Cruising life: what do boat kids learn while fixing marine toilets?

We have lived on SV Aphrodite for a year. Our oldest kids are Betty, age 10, and Paul, age 8. Initially, I wasn’t convinced that fixing the heads was an appropriate task for them. I could see the value in learning to bake bread or to raise the sails, but fixing a toilet?

On this point my husband, Rick, and I did not agree. Rick felt that our eldest children were capable of the task while I fixated on the gross-out factor, the abundance of screws and leaks. And, let’s be honest, the amount of involvement from me – their Mom – who also didn’t want to fix the toilets.

Yet, toilet repair on our boat was getting out of control. Toilets were failing faster than we could fix them and Rick was pulling out his hair in frustration. I was in no mood to repair toilets having just recovered from the emotional trauma of cleaning toilet parts with a Q-tip and muriatic acid. You can read more about that in my recent blog post called, “Cruising, culture shock and questioning Why?“.

But, boat ownership requires self-reliance. We have four toilets on our catamaran – one for every cabin. It seems that almost every week, our kids are breaking toilets with hair elastics, and small toys. The number of toilets, which seemed excessive to me at first, now seems perfect for our need for failure redundancy.

For example, in a span of a few months, Lego and marbles broke three impellers. This week, the front starboard and port heads were brought-down by a pencil sharpener and a worn-out pump, respectively. That left us without a working toilet.

Faced without a toilet, Betty and Paul were given the task of fixing both forward heads. Initially, they were not happy. The task took two days.

Two days. Two kids fixing two marine toilets.
What could go wrong?

While fixing the first toilet, Paul was accidentally sprayed in the face with seawater squirting through a leaking seal. He will have memories of that to last a lifetime. But, generally the process went well. Beyond the practical task of fixing a toilet our kids learned skills like teamwork, attention to detail, and responsibility.

Here is a schematic of our Jabsco toilet.

Jabsco Quiet-Flush toilet (Model 37245- series) schematic

At a high-level, fixing one of our toilets involves:

  • cleaning the toilet thoroughly,
  • unbolting the toilet from the formed based on the floor/sole,
  • removing hoses if they interfere with access to the macerator pump,
  • twisting the entire assembly to expose the screws attaching the macerator pump,
  • carefully removing the macerator pump, impellers and internal housing,
  • carefully retrieving and re-using the o-ring seal around the macerator pump,
  • reversing the process to re-assemble the toilet,
  • testing the completed assembly – if leaks are found then disassemble and try again,
  • if no leaks are found then re-attach the toilet to its base,
  • cleaning, drying/oiling and putting tools away, and
  • leaving the work area clean and tidy

On the first day, Betty and Paul fixed the front starboard head. They argued, negotiated, and compromised.

Day 1: Betty and Paul fix the front starboard head.

Fixing the toilet meant that our kids had to learn how to use and care for various tools and hardware including lock washers, nuts and bolts, heat guns, screw drivers, ratchets and sockets and hose clamp drivers.

Our kids dropped and retrieved washers from the bilge on more than one occasion. Here is a picture of Paul in the front starboard bilge.

Paul looking for a washer that had been accidentally dropped in the bilge.

With the satisfaction of the first toilet being complete, Betty and Paul started the second day facing down the front port head. They acted with precision and organization. Look at the way that they arranged their tools and hardware.

Day 2: Paul and Betty lay out the hardware and tools needed to fix the front port head.

Toilet repair requires being meticulous. Inevitably, the o-ring seal around the macerator has to be well-seated and tight with no leaks. If there are leaks, the entire toilet-removal process must be repeated. We have found that putting a bit of Teff Gel around the o-ring helps; though that is not the intended purpose of Teff-Gel.

By mid afternoon on the second day the toilets were fixed. We’re badly short of toilet spares and will have to restock when we get Puerto Rico. But, our kids have the satisfaction of providing our family with two working toilets aboard SV Aphrodite.

Here is Paul with a spare toilet motor, which has to last us until we reach Puerto Rico. He was so pleased to have a solution to fix the toilet.

The activity bolstered their confidence. And, I’m now a convert. It seems that fixing a toilet is much more than understanding the nuts and bolts. There are many skills to learn. And, as a bonus, our kids are likely to be more careful with their toys around the toilets.


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