Tuesday, July 19, 2016
On Women, Boats and Plumbing
Although the details of boat plumbing systems vary, all but the simplest ones share two significant commonalities: all of them break from time to time, and when they do repairing them involves the use of significant amounts of foul language while groping around in a cramped locker full of hoses cutting up one’s forearms on the sharp ends of hose clamps. Boat plumbing systems are virtually never designed with ease of maintenance in mind; mostly they are an afterthought, not so much engineered as crammed together in any space that’s available. A very common problem is that working on them requires the use of tools—screwdrivers, channel locks, sockets with ratchets—but there is no room to wield these tools in the normal manner, and just about every operation requires one to become a contortionist. Another common problem is lack of space for both the arm (with which to work on things) and the head (with which to look at what you are doing), meaning that much of the work has to do be done “by Braille.”
Boat plumbing is also a topic that brings out gender differences in stark relief. There is no shortage of men living quite happily aboard boats with minimal plumbing systems. They drink from a water battle, and sanitary arrangements consist of a “relief bottle” (what is done with its contents is rarely discussed). They shower ashore, at the marina or the gym, they eat out a lot, and all they really care about is having a place to sit, a bed to sleep in and a cooler for the beer. They may entertain female visitors on board, but if the accommodations are sufficiently spartan virtually none of the women volunteer to move aboard and see it as a sort of survivalist camping trip—interesting, perhaps, but unappealing for the long term. Sometimes this is by design. There is an abiding superstition among sailors that having women (and priests) on board brings bad luck. But there are also plenty of men, and women, who would like to live aboard as families, children included—provided the accommodations include a good plumbing system that provides hot and cold running water in the galley and the heads.
Very importantly, the plumbing system has to actually work. Since the system is on a boat, one naturally expects it to break on a semi-regular basis (a boat being a hole in the water you throw money into and all that) and when it does break, this tends to seriously disrupt domestic tranquility. This is because fixing the plumbing is, more often than not, considered “men’s work.” It is dangerous to generalize, and there are some exceptionally handy women, but there is also a preponderance of anecdotal evidence that the vast majority of women who live aboard boats limit their participation in dealing with plumbing issues to making announcements and asking questions.
The announcements can be quite emphatic, ranging from “There is no water!” or “There is salt water coming out of the tap!” to “I am going to the gym, because I want to take a normal shower!” and “I can’t stand this any more!” The questions can be quite challenging as well: “Why is the plumbing breaking down all the time?”, “Why can’t it be made to work reliably?” and “Why can’t we live like normal people?” As you may rightly surmise, plumbing emergencies occupy a spot at the top of the list of things that negatively affect domestic tranquility among liveaboard couples.
When an onboard plumbing emergency arises, the male part of the seasteading team takes out the tools, plunges his hands into a cramped locker filled with a tangle of hoses, promptly cuts himself on a hose clamp and starts using foul language. He would much rather work on something—anything—else, but he knows that if he can’t fix the plumbing problem quickly and definitively, his stock will plummet in value. Now, fixing the problem is generally quite possible—plumbing isn’t exactly brain surgery—but there are several adverse factors:
1. Most men aren’t plumbers and don’t quite know what they are doing.
2. Boat plumbing systems are weird and challenging even to natural born plumbers.
3. If you are on a boat, calling a plumber is an even more expensive option than it is on dry land.
4. If you need to replace something, you quickly find that “marine” replacement parts are at least twice as expensive as regular replacement parts simply because the word “marine” appears somewhere on the package.
But with QUIDNON things are going to be different, and in a good way, because the design of its plumbing system explicitly addresses these questions and concerns. All of the controls are laid out in a way that makes sense and makes them easily accessible. Schematic diagrams, diagnostic procedures and work-arounds for most common and even some uncommon problems make it easier to make repairs when something goes wrong.
The first two problems to address are the ones of cost and of the need for expert knowledge of plumbing. The solution is the same for both: use ¾-inch garden hose throughout: green hose for raw water, white hose for potable water, red (industrial) hose for hot water. Most men (in the US and Canada) can handle tasks associated with lawn care; lawn care involves the use of garden hoses; ergo, most men know how to screw together and fix garden hoses. You cut a specific length of hose that you look up on a chart, you slide on the ends of the appropriate gender onto each end, and you tighten them with channel locks. You make sure that the female end has a rubber gasket in it. Then you snake it into place and screw in the ends, by hand.
