The seas were running from six to nine feet. We were close reaching in twenty to twenty-five knots of breeze with the wind off our port bow. I was holding on to the towel rack and had one foot braced on the bulkhead and the other on the door.
Sitting in the head of our CT41 ketch while offshore was like trying to ride a bucking bronco on a greased saddle. It was all I could do to stay on, much less attempt the act for which I had entered this torture chamber. As the boat went through the waves, the top of the toilet the lid fell forward and gently patted my derriere. It felt like the days when I was being toilet trained, and my mother would rub and pat my back.
“That's a good boy,” she would say. “Just stay there and it will happen.”
I was never sure what “it” was that was going to happen, but I remember hoping “it” would be good.
In my youth I used to lock myself in the bathroom to get away from my sisters, who liked to chase me around the house. Later, I found the bathroom a great place to read magazines, especially National Geographic and its photos of the half naked natives. Some years later I found my head filled with deep philosophical thoughts and spent much time sitting there meditating on life and its meaning.
None of this could I do on the head of a pitching boat.
Just getting into the head is an operation in itself. If they made foul weather gear with a flap in the back, like long underwear, life would be much easier (I give this idea to all foul weather manufacturers free of charge). You can't just slip them down, either. They have suspenders, so you have to take off your coat. That wouldn't be so bad if you didn't have to take off your safety harness in order to get the coat off.
So there you are: clothing tangled around your legs and draping over your boots. You have disrobed in the salon, because you cannot take these things off in the head. Somehow, you must make it from the saloon to that small room where you hope to find relief. So you lurch, stumble and bump into things, and if you are lucky, manage not to fall on your face.
I once was navigator on a boat going to Hawaii that had a huge head. This boat was a racing boat, which was to be in the Clipper Cup races that year. The crew consisted of four men and two women. The boat itself was a stripped down, hard out racer. There were no bulkheads and the bunks were all pipe berths. There was no head. The women complained.
“Go over the side,” the owner said.
“What?!” yelled the women.
“Use a bucket.”
“Use a what?!” the women cried.
So the owner installed a head in the middle of the boat: out in the open, no walls, and no privacy. I thought this would be a problem for us all, but it wasn't. Each of us found a time and privacy enough after the first few days. It was the most comfortable head I ever used. It was amidships and spacious, so no matter what tack we were on it was usable. Although we never used foul weather gear after the first few days, there was plenty of room to remove it.
The only drawback was the plumbing. Not wanting to make another hole in the hull, the head was plumbed to the sink drain. If one forgot to change the “Y” valve, the waste would back up into the sink. This was especially bad if dirty dishes soaking.
I suppose heads have to be small and cramped, or one would be thrown around in them, careening off bulkheads like a pool ball making a four bank shot. Because they are small, you can do as I'm doing now – feet on the door and hand, white knuckled, gripping a towel rack. I hope the door latch holds or I'll end up in a pile in the saloon.
In the old days the head was just a hole in a plank located on the bracing of the bow sprite. It was a simple affair that never needed repair. The bow of the boat might have needed cleaning, but I bet the Captain never had to take it apart.
Disassembling a head is a dirty, messy job. It doesn't matter how many times people are told not to “put anything into the head that hasn't passed through your mouth,” the head gets stopped up by tampons, Kotex, great wads of toilet paper, hairpins and other objects that had definitely not passed through the gastric system of the human body.
We raised two of our three daughters on a boat and they did just fine, but their friends. That was another story. After giving specific instructions on using the head, we would set out for Catalina. Five minutes after arriving, the head would be stopped up. A half an hour later I would be pulling tampons out of the joker valve.
Holding tanks, the bane of all seafarers because they will smell no matter what one does, become a massive problem when they have difficulties. We had a forty-five gallon tank on board that had to be unstopped at sea. When I pulled the hose off, the boat hit a big wave that dislodged the stoppage and gave me a shower of effluent (I did not use such nice words at the time).
Another time the tank cracked and flooded the bilge when we were half way between Santa Cruz Island and Santa Barbara. We pumped it out and tried to rinse it with buckets of seawater. As we came up to the dock, one of my daughters, instead of jumping to the dock with a line to tie up the boat, jumped ashore with the water hose so we could start cleaning the bilge.
“I'm not coming back until the boat smells better,” she yelled, turning on the water. This caused a few people on the dock to wander over to see what was happening, but after one whiff they didn't stay long.
I have poked and probed, examined and repaired the head so many times I feel I am a qualified proctologist.
The perfect boat would have a port and starboard head – maybe just planks hung overboard with holes in them. For privacy one could hang canvas around them. Then I could use the lee side in comfort and perhaps meditate in peace once more on sailing and the meaning of life.