Monthly Archives: November 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Every year I take a moment to list the things for which I’m thankful. This year it is family—the new member of our little sailing crew, the proximity of blood relations, and our extended “family” here at the marina.

First, I never could have guessed how Rachel would forever change our family chemistry. This time last year, we were cruising in the Bahamas, I was pregnant, and not 100% happy about it.  There was definitely some trepidation and discomfort, not to mention that I couldn’t find a maternity wetsuit and I was cold when snorkeling! But this year, to see the way the other kids have responded to adding a new sibling, I no longer wonder why God chose to answer Sarah’s prayers for Rachel. The two big boys have become even more responsible and helpful, and Sam and Sarah have blossomed as entertainer and caretaker, respectively. Rachel herself is a little bit of sunshine that makes everyone smile.

Walking around with five children in tow causes quite a stir. Everyone, and I mean everyone, I meet says, “I don’t know how you do it.” I have a repertoire of responses, usually deflecting admiration (nothing worse than falling off of a pedestal), and I give a lot of credit to the help that has come my way this year. So, how does one survive on a boat with five children, operate a homeschool and manage a household with a husband who travels during the week? Without the kindness of those people who have been placed in our lives at just the right time, who have become an extended family for us, it would not be possible.

Once or twice a week, friends from the marina take the kids for a couple of hours to play a video game or watch TV (since they’re deprived at home) and give me a little break. Sometimes we go on long walks with another friend which are great for exercise and free therapy. There are others who come by once a week to give me moral and practical support, help out with the kids, fold laundry, or do some baby-sitting so I can get off the boat. Sometimes we meet a friend for dinner at the little Italian place on Main Street, and sometimes delicious food just sort of turns up right around dinner time.  When Jay’s gone, there are guys around at just the right moment to help with any heavy lifting or other “blue” jobs. And for all those that have helped, a dozen more have offered. I think it’s appropriate that we’ll be at the marina pot-luck for Thanksgiving this year, celebrating with this extended “family.”

Last, but not least, I am so thankful that our relatives are nearby. While there isn’t anyone close enough to help out in a daily way, I have often had visitors or made an escape of a day or two to the north or south and spent time with moms, dads, brothers and sisters and given the kids that precious gift of getting to know their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s the thing we miss most when we are traveling, and although part of me wishes we were out there instead of here at the dock, the other part of me is thankful that we are only an hour or two from both families.

To all of you who have helped us this year (you know who you are)—I offer my heartfelt gratitude and wishes for a happy Thanksgiving!

Catching Up

It seems we’ve gotten a bit behind in our posts lately.  There are lots of good reasons for this, but now I’ll try to get us caught up.

I’d been tempting fate in more ways than just claiming my toilet was clog-proof.  I’d also been claiming I don’t get sick.  Best we can figure, it had been about five years since I had been.  Spending lots of time on airplanes and in cold weather with no ill effect had bolstered my confidence.  Then everyone on the boat got a cold except me, and I was feeling downright superhuman.  Notice this is all past tense.  Because then it all caught up with me and a bad cold took me down for two weeks.  I even missed a week of work, which for me is unheard of.  Now I’m on the mend and looking forward to another 5 years, but my cold is going around the boat and Tanya and Rachel are suffering.  

I found yet another area of rot in the port-side cabintop.  It’s been a long-term problem which I really wish had been found in the survey.  This is the third repair.  The good news is that I’m a lot better with the epoxy than I was in the beginning.  Hopefully I’ve got it licked this time.  

Usually the rot I find is the fault of owners or boatyard workers who don’t appreciate the critical importance of bedding hardware correctly, but this time it was the builder.  The source was the jib track and I didn’t find any evidence that it had ever been removed.  I removed it and to do that I had to pull down part of the ceiling in the salon.  I tried to preserve it, but the ceiling isn’t really removable, and I think we’ve finally found the excuse to replace it with something a little more attractive.

Our interior projects have really gotten out of hand.  We’re way beyond the initial scope and there’s still more I want to do.  It’s really hard to stop when we have a carpenter we like and does such good work.  At this point I could have bought a pair of shiny new 54hp Yanmar diesels for what I’ve spent on woodwork.  

He’s not the most punctual guy, though, and completion dates are very slippery.  I used to get all tense about this because I had my eye on our departure at the end of the summer.  Well, we’ve finally admitted that that isn’t going to happen.  The time to leave is right now and we’re not ready.  So we’ll be here for the winter.

