Monday, September 7, 2009

One of the less glamourous aspects of living on a trawler is dealing with everyday sanitation issues. Washing dishes and showering uses a lot of water and it all has to go somewhere. Thankfully, this 'gray' water is pumped harmlessly overboard as it poses no threat to the environment (unless you are a fish that doesn't want jojoba or styling mousse passing through its gills). We use about 30 gallons of water every day we are onboard and if we had to process this water before sending it into the ocean, it would severely hamper the operation.

So, you ask, what happens to the 'other stuff'. Appropriately called 'black water', these are the substances you cannot just dump overboard.* You have to keep it somewhere until you are in a position to dispose of it properly. There are a couple of ways to do this. Some boats have a sanitation system that processes and treats the sewage much like our city run sanitation department does. With the push of a button, it takes the effluent and grinds it up, kills all the bad things and sends it overboard. It supposedly makes the discharge so clean you can drink it and be safe. I am not so sure that I would ever want to be in a position that I would have to test that theory so lets take their word for it and move on.

If you don't have one of those super-dooper systems then you will just have to hold it.

Well, not in the literal sense. You have to keep your black water in holding tanks until you are at such a time and place where you can discharge it safely. Maya comes with two holding tanks and each tank can hold about 30 gallons of "stuff." Under normal ops, this capacity should last us about a week to ten days before the tanks are full. So far, our record is four days. I am not sure what is going on here but eventually we are going to get to the bottom of it.

So what happens when the holding tanks are full? Well first off, we have some neat gauges that tell us when we are getting close to being full. I don't think you ever want to be at max capacity, figuratively or literally. So when you see you are getting near that point, you have to find a marina that has the ability to 'pump' you 'out'. This process involves a long hose and giant vacuum cleaner type pump. The attendant (Kim) wearing heavy rubber gloves, attaches the hose to an outlet on the outside of the boat. This outlet connects to the holding tanks. The administrator (me) heads down to the engine room to configure the valves and hoses..... its all very complicated....really complicated. When she is ready, the attendant has the dock hand start the motor to the pump and the sucking out process begins.

I am not sure why they call this procedure a 'pump out.' It is really more like a 'suction out.' Anyway, the attendant keeps pressure on the hose while at the same time watching a small clear window on the nozzle. This window allows you to see your progress. When 'stuff' stops going by the window, you know the tank is empty. See, I told you it was glamourous.

It is hard to engage the dock hand in small talk or idle chit chat while this process in underway. The whole thing is rather undignified and I think everyone involved feels a lot happier when the pump out is over. So as soon as she sees that the suctioning is complete, Kim hands the 'magic wand' (as I call it) back to the dock hand. He smartly replaces it in a covered compartment away from view. You don't want that thing hanging around in plain view. It is like the tools the dentist uses on you while you are in the chair. He keeps them covered until you are lying back and can't see them. You know they are there, but you don't want to see them.

Here you can see how they sanitize things after each use.

So when the process is complete and the appropriate gratuities have been dispersed, we button her up and head on our way. I don't know how or why but for some reason, the boat just feels better after a pump out.

*There is a third option for dealing with black water and we don't use it very much. It involves a big black pump down in the engine room called a macerator. Macerator is a nice word for the grinder pump. If you are three miles or more off shore, you can turn on this big pump and discharge your tanks directly into the ocean. There are no hoses or gloves involved. No dock hands or clear windows to watch. Just push the button and the tanks empty out overboard. The only things affected are those marine critters, who by now have lots of jojoba and mousse in their systems.

Next for dinner. Not.