Boating is all about water — both on the inside and the outside of a boat. The water outside a vessel mostly provides the pleasure part. Water in tanks aboard a boat, however, can be a tricky commodity to handle.
If you are planning a one-day voyage on a small runabout, there may be only a fuel tank aboard, so dealing with freshwater or sewage holding tanks is not a concern. However, depending on the size of the boat, trip length, and number of passengers, it may be good to have a portable marine toilet (also called the head) available on board.
On the other hand, those planning to charter a power cruiser or cruising sailboat for an extended voyage with several passengers have more to deal with, including drinking water quality and managing sewage holding tank odors and pump-out procedures.
Depending on voyage length, holding tanks may have to be emptied, which has some manageable legal implications. Boat charterers should develop an understanding of the onboard water and sewage system operation and procedures for safely refilling water tanks and discharging sewage holding tanks. This knowledge will make a trip much more enjoyable by keeping onboard water flowing and holding tanks odor-free.
The best source of information for learning how onboard water and sewage systems operate is to ask the boat owner or chartering firm representative. Consulting the owner’s manual is also a smart step to take, as well as understanding regulations governing sewage discharge at sea.
Most water quality issues are caused by algae, bacteria, or mold in tanks. These issues are easily resolved by using household chlorine bleach to disinfect the tanks. Water clarity, taste, and odor can largely depend on the source: water from a well, cistern, municipal treatment, or reverse osmosis system may retain some of its inherent qualities. Tips to keep in mind about freshwater tanks:
Efficiently managing human (commonly called black water) and non-human waste from other sources (gray water) is critical for boat operators, particularly on vessels that carry several passengers or during extended cruises. Operators are responsible for complying with raw sewage storage and holding tank pump out regulations.
Raw sewage discharge from vessels operating in U.S. waters is regulated by federal and state laws. Boats with permanently installed toilets must be equipped with a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) that either stores waste until transfer ashore or, if discharged, reduces the chloroform count to levels that do not pose a health hazard.
Federal, state, and local marine law enforcement agencies actively monitor vessel compliance with sewage discharge regulations. Officers are trained to look for the obvious and not-so obvious signs of illegal discharge and are authorized to board vessels to check sewage system components. They pay particular attention to the sewage cut-off valve (commonly called the Y-valve), which is required equipment on boats with fixed sewage systems.
Points to remember about sewage discharge laws:
Planning ahead, practicing proper maintenance, understanding how onboard water and sewage systems work, and knowing the laws that cover sewage discharge from boats will make a voyage more pleasant voyage for all.