I have work through the end of the year requiring me to travel, and unfortunately I need the work.  I had multiple opportunities this summer for work I could have done while cruising, but none of them came through for me.

It’s disappointing, but not all that surprising.  It was a known risk when we came back to the dock.  Now the big question is how we’re going to stay warm.  The last winter we spent aboard in Florida left a very bad impression on us.  

Although fundamentally they work just like a heat pump in a house, our air conditioners are not set up to reverse-cycle for heat.  And due to some quirks in our electrical system and the way our interior is laid out, we currently can’t run enough space heaters to keep the whole boat warm at night.  These are the most expedient methods to heat the boat, but both have very high electrical demands and only work at the dock.

Burning diesel for heat is a much more strategic use of fuel and would allow us to reasonably heat the boat away from the dock.  The question isn’t just about hot air either.  We like hot water even in the summer.  Currently, we make hot water either by an electrode in the tank, or through a heat exchanger with the generator.  Neither is very energy efficient.   Ideally, we wouldn’t need to run the generator anyway.  Add to this that our hot water tank is leaking and needs to be replaced.  Taken together these problems lead me toward thinking about a whole new diesel-heated water tank and hydronic heat system with hot water circulating through radiators around the boat.  This would be an awesome system… in Alaska.  It’s a lot of overkill in a boat destined for the tropics.

We have a very “do it right” attitude about boat projects on Take Two, and sometimes it takes some effort to balance that with the original goals to be cruising.  The more painful thing to remember is that she’s a 20-year-old boat and sometimes perfection just doesn’t make sense.  So it probably means we should skip the diesel heat.  We’re already planning to fix our electrical shortcomings, which should allow us to run 4 or 5 space heaters.  We’ll just need to give that project a little higher priority.

The other side of “do it right” is we live with a whole lot of temporary fixes until we can figure out what “right” is.  Window covers were on the summer project list since before we hit the dock, but I could never figure out the right way to do it.  I couldn’t strike the right balance between shade, visibility, and ventilation.  Instead, we spent all summer with covers duct-taped in place.  Good thing, too.  After only one season, the covers became incredibly dirty and we were unsuccessful at cleaning them.  I’m now realizing we should skip the covers entirely and put our effort into awnings.

When we do cruise again, a couple recent changes should make life simpler.  We’ve added a feature to our mail service allowing us to receive electronic images of our mail, and direct them to send it to us, scan the contents, or shred it.  I don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner.  Now we know what we’ve received immediately, instead of finding out whenever we happen to request a mail shipment.  In the end I think it will save us money on unnecessary shipments, and allow us to keep closer tabs on our mail.

The other change is to our banking arrangements based on a tip from the BumfuzzlesCapital One’s online checking account will allow us to use ATMs worldwide without a fee.  By using ATMs we can get cash as we need it, rather than carrying a bunch with us.  Plus the ATMs give local currency and we don’t have to worry about currency exchange.  The debit card linked to the account doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees like all our current cards do.

The last bit of news is that Sugar has died.  She had been looking unwell for weeks and had gone from her regular 8lb weight down to 5.  The vet ran some simple tests, but when they didn’t turn up anything obvious, I decided to have her euthanized.  This has been surprisingly painful for Tanya and me.  It happened over a month ago now and we’re still not completely over it.  Just when we thought we were, our last monthly mail shipment contained this card from the vet’s office.  Jerks.


In my recent description of our electric toilet, I boldly declared it clog-proof.  While I’m sure many wise men shook their heads grimly at my foolishness, allow me to point out that it’s not that people haven’t tried.

Shortly after our carpenter left the boat yesterday, Tanya alerted me to an alarming noise from the toilet during flushing.  We both came to the conclusion a screw had somehow been dropped in it during the course of the day.  The toilet still worked and I gave it a couple good flushes to see if it could pass the screw, but felt that the screw was ultimately going to win this contest and that I’d better get it out.  

As far as working on toilets goes, this was a piece of cake.  Since the toilet wasn’t actually clogged, I could run a lot of water through it to clear the discharge line first.  And since the toilet macerates as it flushes, the discharge line is only 1” so there was only about a quart of liquid in it anyway.  I was able to get a little bucket under the connection and managed to catch every drop of what came out when I opened it.  Compared to the gallon of shit that always ends up on the floor in the other bathroom, this was a big success already.

