Paint was peeling from old plywood walls and the toilet was difficult to pump. When it finally did, more water shot out and hit us on the shins than actually went through the bowl. The sinks were cruddy, the faucets pitted, and the lighting inadequate. The shower hose leaked most of its water out before it even reached the showerhead. Other than that though, everything in the head worked just fine.
A couple of years ago, Sue and I made the switch from a new boat to our current cruising boat Serengeti, a 1978 Formosa Peterson 46. Although we love the lines and styling of this older boat, those feelings did not hold true for the two aging heads on board. Oh, and did we mention the fact that there were no holding tanks on the boat when we bought it?
As liveaboard cruisers, we knew we would not be happy unless we made some changes. We wanted to make these tiny rooms more functional in terms of equipment that worked the way it was supposed to, more pleasing to the eye, and easier to clean and dry after a shower. We further wanted to make sure we met the waste requirements for US coastal waters.
The Shower Dilemma With most boats, each time you shower in the head everything in the entire room gets wet—the sink, the toilet, and all the walls. Sometimes a shower curtain is employed to try and contain the water, but this rarely succeeds and usually results in more moisture being trapped. Unless you physically wipe down all the many surfaces after each shower, or wait hours for it to dry on its own, it becomes an unusable area. We've found that for a head to work best as a combined shower, it needs waterproof surfaces, watertight joints, and flow-through ventilation
We occasionally see cruisers who have given up the battle of dealing with wet and moldy heads, preferring to just shower in the cockpit. We must admit this makes for some interesting sightings at anchor. Not wanting to be relegated to the cockpit ourselves, we decided to take action.
We decided instead to apply a countertop laminate material like Formica to the walls, a material that has been used successfully for this application by boat builders for many years. At around $40.00 per four-by-eight-foot sheet, we saved considerable money over the fiberglass option, achieved all of our original goals, and discovered an added bonus. In choosing our Formica, we opted for a granite-like speckled tan color instead of bright white. This results in a more forgiving surface for those of us that don't want to be slaves to cleaning those last little specs all the time. One thing we did not like about the shiny white fiberglass walls in our last boat was that every stray bit of anything showed up. Formica is available in a huge range of colors and patterns, so you can choose your own favorite. Whether you choose fiberglass or laminate sheeting for renewing your head walls, the fitting and application procedures will be similar (see sidebar).
We really like the idea of having a separate shower stall, but there was simply no room in either of our heads to accommodate one. After brainstorming for a few days, we came up with a compromise. Since we have two separate heads on board, we decided to gut the aft head, and turn it into a dedicated shower. This meant removing the sink and cabinet, which took up a lot of floor space, and left us with a good-sized area in which to shower comfortably. Since the head is located in our master stateroom, we did re-install a new toilet for convenience and for flexibility when guests are onboard. We've found that losing the aft sink has not been a hardship at all. How many sinks do you need on a 40-some foot boat anyway?
Once we had new head walls that were watertight, easier to clean and faster to dry, we decided next to address the method of shower waste-water removal. Like many older boats, our shower sump drained straight into the bilge. This is definitely not a good idea as hair and debris can form a potentially dangerous clog for your bilge pump. This is also not a smart sanitary arrangement as it can exacerbate offensive bilge odors. To avoid these problems, we plumbed a raw-water strainer in line with a diaphragm pump to the shower sump. Now our wastewater from showering goes directly overboard at the flick of a switch. By adding an oversized strainer, we've been able to greatly extend the period between having to clean the strainer basket. Virtually all the hair and other debris is contained before it can clog the pump.
Whether your toilet and hoses are new or old, make sure you do a little bit of regular maintenance to keep things running smoothly. Once a month, pour a little cooking oil into the bowl, and then pump a few times. This will keep the seals well lubricated. A dose of vinegar poured into the bowl, and slowly pumped through the hose once a month will help reduce future scaling inside the hose. We've also found a regular dose of vinegar to be an odor reducer.
Waste Management We're not exactly sure why, but our boat was never set up with any holding tanks or systems for onboard waste treatment. We added a holding tank to our forward head, and in our aft head, decided to install a Type 1 msd, to treat our waste prior to release. Our Lectra/San neutralizes waste with electric current, making it safe and legal to then be pumped overboard in all coastal areas except those labeled as "no discharge zones." The Lectra/San takes up a small amount of space, virtually eliminates head odors, and is easy to install. This type of unit is not only environmentally friendly, but it also means you'll spend a lot less time tracking down those few and far between pump-out stations. The downside is that the unit uses 40 amps of power during its two-minute treatment cycle, and there are some specially designated areas where it cannot be used. These designations in our opinion are misguided. We feel that no-discharge zones are the result of poor decisions made by well-intentioned politicians who want to appear to be environmentally friendly. They discourage the use of technology that when used, actually results in a cleaner environment.
To eliminate messy and slippery episodes chasing down that bar of soap, we added a soap and shampoo dispenser to one wall of our new head/shower. This helps eliminate soapy residues, and reduces water consumption further as all soaps, shampoos and conditioners are readily dispensed at the push of a button.
Dressing onboard a boat can sometimes be frustrating, so we added a large mirror on one wall so that we can actually see below our necks. (Granted, we're not always happy with what we see.) This, along with new, brighter halogen lighting has made our boat feel even more like a home. And these changes have made a huge difference to our comfort in living aboard. If the head on your boat exhibits some of the annoying maladies we faced, you might want to try making a few of these changes yourself. Take it from us, the time you spend fixing things up today will certainly enhance your time spent on the water tomorrow.
Installing New Surfaces
Head Maintenance Blues by Tom WoodPump It Out by Joy SmithNature Never Disappoints When Cruising by Sue & Larry