Although boating in the Chesapeake continues later into the fall than in many other parts of the country, by November, most boats are on their way out of the water.

There are an astounding number of boats registered around the Bay — more than 400,000. Although a large number of these are very small or open boats that aren’t out on the water long enough to require marine toilets, let’s be candid… It’s time that “Prologue” asks boaters with a “head,” (marine toilet) to contemplate from whence these “seats of ease” have come.

This is not a subject which paints itself across the panoply of history. Yes, in urban centers the Roman upper classes did use “keyhole-apertured”stone seats, shaped quite like modern ones, and flushed by a channel of running water beneath. But this was not at sea.

There is an ivory plaque, from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta, dated around 600 B.C., which is reproduced in the wonderful “Those Vulgar Tubes. External sanitary accommodations aboard European ships of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries” by Joe Simmons. On it is a fellow down in the bow, in a familiar position , right under the guy just catching a fish. His position and business will make more sense a bit later, but he’s squatting on the ram or beak of the vessel, used in galley warfare to pierce and sink vessels of the opposing fleet.

A swift medieval Byzantine dromond, circa A.D. 950, was manned by 200 men. Whatever did they do in those galleys, with enslaved and restive oarsmen sometimes chained in place? There exists an ancient purchase order for “ptuaria,” (translated: “little spitters”) a thousand of them, to serve a fleet of 20 ships. Four men to each container: “Here, your turn, Spartacus.”

Most sailors use the term “head” loosely, whether afloat or ashore, oblivious of its quite opposite connotation. It referred once to the “beak head” of the ship, a design feature common during the 17th century, when explorers and colonists were coming to the Chesapeake. This is where passengers and crew went to relieve themselves whenever weather would permit. The plunging of the ship into headseas certainly made this uncomfortable, or downright hazardous, but at least it served to clean the area with seawater! Some surviving models, drawings and the actual remains of several ships tell archaeologists something about how the matter of human wastes at sea was handled during past centuries.

Now, the average ship’s master or fleet admiral is not going up to use the “heads” in bad weather. One solution was the “garderobe” adapted from medieval castles: little booths protruding out from the parapets from which effluvia descended free falling into the surrounding moat. Garderobes, which likely doubled as battle stations for archers in combat, began to appear flanking the stern castles of ships in the 15th century. Their access for “necessary use” was, of course, restricted to the “better sort” of person aboard, and Joe Simmons assures us “they were rigorously cleaned by the officers’ underlings.”

As ships and company size increased over the next century, with military complements, colonists, or sailing crews inflated to allow for attrition by death and disease, these vessels were packed to the gills. Scores might be wracked with disease, weak with dysentery, seasick to prostration and too weak to come up the ladders from below. It was often impossible to emerge on a deck constantly swept with seas, even to empty containers. Things spilled, or were directly deposited in desperation, and worked their way across pitching decks, down the framing, through hatchways into the Hell’s broth of bilges to finally accumulate among the ballast stones. The horror below decks on a 17th century sailing ship is unimaginable to modern senses. One ship bound for Virginia in 1609 threw over the bodies of thirty persons, dead from the “calentures” as this miasma festered in the tropics.

On voyages to the “New World” or anywhere distant, the management of wastes was in a word, horrible. Come aboard, for a moment if you will, the ship “Sea Venture,” bound for Virginia. Her captain is Christopher Newport, for whom Newport News, VA is named. Aboard are Sir George Somers, admiral of the seas; Sir Thomas Gates, knight; diverse mariners; and about 150 colonists. They are amidst a terrible late July “hurricano,” a storm so violent that its account, written by William Strachey, later inspired Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” “Sea Venture” is driven betwixt two rocks, part of the fringing reef which surrounds what mariners then called the “Devils Isles” (present-day Bermuda). All hands were rescued, and they eventually reached Virginia.

About 350 years later, archaeologists found the wreck of “Sea Venture.” They brought up unmistakable artifacts and, eventually, from among the ballast stones, they found an amorphous glop, widely believed to be the sludge of human wastes accumulated during “Sea Venture’s” years at sea.

Sometime between 1670-89, Simmons tells us, individual “seats of ease” began to appear on ships. They had the “keyhole” shape, which was telltale, since Roman times, of which way the user faced. In 1692, a ship manned by 650 might have had only two such apertures. Provision was made to ease the impossible backups by providing “pissdales” at other sites on the ship, which were little more than funnels, sometimes with lead piping, leading overboard. Excrement from the heads inevitably fell on timbers, chainwork, and sometimes ornate carvings beneath. John Smith, writing in “The Sea-man’s Grammar” (1652), states that a punishment for mariners’ lying was to keep these cleaned from the constantly arriving deposits!

These conditions did not end with the 17th century. Though a big ship might sport as many as eight accommodations in the heads, Horatio Lord Nelson’s flagship “Victory” (preserved at Portsmouth, England) has only six for the approximately 800 men aboard.

Aboard the “Duke of Wellington” at Portsmouth as late as 1870, there were six-holed platforms on each side: “(from) 4 a.m. until long after pipedown at night there were queues of waiting men on each side of the upper deck struggling to reach the heads… There were numbers of men daily who were in the report for offenses against decency. While every morning care had to be taken to remove the evidence of such offenses in a score of places...” So much for the romance of wooden ships and iron men in the glorious age of sail.

Things, of course were always better for the officers, where necessary accommodations began to be housed in the quarter galleries, little booths which projected like the older garderobes from the ship’s stern on either side. One presumably would have used the leeward necessary, that on the low side of a leaning ship, so stuff would fall clear and into the sea, sparing the paint and scroll work beneath.

