Everybody Poops

Remember that composting toilet? I’ve gotten a few questions about how our toilet works, and if we are still happy with our decision to replace the traditional marine head with a composting toilet. So far, I think we are happy with it, although that may be easy for me to say, because Capt. Mike is in charge of emptying the compost. If this post is TMI, I won’t be offended if you skip on to the next one……

Our Nature’s Head toilet functions by separating the liquid and solid waste, therefore keeping the odor down. It works by desiccating, or drying, the solid waste, killing bacteria and resulting in material that is the color and consistency of potting soil. A small fan circulates air through the head at all times, requiring very little battery power. We do need to remember to close the toilet vent each time we are under sail, to avoid getting ocean water in the vent, and we also unplug the fan so that it doesn’t overheat. These steps; unplugging the fan and closing the vent; and opening the vent and plugging in the fan are now part of our regular sailing checklist.

Number One:

We empty the urine bottle every one to two days. This is the only part of the process that does have an odor. Not in the bathroom itself (the Nature’s Head design works really well to contain the liquid waste and accompanying odors) but when we remove the bottle and it isn’t capped. In a marina, we empty the bottle into a toilet. When we are three nautical miles out to sea, we empty it overboard. In a crowded anchorage, we wait for a better opportunity to empty it. We have a second, spare bottle to let us go longer between emptying in those situations. We rinse out the bottle each time, and put a few drops of dish detergent in the empty bottle.

Oh, and then there’s the “pee tack”. Based on the direction that the toilet is installed, Sanitas must be flat or heeled over to port for the toilet to function correctly to separate liquid and solid waste. That means that if I need to use the head while we are underway and on the wrong tack, I need to raise my hand like a school girl to ask permission. Then Capt. Mike steers into the wind briefly to flatten Sanitas out so that I can go in comfort. It’s my least favorite thing about the composting head, honestly. What does Capt. Mike do if he needs to go while we are underway? I’ll leave it up to your imagination. It’s so much easier being a man!

Number Two:

We know that it is time to change the compost, when the handle used to stir the mixture becomes difficult to turn. That indicates that the coconut coir composting medium has done its job, and has absorbed all the moisture that it can hold. No sense pushing it past that point! We tend to have another bag of coconut rehydrated, crumbled, ready, and waiting. So far, we have used three bricks of coconut since we left St Pete in January. We have five blocks left in our stores which should be sufficient to last until we return to the states to wait out hurricane season. If we were continuing south through the Caribbean, we might have to get creative and use a different composting medium, such as peat moss, sawdust, or wood pellets. We prefer coconut because it stores in a very small space, is an extremely renewable resource, and is less likely to contain dormant insects or eggs than other forms of compost.

We simply take the lid off the toilet, and dump the solid waste into a garbage bag. I’ve included a few closeups. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I swear it does not stink! It smells like good garden dirt, but nothing worse than that. This part of the process would be a lot easier if we had more room to maneuver. We barely had the space to install the composting toilet in Sanitas’ head (and in fact, we had to remove some of the teak trim to make space) and there isn’t enough room to gracefully tilt the cover back like they show in the manual. Welcome to life on a small, narrow-beamed sailboat. Everything is just a little bit trickier than planned! We stored the used compost in a cockpit locker until the next opportunity to throw it away ashore.

We use this opportunity to give the head a thorough cleaning, using bleach water to disinfect the toilet base, floor, and sink. But we don’t bleach or even wash the compost compartment of the toilet. Nature’s Head says that good bacteria develop and remain in the residue in the corners of the container, helping the coconut compost medium work better next time, and helping to break down waste more quickly.

We’ve been lucky so far, and have had no issues with flies or gnats in the compost. We do add septic tank additives and a bacteria marketed to remove gnats. Whether they really do any good, I can’t tell, but why mess with success? The best part about this head, is that we can pretty much plan to do the regular maintenance when it is convenient for us, and don’t have to deal with unexpected failures or really messy leaks and breaks. And we never have to search for or pay for a pump out. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but along with our solar power, and water maker, the composting head helps keep us independent and off the grid.

