My first job offshore involved urine, and lots of it. I wish I could say that I was the lab technician who flies out occasionally to collect random drug-test samples, but I was not. I was an assistant ballast-control operator, meaning that my job was to do nearly anything except assist the ballast-control operator. Really. I had been aboard that particular rig for at least six months before I was introduced to the ballast-control panel. Back to the urine.
There was a fan room, maybe twice the size of a walk-in closet, that was one deck beneath a gang head, a term that sounds inherently naughty, now that I write it. A gang head, in nautical parlance, is simply a restroom with multiple facilities. This one’s urinals were finicky. I’m admittedly anthropomorphizing, but unless you’ve been intimate with a toilet (hugging one for a night when you’re down with fever doesn’t count) you probably don’t know that these things have souls. Cruel, porcelain souls.
In the fan room was a holding tank into which the urinals drained by gravity. Once the holding tank was full, a float-switch opened a wee valve that allowed all the tank’s contents to be evacuated at great velocity by a central vacuum unit. Trouble was, there was a bad gasket on the downstream side, and for the three days before my arrival on that rig the evacuation was taking place into the fan room and not down the pipe to the central sanitary unit. I was issued a pair of size-10 boots (my feet are size 13), a bucket, and a dustpan. FYI: Three-inch-deep urine takes nine hours to remove when bailed with a dustpan.
I could take that story and run with it, regaling you with a ghastly collection of plumbing stories that took place as I became more and more involved with that rig’s failing, perforated piping. I especially cherish a photograph that I took of one of my co-workers after he tried to clear a toilet of its clog with the use of 150-psi compressed air. He jammed the hose down the clean-out vent and sealed it with his hands. I was in the adjoining compartment on the other, smarter end of the hose. When I gave the valve a quick open-shut, I heard a yelp and an abrupt squelching noise. I peered around the corner to find the entire bathroom shellacked with raw sewage. Rather than being blasted down into the main vacuum line, it had rebelled and taken the path of least resistance up through the bowl where it saw its chance for freedom. Unfortunately, Bill’s face and upper body were in the way. I delicately pushed Bill into the shower stall with one fingertip, which I later considered cutting off. I turned the water on him, clothes and all, and went to get him a clean set of coveralls and a towel. And my camera.
Last Saturday, then, after a somewhat lateral but mostly upward rise in rank on a few different vessels, I was bemused to find myself gazing down the maw of one of the most impressive sanitary systems I have ever smelled. My cabin has its own little bathroom, and over the past month or two I’ve noticed tiny but pungent bursts of a smell that can only be described as septic in nature.
Investigation of this is a job that one tries not to simply delegate to another department without some meet-you-halfway concessions, so I asked one of the engineers for his help. All I wanted was to make sure the vent was working and also to check the condition of the extraction fan; I was willing to do what needed to be done if he’d just aim me in the right direction. Aaron met me after lunch and we opened the access door to the space behind the shower and toilet. He jammed his nose right up to the vent to the main line and took a good honk.
“Whoof!” he said. “Check that out!”
Now, I admire a good stench as much as the next guy, and I didn’t want him to think that I couldn’t keep up, but I have paid my dookie dues elsewhere and the allure of fresh sewage has worn thin. I therefore faked taking a whiff and nodded my head eagerly that, yes, that was truly the scent of a powerful sanitary system with what was, we discovered, a stuck flapper valve. The odors, therefore, weren’t being drawn away into the bowels of the system, but were instead collecting in the top of the pipe and in that small space behind the bathroom. This would explain the smell, and with one quick twiddle of the flap we resniffed (I honestly did, this time) and found the smell already to be dissipating.
I sent an unsullied Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition down to the engine room today for their troubles. Aaron had already gone home on leave, but it’s good to have allies. Especially when it comes to poop.