The garden hose-based solution is by far the cheapest, and the spare parts are very easy to come by: the gardening section of any hardware store is likely to stock all of them, while the plumbing section will provide the faucets and the shower head (no need for specialty “marine” parts). What’s more, people are always throwing away hose as soon as they get a single puncture in them, and so you can pick up all the spare hose you could ever need simply by making a habit of strolling past the marina dumpster. There are a few unusual items: a pressure reducer (the boat works at 15 PSI, not at “house pressure,” which can be anything), two demand pumps that run on 12V, an electric water heater and some additional odds and ends. These need not be “marine” either: any RV (recreational vehicle) supply place is likely to have all of them in stock.
Next is the problem of layout. On QUIDNON, the various valves are not located deep inside some locker but laid out sensibly between the three bottom steps of the companionway ladder, right above the slide-out shoe drawer. On every other boat I’ve looked at the companionway ladder is just a ladder, but QUIDNON is different: every item does several jobs. And so QUIDNON’s companionway ladder is at once a ladder, a shoebox, a plumbing control panel, an electrical control panel for both AC and DC circuits, a locker for boat documents, a locker for flares, handheld VHF radios and other emergency signaling equipment, and a firearms locker big enough to hold a shotgun, a rifle, a Glock and their assorted ammo. (If you don’t like guns, you can use it as a wine rack.) Here’s what the plumbing control panel looks like. Those little green valves are $2.49 each at Target, but I am hopeful that a quantity discount can be obtained.
Next is the problem of having plenty of freshwater on board, for those members of the crew who would never consider just shaving their heads and use shampoo and conditioner, and may even lather, rinse and repeat. The simplest solution is to live at the dock and to hook up a hose to the shore water system at the marina. In the north there is usually a summer water system and a separate winter water system with hoses run underwater and wrapped in electrical heating tape and insulation between the water and the boat. Further south there are no winter water systems and when there is a cold spell the water is simply shut off “until further notice.” Winter water systems sometimes freeze and get shut off “until further notice” anyway, and then everybody has to wash and shower at the marina bathroom, which gets crowded, causing tempers to fray. The solution, of course, is to have plentiful on-board water, which can be periodically replenished by pulling up to a fuel dock to fill the tanks. QUIDNON’s water tanks double as ballast—5 tons of it, or 1300 gallons—so there will be plenty of water on board. But it eventually runs out anyway, in which case you need to do the following:
• Dock some place where there is a water hose available (such as a fuel dock)
• Attach the water hose to the water intake
• Turn off raw water pump
• Open the raw water drain valves (to make room for fresh water)
• Program the DigiFlow 8000T water meter ($36.98 well spent) to count down from 1300 gallons
• Open the shore water intake valve
• Wait until the water meter starts beeping
• Close shore water intake valve
• Close raw water drain valves
• Program the DigiFlow 8000T to count down from 1000 gallons, so that it beeps when it’s time to start thinking about filling the tanks again
• Turn raw water pump back on
This is all simple so far, but now it gets a bit more complicated. Since the water tanks double as ballast, they have to always be kept full. This is accomplished by storing the fresh water inside a bladder that’s floating in salt water pumped in from overboard. When you turn on a tap, the raw water pump starts squirting salt water into the tank, squeezing fresh water out of the bladder and out of the tap. But what happens if QUIDNON is drying out on a sand bank or a beach at low tide (a fun thing to do with a ruggedly built flat-bottom boat) and salt water isn’t available? Now it gets complicated! You need to do several things, ideally before the raw water pump starts sucking air, and they may sound technical and complicated, but they really aren’t.
• Turn off raw water pump
• Close bypass valve
• Open both vent valves
• Turn on fresh water pump
Turning off raw water pump is an obvious thing to do; water pumps don’t pump air, and when you are drying out there is no raw water available. The bypass valve allows fresh water to flow around the fresh water pump when the pressure is supplied by the raw water pump, but since we will be using the fresh water pump, we need to close it. The vent valves need to be open to let air into the tanks as water is pumped out of them to avoid vapor lock. Turning on the fresh water pump is also an obvious thing to do.
