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Pump it Out

The site and source of frequent controversy—the onboard head—known in polite circles as a marine sanitation device.
"Pumpout Boat, Pumpout Boat, come in please, please!" Not too long ago, three days of on-the-water merrymaking became five when a storm forced us to delay our departure. This wasn't otherwise a situation to complain about, but our bloated holding tank was screaming in agony! It’s times like this that being able to order Pumpout Service as easily as having a pizza delivered is a real godsend. While many of us still take advantage of offshore relief, thanks to the Clean Vessel Act that was reauthorized in 1998, waste pumpout facilities for boaters are now conveniently available in many areas, usually for free.

What do you do if you can’t find one when you really need it? Check your local waterway guide, your marina, or call the local Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to find out where and how pumpout service is available. Some marinas have built-in pumpout stations, designated by a distinctive pumpout graphic. Boats can motor-up alongside, as if pulling up to a fuel dock, and empty their holding tanks by way of a hose. In other areas there are roving pumpout boats that service marinas and harbors. You can usually contact the operators by VHF radio or call them via cell phone. On weekends or holidays, it’s wise to arrange a pumpout early in the day to ensure that your vessel's needs will be met.

If you haven’t waited too long, the pumpout procedure will be relatively neat; otherwise, be prepared for an indignant burst as you ease open the on-deck waste valve. The nozzle of the suction hose—about the size of a fuel hose—is stuffed into the deck fitting and the pump is turned on, transferring the contents of your holding tank into the pumpout boat’s holding tank or into a dockside pumpout station.

A familiar sight to sailors the world over—the marine head.
If you're wondering what happens to the accumulated effluent on pumpout boats, you might be relieved to know that the operators of these vessels don't dump their loads offshore, but rather transfer the vile stuff to a city sewer line near their base of operations. 

The federal government now allots states close to $10 million each year for the construction, renovation, operation, and maintenance of pumpout stations for holding tanks, and for dumping stations for portable toilets. As convenient as this service is, you might wonder why the Feds chose to dump, literally, beaucoup bucks down the sewer. The Clean Vessel Act, along with other environmentally kind programs (see sidebar) were either instituted or reauthorized during the International Year of the Ocean, in 1998 after then Vice-President Al Gore received a report recommending nearly 150 actions to protect, restore, and explore America's ocean resources. This led to administrative restraints on activities that contributed to the deterioration of sealife and ocean purity.

Many boats make lots of pollution wherever they congregate; which is why recreational boaters are often fingered as primary contributors to the sewage problems that are common to harbors, inlets, marinas, and other coastal areas. Sheltered and protected coves that ward off tidal currents and heavy seas also keep water and debris from flushing out; trapping microorganisms, bacteria, and chemicals found in treated and untreated waste. A buildup of these toxins can pollute the local water supply, transmit diseases to swimmers, taint fish and shellfish beds, and endanger aquatic plants.

According to scientific studies, the amount of bacteria in untreated waste that one boat can discharge exceeds the amount contained in a small city’s worth of treated wastewater! Raw sewage from a boat is more concentrated and biologically active than sewage from treatment facilities. (Stealth dischargers are you listening?) To prevent boaters from flushing raw sewage in congested areas, Congress is considering raising fines and offering law-enforcement incentives.

In marinas and other docking facilities, this is what you should look for to relieve your boat's holding tank.
In case you are wondering, the marine dumping regulations have not been altered. Boaters are still permitted to pump out treated and untreated In case waste three miles or more offshore, in deep, open waters. Each state has control of its own discharge standards. A state can have all or a portion of its waters designated as "no-discharge" areas, as long as it can show cause, and as long as pumpout or dumping facilities are available to boaters.

Of course the obvious way to prevent a sewage disposal problem is not to create one. When your boat is tied alongside a dock or wharf, encourage your crew to use the onshore head facilities like the restrooms at a nearby restaurant. And all boaters should consider equipping their boats with an appropriate waste-handling system. If your boat has an installed toilet, you are required to have a certified MSD. For boats that have portable toilets, sewage must be disposed of at a pumpout facility or dump station. There are three principal types of Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD):

  • Type I Flow-thru devices for boats 65 feet or less. These use maceration and disinfection.
  • Type II Flow-thru devices for vessels 65 feet and larger use maceration and stricter disinfecting.
  • Type III holding tanks are for boats of any length. These are intended to prevent overboard discharge where unlawful.

