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Is The Pumpout Full? And Other Common Questions In The Liveaboard Household

When I told people I was getting married and my new husband lived on a boat and I was moving on board with him, there followed a litany of questions.

First, the surprised look:

"Can you do that?" (Yes.)

Then, in no particular order:

"Can you cook?" (Yes-both of us-and pretty well, actually.)

"How do you get your mail?" (P.O. box.)

"How do you wash your clothes?" (Laundromat.)

"Do you have heat?" (Yes: an electric heater, a gas furnace, space heaters, and we wrap the top in plastic.)

"Where do you get your water?" (The two tanks beneath the stateroom berth hold 150 gallons of fresh city of Chicago water and require filling every ten days or so.)

"Do you have a bathroom?" (Yes-two, in fact, which is a blessing for newlyweds.)

"Can you take a shower?" (Yes, albeit a very short one.)

And my favorite:
Do you have a car? (As if one mode of transportation was all we needed. I always wonder if they think we're rowing to work. This question is always followed by a surprised look when we answer yes, and a motorcycle, too. There are also buses and the "L"; Chicago is, after all, a major transportation hub of the Midwest.)

To be fair, these questions are good ones. Nothing is simple on a boat, and a simple yes/no answer is rarely enough to explain the intricacies of getting one's mail, taking a shower, or filling dry water tanks when the engine's out and you're parked on a mooring can in Monroe Harbor. So for those of you dreaming of the liveaboard lifestyle, here are some of the details to maintain the "simplicity" of daily onboard living.

Can you cook?

The first thing I did in my new role as first mate aboard Mazurka was rearrange the kitchen. I gave away the microwave that took 11 minutes to heat a can of soup. I cleared out the pantry shelf and threw away half-used packets of meat seasoning and instant coffee from Thailand. I reoriented my culinary thinking, away from an apartment kitchen with a full-sized refrigerator and plenty of counter space, to a galley with a dorm-sized refrigerator, gas stove with three burners, and a small oven, a small shelf for a pantry, and 2 feet of counter space.

There's not a lot of room, but there's more than you might think, if you get creative and follow some simple guidelines.

We practice the European-style of grocery shopping-two or three times a week, which means fresher food and less waste. It does take more time throughout the week-three trips to the grocery store as opposed to one or two-but it takes less time per trip; we can usually zip in and out with a few things, and we tend to spend less overall when we spend three times a week rather than once. It also helps that we only have to plan what we're going to eat two or three days in advance, rather than seven. When we're on a seven-day shopping schedule, we inevitably run out of one crucial ingredient and have to make an extra trip to the store anyway.

We grill dinner off the stern most nights, even in January. What the grill can't do, the 6-quart crock pot handles nicely. And every boat's galley can benefit from the staple of the collegiate kitchen: the hot pot. Use it to boil water for tea and coffee (and get rid of the coffeemaker), and prepare any number of foods.

As with every space on board a boat, none of it's wasted. In the colder months, we use the cooler on the aft deck for extra storage. On winter Sunday afternoons, Mark and I cook meals for the week and keep them stored outside under the shrink-wrap. It's a lot harder in summer when, without storage, you're faced with only buying and preparing what you will eat within three days. And you are limited to eating just what you prepare. So after a long day of work when it's 90 degrees and the restaurant budget is tapped, we grill or eat raw.

As little space as we seemingly have, we have an exquisite menu aboard Mazurka. Necessity is the mother of creativity and invention.

Can you take a shower?

To provide hot water for your shower, dishwasher, and clothes washer, the average house these days has a hot water tank that holds 30, maybe even 50 gallons of hot water. When I moved on board Mazurka, the hot water tank held 6 gallons. Yes, 6.

Go to your refrigerator and pull out that gallon of milk. Imagine six of them on your counter; this is what you get for a shower. If you are a man with little hair, you can take a quick shower and be done with it. But you can see how this would be a problem if you were, say, a woman with long, fine hair-very fine hair that requires two rounds of conditioner. You can see how this particular woman might be screaming three-quarters into her shower, and then begin to avoid showering on the boat altogether.

"I can just go to the gym," I told my new husband. The captain, wanting to please his new wife, began searching for alternatives. Shopping online, he found a cylinder that holds 12 gallons, a cube that holds 10. The cube was a great price on clearance but wouldn't fit in the engine room without knocking a hole in the wall; the 12-gallon one cost $1,400.

"I can just go to the gym," I said again. I told myself I was being environmentally conscious by taking six-minute showers. And after six months, I cut off 8 inches of my hair. The captain mourned it, but said he understood, with a tinge of guilt that it was his idea to live on this boat, anyway.

How do you do your laundry?

Life on a boat is not all recreation¬-there are jobs to attend, money to earn, and it doesn't take long for ship-shape to become slip-shod.

One of the first things to go is the laundry. We stash our laundry in bags under stairways, where it can collect for weeks. In his bachelor days, Mark used to take his laundry to the River City cleaners. When I came on board, I thought $75 for two weeks of laundry was too expensive. Give me a roll of quarters and a few hours and I'll do it for ten bucks.

On a deceptively-free afternoon, when the laundry was crawling out from under the stairs, I tore off the quilt and comforters, stuffed them into a bag, and proclaimed the laundry would be done. A week passed, while we slumbered under a sleeping bag, the laundry spilling around us. Mark suggested taking it to the cleaners, but I refused, saying it cost too much.

Finally, there was nothing left to wear. Mark piled everything we had into two huge bags and found a laundromat just across Lake Shore Drive. The owner was amazed we lived on a boat, and promised to have it done by Tuesday. He didn't speak great English, and some things were lost in translation...but he said not to worry, he would take care of everything.