Now, suppose you like living on the beach so much that you decide to stay, haul QUIDNON some distance away from the surf into the shadow of some coconut palms, and use it as a beach house. To do this, you walk the anchor to the shore, bury it, and then use the anchor winch to roll QUIDNON onto the shore over some logs. But while you are doing this you don’t want to be hauling five tons of water; you want the boat to be as light as possible. (You’ll deal with stocking up on freshwater later.) How do you do that? Here’s the step-by-step procedure, which starts where the previous procedure left off:
• Shut off fresh water pump
• Open all 4 drain valves
• Wait for water to dribble out
Bored of living on the beach and want to be sailing again? Once QUIDNON is afloat again, it’s time to fill the tanks with salt water:
• Make sure all drain valves are closed and both vent valves are open
• Open bypass valve
• Turn on salt water pump
• After pump stops running, close both vent valves
Bladders don’t last forever and although many years may pass uneventfully, eventually you will hear the words “There is salt water coming out of the tap!” What do you do? First, you isolate the problem. Run the tap, close the port fresh water tank valve and have a taste. Problem fixed? Then it’s the port tank bladder that’s leaking. There is nothing more that you have to do immediately. Is water still salty? Then it’s the starboard tank bladder that’s leaking. Open the port freshwater tank valve, close the starboard freshwater tank valve, and confirm that the water is no longer salty. Inform your partner that the problem is fixed (for now).
Now, to really deal with the problem you have to replace the leaky bladder. First, you have to drain the tank. For the bad tank:
• Open vent valve
• Close raw water tank valve (fresh water tank valve is already closed)
• Open both fresh and salt water drain valves
Once the tank is drained, find the access plate. It’s a round piece of plywood bolted onto the back wall of the tank, held in place by six ¼-inch bolts arranged in a circle with a rubber gasket sandwiched in between. The port access plate is in the shower stall in the heads; the starboard one is under a cabinet in the galley. Empty the cabinet and put something underneath the plate to catch any water. There is a hose attached to a threaded nipple that sticks out of the access plate. Unscrew the hose, undo the 6 bolts, remove the plate and pull out the bladder that’s attached to it. Undo the hose clamp securing the bladder to the nipple inside the plate and remove the bladder. Coat the nipple with caulk and slide on the new bladder. Install and tighten the hose clamp, but not all the way. Wait for the caulk to harden, then tighten the clamp the rest of the way. Gently stuff the bladder inside the tank, reinstall the access plate (a bit of vaseline on the gasket should help keep it watertight) and reattach the hose. Open raw water tank valve. Once the tank is full, close vent valve and open fresh water tank valve. This is probably the most complicated and delicate plumbing repair that QUIDNON could call for.
But what happens if the pumps stop working? You are off sailing, or living at anchor, and suddenly one of the batteries develops an internal short circuit, discharging the rest of the batteries. (You probably shouldn’t have kept the battery bank selector set to “both,” but it’s too late now.) “There is no water!”—nor is there anything else that requires electricity! You need to isolate the faulty battery, disconnect it from the bank, then start the motor using the emergency pull chord and run it until the remaining good batteries are charged. But that’s thirsty work, and how will you keep yourself from becoming dehydrated in the meantime? Easy: open the tank vents and use the foot pump in the galley. Filtered fresh water will come gushing out of the spigot. You still need to fix the electrical system before you drink up all of your ballast, but it’s not too huge of a hurry—unless somebody really needs to take a shower right there and then. Be sure to close the tank vents once the raw water pump starts running again and the tanks are full once again.
Finally, there is the worst-case scenario: you are sailing along and hit something hard and pointy—a floating shipping container or a coral head—and put a hole in QUIDNON’s bow. This is hard to do, because the bow is clad in tough copper sheets, a thick layer of fiberglass and an inch of plywood, but there is simply no arguing with sharp rocks. Water starts gushing in faster than the bilge pump can pump it out. Under these circumstances, most sailboats quickly disappear under the waves, leaving the crew treading water. But what about QUIDNON?
