reach all the way down, until your thighs burn, and grasp the hose firmly with at least two of your strongest fingers. You may be able to add a third finger if you flex your neck upwards, but you won’t be able to see what you’re doing. That’s okay, because that means you won’t spray the nastiest muck this side of the eleventh circle of hell into your eyes… or at least, not as easily.

With one elbow against the bulkhead, and the other against the outflow valve, you only have a few inches of movement, or what the professionals call a ‘range of motion’. This will almost certainly be just as much as you’d need, if you lived in a fairytale dreamland, and everything was magical and covered in love and sparkles. Sadly, for all of us, that is not how we’d describe your current location, drenched in sweat, scraping your skin off on the many and varied hose clamps found at the back of any properly nautical head, in a tiny compartment that appears to be getting smaller by the moment, despite your screams.

The outflow hose is some sort of stiff-wall white corrugated ‘sewer’ hose that is about as flexible as a slab of glassed tungsten. You might as well work on the inflow hose. Even though it’s lower, it seems to be a little more flexible. Once you remove the hose clamps, admonish all in earshot to never repeat the proper seamanlike terms you’re about to scream through teeth gritted so tight they may never come apart, and with a squirming twist of your posterior and a scrape of your face across not one, not two, but three of the lacerating hose clamps, you yank it off.

Now wasn’t that satisfying?

On to the next hose. Unfortunately, this one was originally installed by what I can only assume was a malignant god with a wicked chip on his shoulder against the world, because this one isn’t moving. You might try twisting it, but the fittings on the back of the pump have stout barbed flanges that cling desperately, and all you’ll do is wear nice grooves into the hose.

This would be the perfect moment to explain to you how it might be easier to work with the hose if you break the entire pump assembly loose from the bowl, but before you do that, it’s worth mentioning that when you do succeed in breaking it loose, the worst of the worst is probably going to ooze out of the bottom and / or spray vigorously around this tiny, dank compartment.

Unfortunately, you were just skimming this handy guide, and missed the second half of that paragraph, didn’t you? I really should try to put the dire warning first, so you don’t miss anything. I’ll try harder next time.

Before you reach for the heat gun to ‘soften the hose’ and make it break loose easier, let’s take a brief moment to reconsider. Yes, it may work, yes it may make the hose more supple — - but how hot is it already in the heads compartment? If you guessed ‘hot enough to melt lead’, you’re probably correct. Gauging by the sweat running off your face, it might even be a bit hotter. Do you really want a heat gun running in here? Also… just what sort of organic material do you think has built up inside the pump over the past few decades of use? Do you really want to be leaned over, running a heat gun up inside that disaster area, a scant few inches away from your nose?

From the screams of anguish and retching horks of misery we can hear from all the way down the docks, I guess you skipped that last paragraph too. We need to work together, you and I, or this is going to be absolutely miserable, and I mean that with all due respect for a person in your position.

If it were me in that position, and I know it’s not, but let’s pretend it is for a moment, I’d take a few screwdrivers, try to work them under the hose a bit, and try to pry or pop the hose loose. I’d maybe get a little frustrated, check the hose to see how much flex it used to have, and decide to sort out this situation with a sharp knife and a brisk series of hacking, stabbing gestures, as if out of complete desperation. If there’s enough hose to work with, cutting off an inch or so to get it loose might just be the best thing to do.

However you decide to finally lose all pretense of cool and calm, and ruthlessly force the hose to separate from the pump unit, we can tell by the screams of victory it has finally broken loose. Luckily for all of us, one of your quicker-thinking crew had the foresight at this moment to gingerly reach into the heads compartment, holding a frosty cold can of whatever would give you the most joy at the time. Good thing too, because it’s exactly what we all need the most right now.

Unfortunately, the worst of it is far from over. You have a shiny new pump, and have broken out some new hose clamps, have screamed yourself mercifully hoarse, and have chugged your way to the bottom of a can of glorious victory – but you have to scrunch down now, onto your knees, sticking your face sort of sideways behind the head as you reach for the various nuts and hose clamp screws that you need to sort out to get everything put back together.

Ignore the terrible misery and smell, just stay focused. Your knees may at some point stop screaming for mercy, and with therapy, you will probably forget some of the worst bits and chunks you had to paw through to find the dropped washers and nuts behind the head. Just keep at it, swearing, cursing, screaming, and occasionally cheering – because you are just passing the breakwater, and your home port is just around the corner.

Once you have it all assembled, once it is reasonably tight (but not too tight – not tight enough to break any more flanges) you are probably safe to open the thru-hull fittings again. Simply squidge yourself sort of sideways, slopping down into the muck a bit on your hip, and give them an extra judicious twist.

Next, hold absolutely still. Caution your crew to stop laughing so much at your expense, and just listen. Seek your calm. Find the center of solitude in your soul, and hang there for a moment, listening. Do you hear a drip? Of course you do. Those drips are nature’s way of letting you know that you’ve installed hoses incorrectly! Simply attend to each one, wiping each clean and dry and slowly, carefully, tightening each hose clamp in turn until all dripping sounds stop.

It looks like you’ve done it. You’ve saved the day, once again. You’ve done the worst possible job in the worst possible position, in the worst possible location. From here, you can literally go anywhere – but I think I speak for everyone when I say we’d all prefer you go first, to the shower, because… ew.


 

©2016 Dain White. All Rights Reserved.

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