I could live in Spanish Wells

You know the game you play, where you get to choose which famous person you’d most like to be shipwrecked with on a tropical island? (Or which ten books? Or which five foods?) Obviously you wouldn’t really want to be stuck on a deserted island with only that one person (Or ten books. Or five foods). You’d go crazy! But I honestly think I could live quite happily in Spanish Wells.

Spanish Wells is a small island off the coast of Eleuthera, and there’s been a community here since at least the 1700’s, when this town was founded by the loyalists. These were the folks who sided with the British, rather than the colonials, during the revolutionary war. Today, it is a prosperous fishing village made up of colorful houses with lovely tropical gardens. And the people we met here were the friendliest of our trip. We exchanged fish recipes in the local “everything” shop, and received waves or even offers of a ride from every car or golf cart that passed by. Now it is small, and everybody seems to be related (and named Pinder) so perhaps living here would get a little bit old. But I like to picture myself opening a beach bar, attending the local Independence Day festivities, and taking the water taxi to Eleuthera once a month for a big shopping trip.

We stayed in the mooring field here, so that we were a short dinghy ride into town. But wow was this a tight field! Only eight balls, and the first time we cruised through, only one ball was open. I stood on the bow as we drifted toward it in slow motion and kept calling back, ” It looks shallow! It looks shallower.” Until, yes. We were aground again. This time, it was less dramatic because we were going so slowly, and the bottom was soft sand. Capt. Mike swung the boom way out to the side, over the water, and hung from the boom until Sanitas tilted slightly and slid off. We anchored outside the harbor that night, and tried again for a ball in a deeper section the next day!

We explored the full length of both streets by foot, purchasing some supplies for boat projects, locally grown tomatoes (in March!), and an extra water bottle. Each day we were here, we spent some time at Buddha’s Snack Shack. Based out of a psychedelic school bus, Buddha and his wife and daughters run a funky little bar and restaurant serving creative burgers on homemade buns, delicious cracked conch, and stiff drinks. I ordered the signature “Dizzy Buddha” expecting an ordinary rum punch. But instead, it was bright green! I can’t tell you what it tasted like, or what it was made of, other than green. Glad I tried it!

Got our photo taken with Buddha, himself!

Mike and I spent a day jogging the length of Spanish Wells, then crossing “our bridge” to Russell Island and back. It felt good to stretch our legs, and I made friends with the many goats we met along the way. Apparently, I speak excellent goat. “Mwaaaaaaaa…..”

I was only able to persuade Mike to run so far with the promise of a stop at SandBar. Good thing they posted a “Keep going. You’re almost there sign, right when we were about to give up.

It was worth the long, hot trip to get here. A tiki hut, palapa roofs, and hammocks all facing a miniature sandy beach. We had the best blackened fish tacos we’ve found since leaving St Pete, and the Guava Lava cocktail wasn’t bad either.

Of course, tacos and cocktails made the return trip seem a lot longer and hotter. But our stop made for perfect timing to pass Bernie Sweetie’s fish dock. The boat was just drifting is as we jogged by, so we stopped to watch. No scale fish today, but some huge conch, and a bucket of live lobster. We’ll never be able to beat the price we paid for lobster back in tiny Foxtown, but here they were as fresh as can be. We watched the diver who had caught them chop their tails off right at the dock. The granddaddy 8-pound lobster looked at us quite sadly as he lost his tail. We bought a pound of lobster tails for $16 and grilled them for dinner.

On our final day in Spanish Wells, we had a beach day on the long, pristine, sandy beach on the north side of the island. I broke out the Isle Explorer inflatable stand up paddle board that I got for Christmas, but hadn’t yet tried. This was a perfect place to test it out; calm, shallow waters, with stunning scenery to distract me just when I was starting to get the hang of it. Yep. I fell in a couple of times when I started getting too cocky. Mike took a turn and really showed me up. Just paddling around was way too easy for him, so he tried SUP yoga ( with Chris and Laura and I doing yoga poses on the beach to coach him) and then head stands. Believe me. I got some great shots of BOTH his successes and his failures. I definitely intend to return to this beautiful island someday!

