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Going With the Flow

A holding-tank holdout gets hosed.

April 2, 2010

The other day a pal of mine wandered by while I was suckling Anhinga’s bowels. Once you’ve begun, of course, it’s hard to stop, so I listened as he stared in wonder. “Does it really work? Doesn’t it stink? How long does it take?” Early mariners used to heave-to while passing at sea and gam, sharing news from distant ports. As I stood there with last evening’s pizza and beer passing by at 10 gallons a minute I wondered—what sort of progress had we really made?

Anhinga is stationed at Plantation Yacht Harbor in Islamorada, Florida. It is a “Clean Marina” that features waste connections at every slip. Pumping out is so convenient that even holding-tank holdouts like my pal are curious and willing to give it a try. Like most boaters, he wants to do right by the environment, but until recently there were few options. The fact is that the few marinas in the Keys that had a lone pump-out station hid them in fear that someone might ask the attendant to perform the unpleasant service. Given a choice, most dock attendants would rather pump fuel while setting off fireworks.

What’s worse is that my pal has a fear of MSDs based on a childhood trauma aboard his family’s boat. As he explained it to me, the 57-foot Chris-Craft Constellation had apparently suffered a bout of constipation when someone inadvertently fiddled with its digestive tract. A guest had noted a foul zephyr in the head but made a large deposit and pushed the button anyway. Overstuffed, the Connie’s bowel ruptured, spilling its sour slurry into the bilge. At the time, boats were required to have waste tanks by law but actually using them was a faux pas, since legislators had neglected to provide a place on shore to purge them. Drawing the short straw, my pal recovered the effluent with a ladle and a bucket.

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Fed up with being a member of the “1015 Club” (the restroom combination), my pal admitted that he had never handled the hose and begged me to help him resuscitate his 1988 Bertram’s atrophied bowel. He had owned the boat just a few months and, as I am somewhat familiar with the Bertram digestive tract, I agreed. Descending into the bilge, I found that the cap-valve appeared to be aimed at the holding tank. As it turned out this was a clever ruse—the previous owner had switched the labels. However, since the potty police use dye tablets to ferret out fecal felons, the effort was pointless. Gingerly, I twisted the handle on the valve hoping it would not break off—success. Now, all we had to do was fill the tank—and since my pal is in marine sales…well, no problem!

While I checked for leaks my pal sat head-side and pushed the button. “It’s gurgling,” he yelled with concern. Odd, I thought…it should flush easily into the empty tank. I crawled topside to see for myself. “Give her another shot,” I instructed confidently. Instead of draining, the contents of the bowl began to undulate. My pal looked on in horror, no doubt suffering a flashback. “She’s gonna blow!” he shouted.

Built back in the day, the Bertram was fitted with a stout fiberglass holding tank. It turns out that the boat was also fully equipped with a full load of fermented excrement, courtesy of a past owner. Instead of rupturing as an overloaded plastic tank might, the Bertram’s tank simply cleared its throat, belched violently, and spewed its contents skyward. I ducked for cover and my pal slammed the lid in a desperate attempt to contain the discharge—it was hopeless!

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It was a temporary setback, and my pal now handles the hose like a pro and is a dedicated “Clean Boater.” I’d call that progress!

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