The laundry was a day late. "I've never seen so much," the guy told Mark on the phone. "I'm still working on it."

"What does he have to work on?" I asked Mark. "Just throw it in the washer and dryer and fold it."

The next night when I arrived home, Mark was waiting for me. "Is the laundry here?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "You've never seen such clean clothes."

"How much was it?" I asked.

"Well," my husband said, "We're not taking any vacations for a while."

I started guessing. "More than $100? More than $200?" The grand total-at a 20 percent discount: $380.

What did we get for our $380? An amount which made Mark's hand shake while he wrote the check, and compelled me to call the launderer and complain that this was dishonest work that we never asked for? What did we get? Every single item in those two bags was dry cleaned and ironed, including oven mitts, ball caps, and t-shirts. The launderer worked tirelessly to get oil stains out of Mark's work clothes and sweat stains out of my running sweatshirt. The sheets were ironed and packed neatly into plastic bags. My underwear was safety pinned to hangers in perfect descending order. This man took more pride in cleaning our laundry than I have for cleaning the entire boat. He even included eleven pages of notes detailing his week's work. Tried three times / sorry, was pinned to a potholder that still had grease stains on it. Our one and only time at Lakefront Cleaners resulted in the cleanest, crispest clothes we have ever had on board.

"Everybody always wants dry cleaning," the launderer told me on the phone, apologizing (but not offering any money back-after all, he had the check in hand). "Next time I will know what you want."

There wasn't a next time for Lakefront Cleaners. We went back to rolls of quarters and waiting for 75-cent washers-and we got a lot more humble about asking to do our laundry whenever we visited family.

There are other questions common within the liveaboard household, including:

Where's this water coming from?

Every captain is intimately familiar with this question. When visitors come aboard for a tour, captains will often tell them the story of a leak: where the water came from, how he figured it out, how he fixed it-or how he's trying to. Captains have all kinds of advice for fixing and figuring out mysterious leaks. A caulking gun is never out of reach. Mark would fire it up and scour the boat, caulking at will. For months we endured a terrible leak in the aft stateroom; every time it rained, water would silently seep down the wall, mildewing and destroying books and papers beside the bed. We left the shelf bare-heartbreaking in a place with so little room-until Mark discovered that the caulking near the front of the flybridge was rotten. He somehow deduced that rain water was coming into the top deck through the flybridge, seeping down the length of the boat, and draining into the cabin through the aft deck. This sounded like a pretty big leap in logic to me, but he caulked and sealed the flybridge one weekend, and the leak in the aft stateroom stopped.

An important lesson I have learned living aboard this boat: if you throw enough possible solutions at a problem, one of them will eventually work. Then there are other kinds of leaks-preventable ones.

Is the pumpout full?

"Do you think it's full yet?" is a far-too-common question around our home, and oftentimes first thing in the morning. "Do you think the pumpout is full?" Mark will ask me on his way to the head.

Pumpout is our term for sewage. The sewage tank holds 50 gallons, and emptying it is the bane of our chores together. Pumpout is a two-person job, and one you can only do with someone you truly respect. First, you must find a pumpout station, which any respectable marina offers. You will know it by the big white box, the yellow and black striped hose. After tying up to the dock, attach the end of the hose into the sewage outlet port in your boat; on Mazurka, it's on the port side near the bow. (Mark once mixed up the sewage outlet with the fuel intake port, but that's another story....) Make sure you attach the hose into the sewage port before hitting the green button on the white box. This starts the suction, and you will feel the sewage pumping out. Some hoses even have a clear window so you can see it coming out. Wait until the tank is empty. Fill the tank with fresh water to rinse it; pump out again. If you are feeling considerate of your fellow boaters, coil the hoses neatly on the dock. Drive away with a clean tank.

In the summer months, pumpout is not too difficult. After the engine warms up, we cruise on over to the dock, tie up, put the nozzle of the pumpout hose into the spigot in the deck, and seven to ten minutes later, the crap is gone and we're on our way.

Oh, were it that simple. The problem is we never knew when it was full, we were always guessing, and oftentimes, we guessed wrong. We look for telltale signs that it's full, like a gurgling noise, or a slower flush, or the fact that neither of us could remember the last time we pumped out. But the fact was that sometimes we didn't know it was full till it overflowed into the forward bilge, the small hatch beneath the floor of the bow, where two bunk beds serve as my office. The office starts to smell, and then the whole boat, and then we not only have to pump out the holding tank, but Mark hauls the hose into the bow to suck out the overflow. Rinse, repeat.

So Mark bought a sensor. He and his friend Carl hooked it up. It works by two electrical wires suspended in the sewage tank, which transmit a current and identify when the tank is at one-fourth, one-half, three-fourths, and then a red light flashes when you'd better empty the tank. But before it would work, it had to be calibrated to empty and full, and before we could calibrate it, we had to figure out when it was full, and so every morning I checked the bilge for overflow, and we looked for the telltale signs. Except this time, there were no signs-2 inches of sewage suddenly appeared in the bilge, and at 7 a.m. we were at the pumpout dock, Mark in the bow with the hose and some bleach.

I thanked him for doing the crappiest job possible while I waited on the dock. "This is the last time," I assured him.

I'm sure there's some metaphor in all this, some metaphor about the first year of marriage-that we are learning to handle our crap together, learning how to get rid of it and not let it overflow and stink up our lives. I wish there were some sensor to let us know when the stress and anxiety of daily living was getting to be too much and we needed to pump it out lest it clog up our happy home.

The first year of marriage is all about learning to calibrate.