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Mr. Hands-on Sailor meets his destiny; pass the bleach

2009 October 1
It's time."

That was me on the phone to my son.

"OK, I'll be there as soon as I get a hazmat suit and gas mask."

That was my son making a joke. We both thought it was really funny. Little did we know.

Let me interrupt this narrative for a confession: I have never had to deal with a clogged head. In all my years of sailing, on owned, chartered and borrowed boats too numerous to count without a calculator, I have never faced the ultimate challenge of boat husbandry. Until now.

Now I have to face it. As Mr. Hands-on Sailor, I have no choice. I've boasted on this page of being willing and able to take on every manner of onboard project, from scrubbing the bottom of the keel in scuba gear to adjusting the wind wand at the top of the mast from a bosun's chair, all to better savor the rewarding diversity of the sailing experience. I can't not do this.

It's not just being faithful to the do-it-yourself ethic. There is pressure to perform from other sources.
For one thing, I couldn't bring myself to ask another amateur to do this. Out of humanitarian sensitivity, of course, and not fear of a lawsuit should mental or physical injury or death occur. For the record, my son volunteered for this mission with no encouragement or coercion or a single mention of his inheritance.
And as for putting the problem in the hands of professional boat maintenance workers, well, I wasn't born yesterday. Boatyards have hourly rates for various services, but I know there has to be a special unpublished rate for head declogging. Like the job itself, it can't be pretty.

None of this means I couldn't try to avoid the date with destiny that was casting a pall over my future like an appointment for a root canal. So for advice on an easy way out I turned to the Internet, which once again proved itself to be a whiz-bang electronic repository of useless information. A surefire way to clear a blocked marine head system, one apparently serious posting advised, was to put two tablespoons of dish detergent in the bowl, wait 15 minutes and flush. Another said the problem could be solved 99 percent of the time with a common household plunger.

I am embarrassed to say I tried both of these cockamamie ideas. Desperate men do desperate things.
Now, I did seek the counsel of friends who are veterans of the head wars. I found that most were reluctant to talk about their ghastly experiences or revel in any glory over hard-won victories. One, however, did offer a piece of advice that proved to be invaluable. Use a sacrificial wet vac, he said. By that he meant employ a wet/dry vacuum to slurp up whatever escapes from the system during the procedure-then throw it (the wet/vac) away.

And so, we armed ourselves with a doomed wet vac, rubber gloves, various tools including a heat gun and a hacksaw, and two gallons of bleach. (The last item was meant to sterilize tools, the bilge, anything that needed it after the procedure, but at one point we considered gargling it.) Then we bearded the dragon in its den. The den was the ludicrously small cabinet into which most of the head works were stuffed.

This being a family magazine, I won't get into gory details, except to say that when there is a blockage in head plumbing the contents of the hoses are under pressure. I'll let readers draw their own conclusions about what happens when a hose is detached from a connection point. And a further observation: Detective novels that have a squeamish character rubbing Vicks VapoRub under his or her nose before entering an autopsy theater at the morgue offer valuable insights into the olfactory challenges of head declogging.

On the plus side, the project came with a ready scapegoat. In a situation this nasty, it's important to have someone to blame. You can only curse for so long at an inanimate object. This needs to be personal. The blockage occurred during a race with 12 people on board. I have my suspicions, but I couldn't pin the blame on anyone with enough certainty to apply the appropriate penalty-an offer-you-can't-refuse type invitation to the perpetrator to participate in the repair. But a proper culprit became evident the minute we started the project: the boatbuilder.

The head system had obviously been assembled in place and then the boat was built around the Rube Goldbergesque labyrinth of hoses, with their tortured bends and all but inaccessible connections, as though this plumber's nightmare would never have to be serviced. Getting at the joints and connections requires putting one's head into the aforementioned cabinet that has at best two square feet of volume. I fantasize about kidnapping the person responsible for this arrangement in a CIA-style rendition and thrusting his head into that cabinet until he repents.

I wish I could segue gracefully into a happy ending here, but as this is written the project is still ongoing. After two sessions, the source of the problem has not been reached. While planning a third foray, I recalled there was one bit of advice that turned up in our Internet search that seemed flippant at the time but in retrospect, with my new understanding of the problem, may actually have some merit. On one of the forums devoted to head maintenance, a fellow wrote that if he ever had to unclog a head again he would do it wearing only his underwear.

It's that or hazmat suits for us.