Once upon a time a marine toilet was truly impressive. A genuine THRONE – the Baby Blake. OK, pink, but this boat had his and her loos.The Joys of Marine Toilet Maintenance II

The Piston Pump


Article and photos by Chris Ayres

My head was pressed tightly against the bowl. My knees were crushed on the steel floor and my arms stretched till the sinews seemed to crack. I still couldn’t make it.
Guantanamo Bay? Gulag Archipelago? No. Wide Bay.
It had been the longest slowest, wettest trip in my life from WMYC to the Wide Bay Bar. Columbus bumped into Hispaniola in less time. So it seemed.
“Mudjimba Island (just north of Mooloolaba) is heading north – where we should be going,” I told Steve, the skipper.
“You telling me my boat is slow?” he snarled.
“No. Just going backwards.”
“Why?”
“Tide.”
“O.K! We’ll start the bloody engine and fill the world with CO2 then!”
Oh dear. I was the environmental vandal. But a dumb idea it was since it wasn’t the world that was filled with poisonous gas, but below decks … where the toilet was. The motor, an ancient pre-diluvian Ford that wheezed carbon monoxide and leaked oil from orifices I don’t want to mention.
The toilet. I was starting to need it.
A lifetime later we crossed the Wide Bay Bar, me with cheeks clenched. Immediately the engine wheezed to a stop. I opened the hatches and dived below to where the throne sat – in the passage to the aft cabin. Private? WHO CARES!
Instinct born of a lifetime experience of maritime disasters told me to try the pump handle (it was a primaeval manual head). Jammed tight. Of course. Steve had only bought his Iron Boat Nemesis a month before and had spent the time he should have spent checking the gear telling the world in every pub on the Gold Coast of his planned trip around Cape Horn.
By now, things were becoming urgent.
“Dear Steven, we need some tools,” I told Steve.
“Do you? (Note the emphasis). Why?”
“Toilet won’t work.”
“Oh! Good luck old chap – I’ll leave you to it.”
I found a tin of rusty spanners, assorted screwdrivers, seized hose clamps and what appeared to be a forensic pathologist’s evidence bag from a Coroner’s Court. So with sinking heart (and clenched bowels) I began to tackle the heads.
Diagram 1. Even on the best of manual toilets there are plenty of parts to lose.As may be noted from diagram 1, the construction is simplicity itself. These models were designed by accountants, parts sourced from a scrapyard and assembled by convicts. A mere 273 parts make up the whole. Plenty of fodder for the most ravenous bilge monster and my arthritic fingers soon assured it was well fed.
But to continue. Should you, dear reader, ever find yourself in a similar predicament you should immediately dive overboard and swim for the nearest shore and buy a farm. If not, follow these instructions:
Put on knee pads.
Remove the four self-tapping screws holding the suction valves  in place.
Entice the inlet and outlet suction valves to leave the orifice in which they may be found.
Next, by standing on your head, undo the four bolts holding in the discharge valve.
Remove same. DON’T DROP IT!
Oh dear. Put your head in the bowl, crush your knees on the cold steel decking and stretch your arm as far as it goes and a bit to more retrieve the discharge valve.
Eschew the temptation to reach for the liquor locker. You are not finished yet.
Then the Accountants took over … as  on Nemesis – the Bean Counter Baby.Remove the piston pump.
Clean, grease and replace valves, seals and grommets. Now don’t drop your grommet. Not at this stage.
Finally – Reassemble, open seacock and relax …
I began work.
Now, Steve, fascinated, watched the whole proceeding.
As luck would have it, the seacock was closed. So I started removing the four (406 grade) stainless self-tappers screwed into the plastic pump chamber that held the piston seal cover to the piston. Three obligingly came free, the fourth snapped.
“Oh dear!” sez I. “How inconvenient!” All four had to be replaced if the thing was ever to work, so with pliers I carefully extracted the broken half – took only half a bowel-cramping hour! Blood flowed from lacerated fingers.
“By Jove that hurt,” I murmured.
Now the piston wouldn’t come. Sprayed all the WD40 we had until I was as high as a kite. No pain now. Still wouldn’t come. I said the Magic Words, “please undo”. And it did.
I greased and oiled the piston and inserted it back. It wouldn’t fit. Try again. More grease and new seals. Success.
Now where was the fourth 316 grade stainless screw to join its friends in the piston seal cover? Bilge monster had already devoured two screw drivers, a pair of old pliers … please, NOT the last 20mm self tapper as well?
But no. There it was, embedded into my cold frozen knee cap (I had left my knee pads at home). Extract and replace – into the pump housing. But first ensure the seal is in place and the correct way round (due to the designer’s genius it can go in backwards) and screw in screws. If reversed then sadness and leaks result. Cracking sound of plastic and wrist joint. Never mind! This was a last time repair for this nasty little monster. It needed (as far I was concerned) to work but once. AND SOON!
“I’ve got a lot to learn,” said Steve … by way of thanks?
Without further ado, I partly disrobed and sat down. Being an observant cove, he left me in peace and proceeded to paddle his dinghy. The last words I heard as I proceeded to test the quality of my workmanship was.
“By the way, old chap, the holding tank isn’t working”.
A trenchant pause. He continued.
“As I was saying …”
Alas. There went my Green Credentials … floating on the tide.
Fortunately a caring loving government has now banned the use of pump-out toilets out of consideration for the pain, suffering and cruelty inflicted on those required to repair and maintain them. Now colourfully clad MSQ patrol officers, with happy smiling faces will gleefully prosecute owners of vessels brutal enough to be found with pump-out toilets. The reason is a simple humanitarian one.
To protect those in peril (of being made to repair such loos) on the sea.