Ziploc Seamanship

By Tom Neale, 2/8/2007


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Calcium buildup, a common cause for stoppage
If I had done what I’m about to tell you about, I don’t think I’d ever admit it, although I admit I do have a habit of admitting much too much for my own good. So, for starters, I want you to know that I didn’t do this. A friend did. And I’m not about to mention his name or his boat’s name because I want him to remain my friend. As is true with many good boat stories, the whole adventure started out with a stopped up head.

I know you’ve been there. All you want to do is to have a nice day on your boat and someone comes up from below and says, “You know? The head just won’t flush. I pumped really hard but all it did was kinda burp—right back into my face.” Every once in a while this happens while you’re using it, but usually it happens with a guest. And it may be politically incorrect to say so, but as bad as the situation is anyway, it’s always worse when it involves somebody else.

The first thing that comes to mind (at least to my mind) is dynamite. It’s generally what I want to use when the head gets stopped up. But I know that various governmental agencies (not to mention my insurance company) would frown on that sort of thing, so I don’t even think about it after that first split second or two. I just resolve myself to digging in and solving the problem. There are various ways to do this. One is to hire someone, but most boat workers aren’t eager for this type of work and charge dearly for privilege of doing the job. Knowing about how your head works and about your boat’s plumbing definitely helps. But often, ingenuity saves the day.

About Through Hulls

1. Don’t do this at home, or anywhere else.

2. It helps to hire a diver (or do it yourself if you can safely do so) to occasionally inspect your through hulls from the outside. Sea creatures such as barnacles and mussels and clams can grow in there more quickly than you think.

My friend had a “stoppage” which was clearly in the discharge line. The pump mechanism would work if he cut off the incoming water so he was pretty sure about the general location. He decided that he had to remove the hose, part by part, until he found the exact location of the “stoppage.” Being a thoroughly careful fellow, he first knew that he had to close his through hull valve. Imagine his delight and overwhelming Joy when he found that it wouldn’t close. Quickly and easily he’d found the location of the problem. All he had to do was pull the hose off the hose barb of the through hull and he could remove the offending material. But then what? You’re talking about some serious flooding when you do that, unless the boat is hauled. Not only is it serious flooding, but it’s unpleasant flooding—not that any flooding is particularly fun, but this type is over the top when it comes to not being fun.

He couldn’t get hauled out to fix the problem. Not only did he not want to spend that much money, he couldn’t have anyway because he was offshore where there were no such facilities, which, as you’ve probably already figured out, is why he had this problem in the through hull anyway.

He thought and thought. Many of us would have jumped over with a screw driver and started jabbing from the outside. But my friend isn’t much of a swimmer, particularly way out in the ocean. Finally, finding no other solution, he resolved himself to suffer the inevitable and pull the hose off the barb. He armed himself with towels and rags and buckets, covered the path from the head to the companionway with more towels, and left a bottle of joy on the deck beside the boarding ladder, which he hung over in order to be able to hang onto and clamber back aboard after a thorough bath in the sea.

He then closed his eyes and mouth, turned his head to the side, and carefully pulled the hose off the through hull barb. No water came into the boat. Nothing at all came into the boat. But the joy was short lived. He realized that this was a REAL blockage and he still had to remove it. But you see the dilemma. What to do next? He considered reaming it out with a screw driver, but he couldn’t get enthusiastic enough about the inevitable resulting flood of success.

Instead, he came up with a classic cruiser’s ingenuity plan. He got a large heavy duty Ziploc bag and lots of wire ties. He then carefully inserted a screw driver partly into the through hull barb, being cautious not to wiggle it and cause a premature freeing of the material. He next covered the end of the barb and the screw driver with the bag and tightly sealed it around the barb with triple wire ties. (He considered also using caulking under the bag for a better seal, but felt the first signs of panic creeping over him and just wanted to get on with the show.) He liberally spread towels about in case his theory didn’t work well. He grabbed the screw driver through the bag and used it to ream out the hole.

Tools friend used for unstopping stoppage
Upon success water and “material” immediately flooded into the bag, but only small amounts dribbled out around the Ziploc wire tied seal, and the towels handled that. And then he was able to close the valve, which he did with great dispatch. From that point it was a piece of cake to remove the Ziploc with its offending contents and return the hose to the barb.

If this had been me, and probably if it had been you, it probably wouldn’t have turned out quite so well. First of all, we wouldn’t have thought of the plan. (Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have.) Secondly, even if we’d thought of it, we probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to execute the plan. Thirdly, most of us would have assumed that the valve wouldn’t close because it was frozen with a type of calcium build up of deposit that blocks most through hulls if you don’t maintain them well and work them regularly. But my friend was a fastidious fellow and always did the proper thing. This included regularly working his through hulls. Therefore he knew that the reason the valve wasn’t closing was “stoppage,” not calcium buildup. Therefore he could successfully diagnose the location of the stoppage and fashion the remedy. I should not that I can’t guarantee total accuracy of all details, because, fortunately, I wasn’t there at the time and absence and beer during the telling make good stories better. But I’m told that this was generally what happened.

There are two morals to the story. Or at least, two that I want to mention. One is that it always helps to do the right thing such as regular maintenance of your through hulls. The other is that ingenuity pays—if it doesn’t kill you first.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale