Monty Halls gets to grips with the intricacies of the marine toilet and discovers a distinctly unappealing right of passage for all owners

Heads on yachts, as we all know, represent a range of challenges. Some are physical, some mechanical, and some spiritual. My personal date with destiny came after a lovely weekend sail on
Sobek with the family, when someone broke the cardinal rule of ‘No Number Twos’ on board.

The reason for this draconian measure, which may seem barbaric to some, is that our heads is a fairly simple ‘seawater in, unpleasantness out’ affair, powered by a medieval hand pump. As such, we try to avoid anything too substantial passing through our system, and then the boat’s system, as it were. There’s the environmental side as well. And I’ll leave it at that.

For those of you still with me, my date with destiny aligned neatly with one of the hottest days of the year. The family had by now disembarked (the culprit remaining tight-lipped despite vigorous interrogation), Sobek was bobbing gently on our mooring on the Dart, and it was time to face up to my responsibilities.

Cack-handed fettling meant Monty covered himself… but not in glory.

‘Ha! It’s a rite of passage,’ said Justin, the previous owner, when I called him to seek advice. It seemed a strangely apt term. ‘Part of the gig I’m afraid. Get in there, good luck, and call me when you’re done.’

And so I ventured into the foetid, claustrophobic space that is our heads. I’m a large chap, and it’s a small room, and I can only access the relevant bulkheads with the door shut. So very swiftly the temperature within rose to a toasty 400°C.

What followed was a vivid demonstration of why I would have been a terrible bomb disposal officer. Sweating profusely, and contorted like a pretzel, I exposed various pipes. After each twiddle with jubilee clips and sea cocks, I pumped the handle vigorously. No joy. This led to considerable frustration and further pumping as, wild eyed, puce of face, and incandescent with rage, I simply couldn’t find the blockage.

And then… Eureka! It all came down to a single point where the hose connected to the outgoing sea cock. Triumphantly I peered at it with a sideways glance, then twisted my body round, greased with sweat like a piglet in a barrel, and began to unscrew the offending jubilee clip. An important technical note here is that after each test, I had reconnected each pipe, thus recreating a sealed loop.

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The more experienced mariners amongst you will already be wincing in anticipation. My deranged pumping had created, in effect, a compacted faecal grenade that was under about 2,000lb of pressure. That jubilee clip was basically a safety catch, being unscrewed at a range of four inches by an imbecile. The fact that all of this took place in a sealed compartment the size of one of the smaller Ikea wardrobes just added to the simple physics that were about to be unleashed.

The resultant detonation was, I suspect, heard in Kingswear. And that’s a mile away. It was a kind of muffled crump that caused the boat to shudder on the mooring, and was closely followed by a pebble-dashed figure walking solemnly and wordlessly to the stern, saluting, and stepping into the sea.

As a family, we do not speak of this event. We may refer occasionally to ‘the incident’ but then a pall will fall over the dinner table. The children just know that something harrowing happened to Daddy, and as he stares into space, they can come round to his side of the table and give him a hug.

Who says that sailing doesn’t bring families closer together.

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