Jonty Pearce delights in others' difficulties with holding tanks, until his boat meets the same obstacle

Jonty Pearce: Henry joined my crew during our recent Penguin Cruising Club charter cruise from Skye to Mull. He was offered one of the club-sponsored places to widen his 17-year-old horizons beyond the vista of exams, study, career choices, and smart phones. So where do you start with a teenager who has never stepped on a boat before? Do you concentrate on helming, trimming the sails, or navigation? No! The most important task afloat is how to unblock the heads.

One of our companion yachts was named Finn. Unfortunately, a couple of days into the cruise, they discovered that the draining valve under the holding tank had been left in the ‘off’ position. Regular pumping of the heads had led to said tank becoming full, and then overflowing through the vent into the bilge. Noticing a noxious smell, they opened the valve and started the clean-up operation. The main mistake they made was telling us over the VHF; I immediately rechristened the yacht Finnie The Pooh. I’m not sure if they appreciated this, but the rest of the fleet did.

Not wanting to create more of a bad smell, we desisted from regularly calling them up by their nickname and just shortened it to Finnie to keep the pot simmering. Unfortunately their smell persisted until they found a hidden collection of effluent under the engine compartment bilge. I don’t think the problem was completely sorted until a bottle of Bilgex was sourced in Tobermory.

Incidentally, my crewmate Hutch had found that Bilgex has other uses. When trying to smarten up to go out for dinner after helping to antifoul a friends’ yacht in Vigo, he discovered that Cruiser Uno paint is difficult to remove from one’s face. ‘Try Bilgex,’ his friend advised. It certainly did the trick. It is a powerful solvent, as the top layer of Hutch’s facial skin found out. He still looked perpetually sunburnt when he got to Scotland, and had a blob of Cruiser Uno on a toenail that would not come off. His wife Norry still thinks that he does not clean his feet properly.

Getting back to Finnie the Pooh, mocking your colleagues often results in come-back. And in our case it was blowback. The main heads on Ab Fab started to malfunction. Henry noticed it first, so it was blamed on him. After flushing the loo, some ‘seep back’ was developing. Further subsequent investigation revealed that our holding tank, too, was full, despite the drainage valve being open. Luckily with Hutch, a marine engineer, on board, the solution was soon found. The pump-out fitting on deck was directly above the tank outlet, and the deck broom was long enough to reach to the bottom. With Henry prodding and Hutch working the valve, the tank eventually started to drain, much to the delight of the surrounding seals who bobbed their heads up and down at the prospect of a free meal. I think that’s what the seals were doing, anyway.

Cross-examination of our crew confirmed that nobody had disposed of wet-wipes through the system, and only ‘what you’ve eaten and toilet paper’ had been pumped out of the heads. We presumed a previous charterer had either broken the wet-wipe rule or had had a bowel problem.

 Still, no damage was done and Henry had learnt the most important role on a cruising yacht. And no, we did not share our little problem with our companion yachts – what goes on tour, stays on tour.