Once disconnected, I turned the toilet upside down, loosened a couple screws and one hose clamp and the pump was free.  I turned it around, looked inside, and there, bright and shiny like a little gem, was a 1” #8 oval head screw.  

The carpenter is not going to hear the end of this for quite a while, but actually I’m very happy.  Not that he dropped a screw in my toilet of course, but that the removal went so smoothly.  I had it apart and back together again in less than an hour, which is a record.  The boat did not have to be evacuated, and no mopping with bleach or full-body scrubbing was required afterward, all of which are part of a normal toilet repair in my experience.

While removing the screw, I discovered evidence that another crime had been committed.  I found some string and what looked like a cardboard tube wrapped around the shaft of the chopper blade.  Even with my limited experience, I know a feminine product when I see one.  I guess I can’t blame that on the carpenter.  A guest must have flushed that months ago.  I was shocked that it had been done, but also immensely gratified that the toilet survived unscathed.

I never like disassembling a toilet.  And obviously we’re going to be more careful about telling guests how to use it.  But if the only thing I really have to actively deal with is when somebody drops something metal in it, I’m okay with that.

Electric Head

When we bought Take Two, all four of the existing toilets went directly into the nearest dumpster.  One of them was replaced with a manual Jabsco model and we temporarily lived that way for about 2 years.  

During that time, we experienced a wide variety of problems.  Incoming sea life caused the bowl to smell awful, and minerals in the salt water contributed to scale buildup in the bowl and the hoses.  The doses of vinegar proscribed by many to combat the salt water were oddly coincident with failures of the joker valve, which is responsible for preventing the backflow of flushed contents into the bowl (which also smelled awful).  Left unchecked, the scale constricts passages and contributes to clogs.  

Oh, the clogs: clogs in the bowl, clogs in the joker valve, clogs in the anti-siphon loop, clogs in the y-valve, clogs in the vent, and worst of all, clogs in the pickup tube of a very full tank.  Clearing a clog is a very nasty and hateful job.  Ten times out of ten, they are caused by too much toilet paper.  For this reason, some boats don’t allow users to flush toilet paper.  But that sounds nasty and hateful in its own right.

For all the trouble we had with the toilet as a system, the machine itself was surprisingly trouble free.  Servicing a family with four children is hard duty and Jabsco toilets are not the pillar of reliability.  They are probably the cheapest units available and have about a hundred parts.  Plus, I’m convinced that children are capable of breaking absolutely anything.  So I think the Jabsco has done remarkably well.

Boats have to be able to “hold it” when in near-shore or protected waters, so that creates the necessary evil known as the holding tank.  I generally give Take Two’s designer a lot of credit for his ingenuity and foresight, but he really screwed the pooch on her holding tanks.  Maybe he figured they were just lip service to local regulations and no one would actually use them, which is probably largely the case for her originally intended use in the Caribbean.  There are four holding tanks, each located under the floors in the forward cabins and under the beds in the aft cabins.  It is very, very difficult to create a holding tank setup that doesn’t stink, and the original tanks just don’t cut it.  The one toilet we used therefore pumped into the tank of the one cabin we didn’t use.  

Removing the contents from the tank can be done with a shoreside hose through a deck fitting, or overboard through a dedicated pump and thru hull.  The pump is a “macerator”, which chops the material with a blade as it is removed from the tank, but the actual suction for the removal is provided by a rubber impeller.  It is a seriously flawed design.  It seems like we get about 2-3 uses out of the macerator before it stops working and has to be rebuilt.  Rebuilding a macerator is my second least favorite job on the boat.

After living with that arrangement for a while I began to conceive what an ideal head setup would look like, and earlier this summer I set about implementing those ideas in our master cabin.  The goals were for the toilet to be clean, odor-free, and most importantly, clog-free.  Six months later, I feel complete confidence declaring partial success.

The centerpiece is our Raritan Marine Elegance fresh water electric flush toilet.  If a toilet can be elegant, this is it.  At $700 and practically four parts, it is a polar opposite from the Jabsco design.  Using fresh water immediately eliminates much of the odor related to the toilet.  Rather than being a simple pedestal, the base is more like a shroud that is designed to be backed up to a wall.  It is smooth and clean and even creates the possibility of running the plumbing through the wall, eliminating the “hose theme” decorating most heads.

