Getting a head

Getting a Head

What to do when your marine sanitation device craps out

By Steve Hodges

My wife, Susan, and I had sailed to Santa Cruz Island and stayed in Prisoners Harbor. Lovely weather, a lovely anchorage—what could be nicer than being on a sailboat in paradise? But the fun stops when the head does, and that signaled the beginning of the end for that trip.

The joker croaked

The marine toilet joker croaked

The joker croaked.

This wasn’t the first time the electric toilet had quit mid-trip. In 22 years, I’ve repaired Frolic’s toilet at several island anchorages, in the Sea of Cortez and even mid-Pacific.

Besides routine joker valve changes, the macerator blade had come loose, the undersized discharge lines had clogged, and finally, the plastic separator between the macerator and intake water chambers had disintegrated.

Familiarity breeds contempt, which was my reaction to the latest breakdown: Time to jettison this more than 25-year-old Jabsco system and move on to something with more regularity. But what?

The deep dive

A visit to the internet led me to several online forums that dove into the murky depths of marine toiletry, and I came away with a Eureka moment: bucket and chuck it! My flash of inspiration, with a simple waste management plan and proven effective offshore disposal, was quickly doused, however. I was reminded of several problems with that approach, including use in civilized anchorages or moorings and potential guest issues. So, what next?

The real poop on marine toilets

Most of us are spoiled by the seemingly transparent simplicity of home toiletry. We’re usually blissfully unaware of the complex infrastructure of these easy-to-use systems. Flush and forget. Not so in a boat, where you are the water and sanitation department with many options and possible outcomes, such as sinking if the installation doesn’t take into account that much of the plumbing is below the waterline.

Instead of the simple wax ring that seals terra firma toilets, the typical boat head relies on gaskets, hoses, clamps, and seacocks to protect living areas from bad water. The marine toilet options, in kind-of increasing levels of complexity, include

  • bucket-and-chuck-it
  • port-a-potty
  • composting
  • hand pump
  • electric, sea water (macerator)
  • electric, fresh water (macerator and vacuum systems)

Head-to-head comparisons

In spirited tête-à-têtes, Susan and I debated our options. We rejected port-a-potties for similar reasons as the bucket, including the risk of spillage and other logistical issues associated with disposal of stored materials.

Composting toilets are large. They also require separation of liquids and solids and frequent emptying of the liquid receptacle, a la port-a-potty. You also need to have certain types of peat mulch on hand and periodically dispose of the compost. So that option, while initially tempting (no plumbing needed), was nixed.

Since Frolic has a nearly new, well-vented, 13-gallon holding tank, with a fancy Y-valve to choose between deck or overboard pump out, why not use it? At this point in the evolving logic, I thought a tried-and-true hand-pump toilet was the way to go. I liked the idea of a manual system because I find them simple to use, and they eliminate another beef I have with electric (macerator) systems: noise. But Susan (who has never used a hand pump toilet) looked into it and discovered that one must turn valves this way or that in order to complete the flush cycle, which seemed way too complicated, especially for some visitors and grandkids.

Since our electric toilet had never had an electrical problem, and we’re losing our hearing anyway, I couldn’t argue. So, we chose electric, but would it use fresh or sea water to flush? The two are, among other things, distinguished by a propensity for odor.

The Head Mistress

By this point in my online research, I had found a voice of reason on these matters from a frequent contributor to the Cruiser’s Forum. Peggie Hall, known as the Head Mistress, literally wrote the book on yacht odors, and I highly recommend “The New Get Rid of Boat Odors” if ever you desire to plumb these depths.

I consulted with Peggie, who’s a wealth of practical information and fun to chat with. She’s a proponent of fresh-water flushes because old seawater left in the plumbing is a common source of odors; the abundant marine critters that live in seawater die and then stink.

Although tempted to go with fresh water, I was concerned about using more water; Frolic only has a low-capacity manual watermaker, and I have no plans to add an electric one. Peggie pointed out that I could get around the seawater aroma issue if I purged the toilet lines with fresh water before leaving the boat for long periods.

In fact, she said that if I teed off the head sink drain, I could easily purge the system (by closing the seacock, filling the sink with fresh water and then flushing) and eliminate the intake anti-siphon loop. (Of course, an anti-siphon loop is still needed for the discharge; on Frolic it’s mounted out of sight in the sink cabinet directly above the seacock.)

The loss of the intake loop simplified installation and eliminated the “admiralty” contention regarding my plan to mount the (in my lonely opinion, lovely bronze) anti-siphon loop on the teak bulkhead. We had a plan: an electric seawater toilet fed from the sink drain seacock.

Installing the head

The new marine sanitation device is installed

The new head

I chose the Raritan SeaEra toilet (with the integrated pump) because it’s reputed to be reliable and relatively easy to maintain. I saved some money by combining Raritan’s manual-to-electric conversion kit with our old porcelain bowl, as there was nothing wrong with the latter!

Electric macerator toilets offer the option of using 1-inch discharge hose, but don’t do it! All our clog issues were associated with the 1-inch discharge plumbing, so I switched to 1½-inch hose and fittings throughout.

Since Frolic’s system can select, via a Y-valve, whether to pump to the holding tank or dump directly overboard, the change also meant a larger valve. I chose the Jabsco 45490-1000 and am impressed by its quality and relative ease of installation (the two outlet ports rotate).

The other vital tip Peggie offered was to use only high-grade sanitation hose, specifically Raritan Saniflex, which, after some price matching, I bought for $10 per foot (what a deal!). Peggie suggested using K-Y Jelly and heat to make it easier to install the hoses, and that was a great help in making the tight fits needed to prevent noisome leaks.

Other important tips

Only use unperforated 316 stainless steel hose clamps. Many of the perforated clamps in our 15-year-old plumbing were badly corroded; some broke apart as I removed them. The unperforated clamps, installed about the same time, were in much better condition, and none had failed. And, to ease installation, tighten the clamps with a socket wrench, rather than a screwdriver.

Bottom line

With only a few bumps, scrapes and back pains (boat yoga?) and costing less than a boat buck, the new system is in, and it works. Bonus: Although still noisy, the new toilet is quieter than the old one. So far, we are flushed with success.


Steve Hodges started sailing 50 years ago on the Chesapeake Bay and East Coast lakes. In 1977, he moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he sailed a 27-foot wooden boat. Since 1996, he has sailed on Frolic, an Islander 36 built in 1974. After hundreds of trips to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, the Sea of Cortez, San Francisco, and the Hawaiian islands (as part of the 2012 and 2014 Singlehanded Transpac races), Frolic and crew look forward to more time on the water, now with grandchildren. Steve and Susan have been members of Santa Barbara Sail & Power Squadron/13 since 1996.

This article first appeared in the squadron newsletter, Signal Hoist.

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