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1965 built, US flagged steamship Pacific Tracker lays at the ready in Portland Oregon, picture by Martin Leduc

River Story: Turds and Paper Towels

Authored by Tom Winkle
November 2020

Chief Engineer Tom Winkle spent a 40 year career on the great rivers of the United States, working on massive tugs moving rafts of barges. Retired since 2015, Tom shares stories of life onboard these vessels and their unique trade. He is a skilled photographer, sharing some stunning marine pictures of life on the river in the SeafarerMedia area, and previously contributing anecdotes and stories - look for the "Bilge Rat" attribution. You can reach him at bilgerat4 at Gmail.


When I first started on the river in 1976, the toilets on older boats were still piped overboard. Part of the Clean Water Act was aimed at marine transportation, stating that by 1980, all boats had to have a USCG approved marine sanitation device (MSD) on board to process sewage. There ended up being a multitude of ways of dealing with the sewage, a fair number of companies wanted in to this market, so there were a lot of different devices early on, and a lot of them were problematic. The first boat I worked on, the Donald O'Toole, had a small holding tank, and vacuum toilets that only used a quart of water per flush, the tank was then periodically discharged to a shoreside sewage system.

The system on the O'Toole provided me a foretaste of what the most disagreeable part of an engineer's job would be when one day, the system would not build vacuum for a flush. Pete, Twin Cities roving engineer/mechanic dragooned me into helping, and we ended up disassembling the vacuum pump to remove a paper towel that someone had flushed down a toilet. This was just the beginning, issues like this were to dog me for the next forty years...

Any time a new hire or a guest came on board, part of their orientation was “The Talk”. This consisted of what could and could not be flushed down a toilet connected to an MSD. To make it more easily remembered, I had condensed the stock speech down to this: Other than bathroom tissue, if it didn't go all the way through you first, never flush it down a toilet. Most took it to heart, a persistent small percentage did not.

Which brings us to the M/V Rusty Flowers, sometime in the late 1980's. Originally, the Rusty had been built with one of those early systems that were nothing but trouble (It injected ground up sewage into the engine's exhaust system!), but it had been replaced with what became the gold standard of MSD's, the St. Louis Ship FAST System. These were (and still are) the best out there. Sewage goes in, aerated bacteria inside the system digests the solids, clear processed sewage flows through a chlorinator and is then pumped overboard. Easy peasy, but that rule about what couldn't be flushed still applied.

I'm in my tiny little “office” on the Rusty one morning, doing some paperwork, when one of the deckhands steps in to let me know that the toilet in the deck locker was plugged up, so I followed him forward to look at it. Yep, sure enough, it's stopped up, and the water isn't going down at all. I tried the other main deck toilet, the one in the bathroom that I shared with one of the deck crew, and it's backed up, too... Hmmm. The line to the MSD has to be plugged, not just the toilets....

The most likely spot was the emergency three way valve. It was there to keep toilet service in case the MSD was not usable by valving the line overboard. The issue was this: the four inch sewage line was narrowed down to a passage an inch wide and three inches high through that valve, so that was the first place to check.

To do this, the big P trap on the MSD inlet had to be removed. Of course, that's full of sewage, so once it's removed, all of that mess has to be dumped in buckets so it can be flushed again later. Fun...

Taking a flashlight and looking into the valve, sure enough, there's a wad of paper towels stuck in the valve passage... OK, knowing that thirty feet of the line behind this is full of sewage and two toilets are full of water, the immediate problem was how do you unclog this without standing in front of it? The answer was a long piece of copper tubing with a hook bent on the business end and the handle bent 90 degrees to keep me out of what was going to happen. When I connected with the clog, a fat jet of sewage shot across the engine room (missing me), splattering all over the centerline bulkhead. The clog was gone, nothing for it now but put the trap back up and clean up the mess. The wad of paper towels was saved as “Exhibit A”.

We had a meeting with the crew, reviewing what couldn't be flushed and emphasizing that that included paper towels. I wasn't convinced that this was the end of the problem, so I ordered the supplies that I needed to build a new four inch P trap from PVC pipe with cleanouts on it, so the trap didn't have to be removed, and a clog could be raked out of the valve and everything would go in the trap, and then into a bucket.

Things went along swimmingly for a few months, and then it happened again. The new trap made this time a much less unpleasant unclogging, but again, it was paper towels. Obviously, the message was not getting through. We had another meeting about it. Of course, this is one of those things that the guilty party will never admit to, and I was fairly certain that this wasn't going to end until I could figure out who was doing it.

Thinking on this for a while, I finally came up with a way to narrow the suspects list. There was a roll of paper towels in each bathroom on the boat. Most were shared between two staterooms, and the cook had a bathroom to herself. Back then we simply got our paper towels through the boat store, and they were commercial stock, not plain ones from a supply house as later was the case, these had printed patterns on them. Hmm! Going through our stock, I came up with a half dozen different colors, and we had a total of five bathrooms on board.

So. Each bathroom got a different color pattern roll of paper towels, and I kept a list of which ones went where, and then I sat back and waited. Sure enough, three days later, we're clogged up again. It was near to lunch time when this happened, which made it all the more perturbing, as I was missing my lunch for another one of these stomach turning excursions. I went at it, but this time with a bucket below the P trap so whatever I raked out of that valve would land in a big galvanized steel pail. When the valve was cleared and the debris checked, lo and behold, the paper towels recovered from the valve were the color pattern on the roll in the shared bathroom between the captain and the pilot!

I'm pissed. The idea that one of the two people on board who certainly knew better (and I had a good idea which one it was) were responsible for this made me really mad. Following the old adage that drastic situations called for drastic remedies, I marched up the engine room stairs, into the quarters, and into the dining room with a seven gallon pail half full of sewage, turds and paper towels.

Barging right up to the captain's end of the table, I started yelling. “LOOK AT THIS! THIS IS INEXCUSABLE! EVERY ONE OF YOU KNOWS THAT YOU'RE NOT TO BE FLUSHING PAPER TOWELS! LOOK AT IT!”

Dead silence, and that smell is filling the space. One deckhand finally blurted out the inevitable question. “What is that?!?


That was the end of lunch. Never did I see a dining room on a boat empty out faster.

I clomped back down to the lower engine room, fished the paper towels out of the mess, cleaned things up and flushed the paper free remains down a toilet, and headed to my cabin for an afternoon nap.

Dinner that night was eaten in silence, and nobody was looking my way. Later in the evening, I went up to the wheelhouse to have a chat with the captain about it. He actually admitted to being the one who was doing it, even admitted that he knew he should have been throwing them in the trash and not flushing them. I was tempted to tell him if it happened again, I'd empty that bucket on his bunk, but settled for describing in detail just how unnecessary and disgusting it was to have to deal with other people's carelessness, and offered to let him do it next time.

He declined the offer, and it never happened again.

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