I've got to Fix What?

If the smell doesn't get you first, the broken valve will; so to the head you go bolstered by these tips. Mark Pillsbury reports from "Hands-On Sailor" in our January 2008 issue

FixingWhat

Nothing, of course, ever breaks down on a sailboat, But if it should, and even if you can bring two hands to bear on the repair, don¿t count on being able to see what you¿re doing.Shannon Tumino

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.

Back Together Again
The trick to working with multipurpose vinyl hose, the thick-walled kind normally used for sanitary purposes, is to heat it up before trying to connect it to a valve or a through-hull. Putting the end of the hose into a pot of boiling water will do the trick, but it's not practical if you're using existing hoses or if the new ones have to be run through a bulkhead or other tight area.

Instead, I use a heat gun I bought for stripping paint. With the gun turned on high, 30 or 40 seconds will soften up a hose so it's workable for about the same length of time. Using the heat also means the tubing will shrink slightly as it cools, ensuring a tight fit once you've applied a hose clamp or two. Due to the open flame, you wouldn't want to try this with a torch.

When measuring new hose, be sure to add enough so that it will cover fittings on either end. Also make sure your hose is long enough so that it bends without kinking.

If you're working in a tight space, such as the inside of the vanity on my boat, look for the hardest-to-reach connection and make that one first, then work your way out. It may also help to disconnect and remove nearby hoses that may be in the way. This will add a bit of time up front, but in the long run, it'll save lots of cursing and dropped tools. Because I could only get one hand inside much of the space, and often, it seems, you need two to push a hose and a fitting together, I found a few other tricks that helped on this little project. For instance, by locating fittings close to bulkheads or other structural pieces, you can use the latter as something against which to push. When you're replacing a hose clamp (or putting one on after the connection has been made), you can use a piece of duct tape to hold it in place until the clamp's tight enough for friction to keep it from spinning on the hose. And remember: The heat gun is hot! Make sure you put it down someplace where it can't fall over and where you won't rub your hand or arm against the nozzle. As with most chores on a boat, the best bet is to have a helper who can take the gun from you and hand you the tools you need while the hose is still hot enough to work with. Finally, forget the cheap latex gloves you might use for painting or light cleaning. If you want to avoid a truly hands-on experience with your sanitation system, pick up a pair of heavy kitchen gloves that won't tear the first time they meet a hose clamp.

Mark Pillsbury is Cruising World's senior editor.