About the middle of the 19th century, and especially with the advent of steam, ship design radically changed and massive beakheads and bluff-rounded foreparts were replaced by a functional, if skeletal, network of wire, chain or cordage rigging and the sharp, knife-like waterline entrance of the clipper bow. The stern too, lost its galleries as designers rounded sterns or squared them to a transom unsuitable for overhanging privies. Sanitary facilities simply had to be brought “inboard.” Our modern euphemism of “the head,” nowhere near the head of the ship, was thus born.

My first observation of a marine toilet originated with a Civil War era shipwreck, from which a badly bent toilet modeled in lead was recovered. Structurally, except for the addition of durable bronze parts and a shiny vitreous china bowl, it is not much different from the one I installed in my first little cruising sailboat 37 years ago. My toilet had even come from a local, long-abandoned “shipwreck”! It was the exact same model that my father installed on his boat when she was built in 1924. We’re not talking rapid evolution of technology here.

The first boat we bought on the Chesapeake another decade later had the same technology. When she was sold out of the Bay in 1988, we only just squeaked under the line that then-EPA Administrator Lee Thomas drew in the 1997 Chesapeake Bay Agreement: “ eliminate pollutant discharges from recreational boats.” The resultant workgroup recommended: “That we identify sensitive areas in the Bay and target them for designation as ‘No Discharge Zones’...” This concept is still being hotly debated.

During my early years on the Bay, certainly through the 1970s, foreign and domestic commercial and naval vessels in the Bay discharged their wastes overboard, not only sanitary wastes, but much of their trash as well. Bottles from Portuguese dish detergents and oriental food packaging joined our indigenous antifreeze jugs and quart outboard motor oil containers accumulating along Bay beaches.

Now, in my years, I’ve been around a number of real commercial work boats and, while I’m sure some do have them, I’ve never seen an installed toilet, let alone a holding tank. A military colleague of mine just this summer signed out a recreational sailboat at the U.S. Naval Academy, and found it had a straight-to-the-Bay marine toilet. There’s been plenty of blame to spread around the community!

Today, the boating community has three legal options for installed toilets, none of which permit the discharge of raw sewage to the Bay: Type I, II, or III Marine Sanitation Devices or “MSDs.” The portable toilets used in some highway recreational vehicles are not classified, the presumption being that they are taken ashore to a dump station, or flushed down the commode back at home.

  • Type I MSDs treat human wastes with disinfectants and usually maceration, with the intent fecal coliform bacteria not to exceed 1,000 per 100 ml, so that no floating solids are visible.

  • Type II MSDs “treat” biological wastes chemically — with chlorine or another biocide — the intent being to reduce fecal coliform counts below 200 per 100 ml, and suspended solids to 150 mg per liter or less at discharge.

  • Type III MSDs are ostensibly the most common in Chesapeake Bay and with this option you simply keep it all aboard in a holding tank for disposal ashore, perhaps at one of the growing number of available marina pumpout stations. In the case of an electric, incinerating toilet — the power requirements for which exceed small boat batteries — ash is periodically removed ashore. A brave designer or two have tried composting toilets, used by lake cottagers here and in Canada, from which the resulting compost might be incorporated as a flower garden soil amenity.

Neither Type I nor Type II MSDs do anything to remove the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus from discharged wastes, and ultimately contribute to the reduction of dissolved oxygen in the water.

Taking the Chesapeake as a whole, these are small loads, but in the small quiet — dare I say stagnant? — coves where we boaters are wont to anchor, they are right in the face of small ecosystems already struggling with other pollution sources. In addition, neither system assures that all human pathogens and virus particles are killed and don’t get into filter-feeding shellfish which we then eat. There are no post-installation performance checks required for these installations, maintenance being the sole responsibility of their users. Ready for you and your kids to swim unconcerned around the anchorage now?

Most holding tank systems have a “Y” valve, capable of being switched to overboard discharge. This is legal at sea, outside the three-mile limit, but when a pumpout station is far away, it’s the middle of a rainy night and the tank is full....

Virginia and Maryland, substantially assisted by Federal Clean Boating Act funds, have made great strides in preparing for the day when “no discharge” is a matter of course. About 500 pumpout facilities are now available Baywide, so the excuse for discharging wastes gets thinner each summer.

It would be interesting on some hot summer night if, all across the Bay, celestial spotlights would suddenly illuminate all the boats with straight through toilets, or with their “Y” valves set for discharge to the Bay. I expect it would be an interesting and surprisingly wide-lit display.

We are ending the millennium this winter and Bay Program managers are crafting a raft of policies and goals which look forward to “C-2K” — Chesapeake 2000. Will they have the courage to speak for designating “no discharge” areas in the Bay? The boating industry has its share to do as well, being responsible for some first-class engineering to solve flush volume, power requirements, cost and odor problems. It took, by my reckoning, at least 2,600 years for mariners to figure out how to get human wastes out of their ships. It’s time for us to have effective, well-engineered ways to keep it aboard!

Note: My major source for this piece is a wonderful small book, which will alternately double you over with laughter and make you ache with sympathy for “those who went before us”: “Those Vulgar Tubes: External Sanitary Accommodations Aboard European Ships of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries”by Joe J. Simmons II, published in 1991 in Studies in Nautical Archaeology 1. Texas A&M Univ. Press. College Station, 74 pages.

Also useful, but both out-of-date and long out-of-print: Recreational Boat Pollution and the Chesapeake Bay 1991. Report to the Chesapeake Executive Council. Annapolis, MD, 23 pages.