Once you've found a pumpout station or boat, getting the waste out of your holding tank is simple if you haven't over-filled it.

If you plan to cruise in "no-discharge" areas, you’ll need a holding tank (or a portable potty) so you can save your sewage for disposal ashore. The most versatile system for cruisers is a Type III equipped with a Y-valve, which provides the option of pumping overboard, to a holding tank, or to a deck pumpout fitting. Make sure you can identify the closed position, so you are not inadvertently spewing out raw sewage. My experience in the Caribbean has been that some charter companies still supply boats without holding tanks for inter-island cruising. Although the theory is that everything will wash out to Never-Never Land, I would be wary of going for a morning swim in these beautiful harbors unless all hands are on deck.

Catalogs and shelves are clogged with products that promise to destroy head odors as well as disinfect and break down solid waste. Some devices or additives work via the toilet intake line; some are simply poured into the bowl; and others are cycled through an inline sewage treatment device. Controlling head odor is a constant struggle on many boats. Much of it is caused by bacteria. Seawater used for flushing contains microorganisms that stagnate and die a smelly death when left to rest, and these deposit calcium crystals that snag outgoing waste. You will need to experiment to find the combination of products that works for you. It's important to continually treat and disinfect the head, even when you're hundreds of miles offshore.

Plan Ahead    You can usually tell when a tank is crying to be emptied, because it will become insistently odiferous and, as pressure builds, will resist being pumped and flushed. For heaven’s sake don’t let your holding tank get constipated! Federal regulations deem that holding tanks have a means of indicating when the tank is three-quarters full. A tank level monitoring gauge prompts a red "panic" light to glow; or, if your holding tank is translucent plastic, you might be able to determine its fill level by simply viewing it’s contents.

Before the state of Connecticut set up a roving pumpout service for our local waters, those of us who spent time at the dock had few options. If we were patient, we could hire an independent pumpout service, but most often we waited until our head was near bursting to take the ride of shame—a trip offshore to dump, and back. With pumpout service just a hand wave or radio call away, there’s no longer a reason to put off pumping out. We’re happy, and our head’s a happy crapper too.

Heading for Cleaner Water

Sailors everywhere need to be aware of their responsibilities as users of the planet's waterways and oceans, and being apprised of the laws governing waste disposal makes for a good start. The year 1998 was designated the International Year of the Ocean, a program that prompted the reauthorization of existing legislation and laid the groundwork for new regulations and programs. Here's a partial list:

  • The reauthorization of the 1990 Clean Vessel Act/Pumpout Grant Program stipulates that state funding be provided for private or municipal marinas to build Pumpout Stations and Dump Stations. In Connecticut, funding for this program comes from consumer purchases of fishing supplies and motorboat fuel. Participating marinas may be reimbursed for up to 75 percent of their costs, but may charge no more than $5.00 for Pumpout Service.
  • According to the Vessel Sewage Discharge Program, a state can have all or portions of its waters designated as "no-discharge zones" for vessel sewage to protect aquatic habitats where pumpout facilities are available, to preserve special aquatic habitats or species; and to safeguard human health by protecting drinking water intake zones.
  • The Clean Water Act was adopted to protect human health and the aquatic environment from disease-causing microorganisms, which may be present in sewage from boats
  • The Beaches Environmental Assessment, Cleanup, and Heath Act of 2000 established protective health criteria for marine recreational waters. It includes comprehensive state beach water monitoring and notification programs.
  • The 1990 Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments strengthen the links between the Federal and Coastal Zone Management and water-quality programs to enhance management of land-use activities that degrade coastal waters and habitats.
  • The 1987 Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) prohibits disposal of plastics at sea, and sets garbage-dumping restrictions. Vessels 26 feet or longer must display a placard detailing these.

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