Crossing the Coral Garden

Leaving Spanish Wells Harbor was a little bit more exciting than we had expected.

We’d spent three nights on one of Bandit’s mooring balls, but we had only paid for one night. It seemed bad karma, not to mention impolite to leaving without paying the rest. So we spoke to Mrs Bandit on the radio the night before leaving, and made a plan for him to pick up the money at 7:00 am – just before we headed out for the day’s sail. Apparently Mrs Bandit never told Mr Bandit the plan, because by the time we hailed him on the radio at 7:30, he was already two islands away. We tossed around some ideas of how to get him the money without too badly inconveniencing ourselves, and finally settled on giving the money to one of his friends at the fuel dock. So, we cruised ever so slowly past the dock and I shouted “Does anyone know Bandit?” When someone answered “Yes. I’ll make sure this gets to him” I leaned over and handed him an envelope filled with cash as we drifted by. Bandit, if you’re reading this, I hope you got your money. I handed it to the old fisherman with the beard. You guys know each other, right?

Then all of our comm systems suddenly blew up. I heard “Sanitas… Sanitas … Sanitas” on channel 71. Then a DSC direct call, which makes our VHF ring like an old-school telephone. Then my new-school cell phone started ringing (which happens so seldom, I don’t even recognize the ring tone). Our friends on Orion and Disorder were trying to alert us that a massive UFO-sized cargo ship had just entered the narrow Spanish Wells channel.

We were already trying to leave the harbor, and were pretty sure this channel wasn’t big enough for the both of us. So we did a little donut turn to slow down, and moved as far to starboard as we could while still staying in deep water. And I walked along the starboard deck of Sanitas fending off dock pilings with my bare hands. A crewman on the cargo ship waved at me. Now this all happened in fairly slow motion, so it might not have appeared at all dramatic to a bystander, but it was hair-curlingly nerve wracking to me and to Capt. Mike! Especially since I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet!

This was our easiest passage so far: smooth seas, light winds, no dramatic equipment failures. Crossing Fleeming Cut was a piece of cake. (Remember my goal for crossing cuts? No stories!) The trickiest part of this day was crossing the coral garden east of Nassau. The charts for this area are covered with plus symbols and warnings such as “Numerous Shallow Coral Heads”, “Unsurveyed Area”, and “Visual Piloting Rules apply”. We had downloaded a set of eight GPS waypoints from Drew on Z-Raye, and we used these points to guide us from Fleeming Cut down to the northern end of the Exuma Chain near Ship Channel. These waypoints helped immensely, but didn’t substitute for scanning the seas ahead, and adjusting course when needed.

From about 1:30 in the afternoon to 4:30, Capt. Mike and I took turns standing on the bow of Sanitas, wearing polarized sunglasses, scanning the waters around us. We kept the autopilot navigating to the next waypoint, but when we’d spot a round, black coral head, the spotter on the bow would provide guidance to the person at the helm on how to avoid it. Things like, “Twenty degrees to starboard”, or ” hard to port”.

The coral was easier to spot than I had expected, and we usually saw them about a football field away. Still, it kept me on edge for the afternoon, especially when we were in the thick of it and there were coral heads to both sides and directly ahead of us. Once the sun got lower in the sky, it was harder to spot the contrast between the turquoise blue of the water and the black of the coral. I’m glad that by that point in the afternoon, we were through the thickest patch, and the need to frequently adjust course to avoid hitting the coral had diminished.

We pulled into the anchorage at Highborn Cay around 6:30 after about eleven hours of travel. Exactly one month after entering The Bahamas, we’d finally made it to the Exuma Islands! In addition to that milestone, we also celebrated six months since we left our jobs, AND Mike’s birthday. Fresh lime margaritas in the cockpit at sunset, using the last of our rapidly melting ice; homemade pad thai with ingredients from the tiny Asian market in Marsh Harbour, and gluten free brownies standing in for a birthday cake.

Now this is more like it!