Well, here’s the procedure. Unless the problem is relatively trivial—something that can be fixed with an oil-soaked rag, a hammer and a screwdriver—do not immediately deal with the leak because there are more important things to do. First, stop the boat. Raise the motor to the top of its well. Anchor if the depth allows, otherwise just drift. Close the watertight doors to the aft cabins (first making sure there’s nobody inside them); they will be used as emergency flotation. There are also large slabs of foam lining the walls of the engine well; as is usual, they have two jobs: 1. insulate against engine noise, so that the aft cabins are nice and quiet; and 2. provide emergency flotation when the boat is swamped.
Now you need to “blow the tanks,” just as you would on a submarine. Find the emergency SCUBA tank (it’s in one of the aft cabinets in the galley, strapped to the bulkhead) and open the valve on it. Make sure the regulator is set to somewhere between 15 and 25 PSI. Now do the following:
• Close all tank valves
• Open all drain valves
• Make sure vent valves are closed
• Open air valves
• When you hear loud bubbling sounds coming from the engine well, close all drain valves and air valves. Close valve on SCUBA tank. Water tanks now provide 5 tons of additional flotation.
QUIDNON will now remain afloat while you effect repairs. When swamped, QUIDNON will sit low in the water, but it will not sink. The stuff that you don’t want to get wet should be stored in the aft cabins or on top of the water tanks.
The next step is to break out the emergency hull repair kit. It contains some canvas, a few pieces of plywood and MarineTex epoxy. Mix the epoxy, and use it to coat a piece of plywood large enough to cover the hole in the hull. Note that the plywood has kerfs (little slots) cut into one side, to make it bendy. When you put the plywood over the hole, the kerfs should face out, not in. Also coat a piece of canvas cut big enough to cover the entire area of the repair. Now go up on deck, dive overboard and apply first the plywood, then the canvas over it. Once the leak is stopped, start the motor (it may need to be partway up on its slide to keep the air intake above water) so that there is electricity for the bilge pump and wait for the water inside the cabin to be pumped out. Now fill the water tanks with seawater (to get your ballast back). Sail to some place where you can pick up some fresh water, then think about hauling out for more permanent repairs. The emergency repair needs to be ground off, the ragged hole cut out and replaced with fresh fiberglass and plywood, and the copper sheathing either hammered flat and reattached or replaced.
One last QUIDNON plumbing-related thing worth mentioning: there are three signal lights to tell you which of the three pumps is running, and three alarms, all wired up to a single bell, each with a silencer switch:
• Signal lights for raw water pump, fresh water pump and bilge pump
• Bilge high water alarm (means you have water coming in faster than the bilge pump can deal with it, or the bilge pump isn’t working)
• Starboard tank low water alarm
• Port tank low water alarm
The low water alarms are important because the tanks provide ballast, which is necessary for stability when sailing. Thus, when they aren’t full, this is something that the crew needs to know about. Of course, when the boat is drying out and the raw water pump isn’t running, the low water alarms are a bit of an annoyance, but they are there to remind you that you need to fill the tanks before you go sailing again. The silencer switches are important because in practice every alarm has a silencer, but if it isn’t a switch then it’s a mad person wielding a hammer or wire cutters, and that isn’t good for safety. Other signal lights are useful too. The bilge pump light tells you that water is getting into the boat from somewhere. If the raw water pump is running for no reason you could have a leak, a tap left open, a clogged strainer or you could be drying out at low tide. If the freshwater pump is running, you could have a leak, or out of freshwater, or maybe you left the bypass valve open by mistake, causing it to pump water in a circle.
To summarize, QUIDNON’s plumbing system will provide lots of tankage (you are unlikely to find another 36-foot boat with 1300-gallon tanks), all the usual amenities, plus a powerful safety feature that makes QUIDNON self-rescuing when holed and swamped. It achieves all of this functionality at minimal cost, thanks to the use of garden hose and fittings and RV instead of marine components. It is laid out in a way that makes it easy to work on. It is documented with schematics and troubleshooting procedures. And it will, I sincerely hope, prove to be conducive to preserving domestic tranquility.