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Tragedy on the Palm Coast
A Frightening Story Of Pumps and Men
March 2020

M
y wife, Julie, has aptly pointed out that I have been writing about “heavy” topics; mostly docking and boat fires. True. Last month’s boat fire topic was a real downer. So to contrast this month, perhaps a light hearted subject will provide some balance.

Here goes.

We were on our first cruise south and had been aboard our sailboat for many weeks. On the Intracoastal Waterway from St. Augustine, it was time to pump out our holding tank.

Yes, you guessed it. This is a pump out story. There are many. This is mine.

As you may know, sewage generated onboard a boat is held in a tank and pumped out at a marina. Our holding tank was full. It was time to visit a marina pump out facility. We decided to duck into a marina in Palm Coast, Florida.

Pump Out
Just so you know what a pumpout looks like – this is the picturesque pump out at Pecan Grove Marina. This is NOT where this story occurred.

I skillfully maneuvered our not-so-maneuverable sailboat up a narrow canal to our chosen marina. The awaiting dockhand saw us perform the 180 degree turn in the narrow canal and snug up against the pump out dock. He complimented our (my) proficiency and skillfulness. The unsolicited praise made my head swell. Immediately, the dockhand becomes my new best friend.

My error: I reward the dockhand with a large portion of professional courtesy that he had not earned. With my guard now lowered by compliments, my new best friend hands over the business end of the pump out hose.

I press the nozzle against our deck fitting and open the valve. Nothing. The hose was not sucking out anything. I closed and re-opened the valve without success. Then, the brilliant idea; the dockhand directs me to break the vacuum seal and re-seat the end of the hose back into our boat’s deck fitting.

I, very obediently and without thought, broke the seal on the apparatus.

Instantly, Old Faithful erupted from the deck pump out fitting. In a scene reminiscent of Yellowstone, the two-week-old contents of our holding tank geysered. The jet fountain of filth caught me square in the chest with collateral damage to my face and arms, knocking the hat off my head.

I confess to uttering some technical language as I removed the larger chunks of toilet tissue from my hair. You can imagine the stench. I did consider jumping off the boat. However, the water was cold and I feared retribution from the EPA.

Pump Out
A reasonable facsimile of Captain John’s experience.

To her credit, Julie did not laugh (although difficult). Instead, her immediate response was to quickly maneuver herself upwind of the disaster. She is always good in a crisis and will exercise the most logical course of action. In this case, upwind was definitely the logical action.

Julie’s only words were: “Well, I guess stuff happens.” (I didn’t find that amusing until later.) However, I am somewhat proud of myself: I did not vomit.

Julie later said it was the nastiest thing she’s seen (live) in her adult life. She made me strip down to my skivvies above deck. There was no way she was going to let me go below. My clothes went into a garbage bag and then to the marina dumpster.

To add even more regret, I wished I had worn stylish colored boxers that day. But, as luck would have it, I was wearing my big white skivvies. “Look, someone is raising a sail at the pump out.” No, it’s just Captain John on the foredeck in his big white underwear.

Another benefit of standing on the foredeck in your big white underwear is the beautiful autumn sunset turns you into a big, white cotton lighthouse. Boaters within miles could have used me for navigation. I’m sure boaters passing the marina were checking their charts. “Funny, the chart doesn’t show a lighthouse here?” Or, “Who the heck is running that spotlight in the daytime?”, “Is it a solar reflector on that boat?”, etc, etc.

Now, here is my new belief: while in a crowded marina, every male captain should stand on the foredeck clad only in big white underwear. The humiliation is great for both personality and leadership development. It is an excellent prescription for the over ego-ed (Marine Corps fighter pilot). If you were not humble before, you will be very humble afterwards.

Pump Out
Artists rendition of Captain John modeling skivvies on the foredeck. (Laura Turgeon drawing)

Anyway, I eventually got into a bathing suit and made my way to the marina showers. Ultimately, both I and our boat cleaned up nicely. We finished the pump out (more carefully) a few hours later. For the next couple of days, Julie closely monitored my health for signs of strange infections. I was never concerned about infection; the Marine Corps has made me a vaccination cocktail.

The pump out experience wasn’t that bad once I got the chunks of toilet tissue off. (Oh, the romance of sailboat cruising.) There is little substitute for strength of character and a strong stomach.

I have told you this story to tell you the moral: often in cruising, it’s not what happens, but how you handle it. Bad things are going to happen. It is all part of the rich pageantry. A good reaction can help mitigate a bad experience.

Hopefully, I’ve turned my bad experience into a good reaction you have enjoyed. Be kind and forgiving to yourselves. And all-ways (misspelling intended) use caution when pumping out.

Fair Winds
Captain John Rahm
(no worse for the wear… I think).


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Captain's Blog on TownDock.net is all about making your time on the water enjoyable. Captain John Rahm teaches sailing and boat handling at Third Wave Sailing.