I've Got to Fix What?
It was a hot, crystal-clear July evening when my wife, Sue, and I doused the sails on our Sabre 34 and motored into Oak Bluffs, on Martha's Vineyard, picked up a mooring, and got the dinghy ready to go and retrieve our two daughters, who were arriving on the ferry. As an afterthought before heading to shore, I went below into the head and reached into the small cabinet in the vanity to turn the diverter valve over to make sure we didn't inadvertently pump anything into the harbor. The handle seemed a little stiff. In fact, the next thing I knew, it came off in my hand with a snap of Marelon. There was a nub still there, though, so I grabbed my needle-nose Vise-Grips, latched on, and gave it a good twist. There was another snap, and darned if the valve didn't start to drip. Nothing big, mind you, but nothing I could ignore, either.
Armed with a flashlight, I stood by and gave the drip a few minutes to dry up or get worse. Thankfully, it chose the former, and I concluded that if we relied on shore facilities for the next few days, we could weather this crisis and make it home to the mooring in Tiverton, Rhode Island.
I live on my boat just about full time, and the thought of doing so without a head was unpleasant enough to outweigh my inclination to forget the broken and occasionally dripping valve. So once the family trip was done, I had at it. The first chore was getting the old one out. The folks at Sabre build a heck of a nice boat, but after even a short time spent plumbing, you get the idea that the guys who designed and built them didn't necessarily have to fix them, at least not back in 1978.
On my knees, with my cheek resting comfortably on the commode, I was able to get just one arm into the cabinet under the sink to yank the old valve back and forth in the hopes of working it free. I won't say this three-way connection of hoses came apart easily. In fact, after tugging away for a seeming eternity, I took a breather and noticed that my forearm looked as though I'd tried to extract a chicken bone from the throat of a badger, thanks to the sharp ends of all the doubled-up hose clamps in close proximity. Were I to start this job again, I'd either wear a long-sleeved shirt of heavyweight material or tape over the ends of the clamps with rigging tape, both of which I did before continuing.
Soon enough, I managed to pull the hoses off one by one, and as each came free, it did so with a shower of a crystalline substance about the consistency of maple sugar candy. It didn't smell nearly as good, however, and were I doing it again, I'd probably try to rig some sort of bag under or around the work area to cut down on the cleanup later.
With the old valve in hand, I quickly diagnosed the problem: Despite the fact that I gave the system a good flush each season with vinegar, scale had built up over the years to the point where the valve and hoses were all but completely blocked. This, I surmised, might account for the odors that the women in the family oft mentioned when aboard.
My first instinct was to simply install a new valve and worry about the hoses later. Fortunately, though, because I was on a mooring and lacked shore power, there was no way to heat the hoses to make them more flexible. So, though I tried lubing things up with dish soap, the pieces wouldn't go back together, and I was forced to call it quits for the night. This gave me time to come to my senses.
Some of the sailors who've heard this story have reported similar blockages on their older boats. They've even admitted to taking off their hoses and beating them to clean them out and thereby avoid buying new ones. At a couple of bucks per foot, though, I figured I'd be a big spender and spring for the 3 feet of white sanitary hose I'd need to do the job right. I also figured I'd wait until I could pull in to a dock. Using a heat gun would make it a breeze to remove the remaining old hoses and install the new ones. In the meantime, I wrapped heavy freezer bags around open fittings and used duct tape to seal them up. This eliminated any odors and the chance for spills.