The electric flush is provided by a powerful motor and a centrifugal pump.  No rubber impellers here.  And the chopper blade is in the toilet, so nothing but soup ever enters the plumbing.  I think its clog-proof, but I'm knocking on wood just to be safe.

The new toilet flushes only to the tank.  This is to simplify the plumbing, but also to remove the hole below the waterline.  There’s nothing quite like a 1-1/4” thru-hull breaking off in your hand and a geyser of water rushing in.  This has happened.

Our tank is also completely different, primarily because it is not in the boat’s living space.  Our forward heads are against the watertight “crash” bulkheads that separate our bows from the interior space.  While I am loath to drill any hole in my boat, let alone a watertight bulkhead, I felt it was the right thing to do in this case.  The pipe through the bulkhead is sealed with a Uni-Seal, so is still watertight, but I also put it very high on the wall.  The only way it should become any kind of an integrity issue is if the decks are awash or the boat is inverted.  Integrity is pretty much gone at that point anyway.

The tank has two vents, one on each side of the bow.  This is partially to encourage airflow, theoretically feeding the aerobic bacteria that keep the tank “sweet”, but also to reduce the likelihood that both could become plugged at the same time.  If the vent is plugged, by an insect nest for example, then the contents of the tank can’t be removed.

For evacuation of the tank, we still have a deck fitting for shoreside pumpout, and our own pump to send the stuff overboard.  Differences are that each has a separate pickup tube into the new tank.  So there is no y-valve to select between them, and if one becomes clogged, the other will still work.  Clogging is near impossible since the pickup tubes are 1.5” PVC.  Remember, the inlet is only 1” hose.  Another advantage is that I can easily rinse the tank and pump from the deck without having to futz with a y-valve.

The pump is a Jabsco diaphragm pump with a 1.5” bore.  Again, no damn impellers.  It could probably pass a sock.  The overboard discharge is above the waterline, which is not ideal because of smell and the mess it leaves on the side of the boat, but it’s safer and I could install it with the boat in the water.

So how does it work?  Very well, but there have been a few things I’ve learned the hard way.

After six months the discharge hose has begun to develop a distinct odor.  This is disappointing.  I originally used SeaLand OdorSafe hose that I found at West Marine. I know now that
Trident 101/102 is much better hose and I’m going to replace the SeaLand as soon as I find some of the Trident stuff.

The Jabsco is on a 50 gallon tank and can accommodate the whole family for about 10 days before filling it.  The electric toilet fills its 20 gallon tank within 7 days, with only two adult users.  The flush cycles are supposedly programmable, but I have been unable bring its water usage down to where I’m happy with the automatic functions.  Instead, I prefer to control the flush water and pump activation manually through momentary buttons on the control panel.  I suppose I could also add a partially closed ball valve to the toilet’s supply to restrict the flow.

Because of the tendency to overfill the tank, a gauge is really necessary for us to monitor our capacity.  For our purposes, I like the Electrosense and ordered the version that runs from a 9V battery. I haven’t yet installed it, but it's really straightforward and I don’t expect any difficulties.

Finally, with separate tank outlets for the deck pumpout and overboard discharge, I’ve discovered the need for a ball valve between the tank and the discharge pump.  When sucking out the contents through the deck, the suction can be enough to invert the valves on the discharge pump.  I expect the Coast Guard may also be happier seeing a valve that can be “locked” with a zip tie.

The issues immediately come to mind for most people with regard to an electric toilet, namely power and water usage, and maintenance, are not so much of a concern for me.  Even when I think the toilet is overusing water, 20 gallons a week is just not that much.  I think our weekly production is somewhere around 400 gallons, so an extra 20 is not going to have a big impact.  Now rolling out a second toilet for the kids does give me pause, and I think I’ll have to find a way to regulate the flush water before that happens.

The power consumption is truly negligible for us.  Total daily runtime is under a minute.  

For maintenance, I really can’t see what could be likely to go wrong with it.  I’m probably just not using enough imagination, but this new toilet is way, way simpler than a Jabsco.  If you really want the ultimate in simplicity, go get a bucket at Home Depot.  But for elegance, I’ll take the electric toilet.