Monday, January 21, 2008

On Effluent and Tenders (The Cruising Life V5)

(The ride to shore at Cabo San Lucas)

More rhapsodizing about the ship.

OK, the toilets. Yeah, leave it to me to scrutinize in detail what isn't even supposed to get mentioned in polite company, but here's another intriguing thing. So the ship has something like a thousand staterooms, and at least a third again more for crew. Probably much of the crew uses community bathrooms, but there are also a whole bunch of restrooms scattered around the public areas of the ship, and god knows how many below the public areas; so I bet 1,200 toilets is a conservative number.

They're not normal toilets. There is no tank, and water does not play a large part in their operation (think of 1,200 tanks over 15 floors filled with five gallons each, all having to get replenished around bedtime). There is water, but it makes its appearance during and just after the flush, just enough for a quick rinse. The real work is accomplished by vacuum, which announces itself with a sudden, loud sucking sound and a nasty, violent clap at the end as the valve closes. It sounds like whatever goes down there is gonna be sorry it did. There is a big button on the wall for flushing, but it's not a mechanical thing. It's kind of spongy and seemingly not connected to anything, more of a request than an imperative. Call it the Prayer Button, since a couple of times I sure prayed it was gonna work. If one should produce, ah... a two-flusher, the second flush has to wait its turn. You push the button and go on about your business, and some minutes later your lottery number gets drawn again (this is where the prayer comes in, as nobody wants to leave a surprise for a spouse or cabin attendant).

They advise not flushing while seated, but of course I had to try it. Luckily, with an ass like mine, there's no danger of my disappearing down the hole. But let me tell you: it was a thrill. A whole lot of air goes down that little hole, eh? So how does the whole thing work? I think the compact nature of everything on a boat means the plumbing and electrifying of a ship like this must be quite a thing to design, build and maintain. The signs in the bathroom say that anything "not authorized" down the toilet may clog your toilet and many people "down the line." ( I decided it was best not to think too hard on that last phrase.)

What makes the suction for 1,200 toilets? If I get reincarnated, please don't let me come back as that huge sucker. And what happens after that? I suppose everything gets sucked into a manifold, where each additional flush somewhere along its length keeps the whole business moving toward... whatever. Let's agree again not to think much after that. Stuff goes into a manifold and... down the line. However it gets there, the stuff is treated onboard and discharged when it's safe.

It's all another system which seems unique to a big ship and which must have been carefully worked out thru a bunch of stages where things were rejected and modified to get to this present form. I've mentioned that the ship desalinates its own water, and then pipes it throughout the ship, like blood vessels in a cow. There's not much wait for hot water for showering, which makes me think that cold water is piped throughout the ship, and each floor and / or section heats its own water. Maybe each cabin, even. But in addition to a zillion showering beached whales like me, water is used in huge amounts in the kitchen and serving areas, and in all the little bars scattered around the ship. And again in all those public bathrooms. Must have been quite the plumbing job (and quite a nightmare if something springs a leak).


On our first day shore, in Cabo San Lucas, we rode at anchor a mile or so offshore, and we used tenders to get ashore. We've had at least one tender day on each cruise I've been on. It's more trouble, but it's kind of fun, actually. The tenders are always some of the ship's lifeboats, and I imagine they rotate the boats so that everything gets some regular exercise (it would be bad to need a lifeboat and find it hasn't actually run for 18 months). The operation of the ship itself seems so far removed from the kinds of nautical savvy that we boat-lovers have that there is little overlap--like the business of being a private pilot versus airline flying, but even moreso. The big ship just brings its own needs and requirements such that general knowledge gets overridden with special circumstances. But the tenders are another thing, and we're reminded that the full range of nautical expertise needs to be represented. The tenders, which are child's play compared to the ship, are still a good deal bigger than any boat we might have occasion to operate in our lives. And their docking procedures both at the ship and ashore bring us back into more familiar territory. The crews have to have good basic rope-handling skills, and they have to deal with wind and swells skillfully, especially when boarding or disembarking. The whole cruise is only as safe as its most perilous moment, and this tendering stuff is probably it.

I noticed that their key means of achieving stability for embarkation / disembarkation is to put a rope on the bow of the tender and then engage the nearest engine to the pier or dock and run it about mid-throttle (visible in pic above). This pushes the tender hard against the dock while people get on and off. Of course, the ship doesn't feel the slightest effect of the tender trying to pull her forward from the side (I couldn't help wondering if ALL tenders tied to the ship and pulling like mad could get anywhere near normal operating speed--certainly one tender at 1/4 power doesn't count for shit). The tenders are comparatively crude, but they're still an expensive piece of machinery: twin diesels, fully covered, unsinkable (even when swamped), and stocked with life jackets & rings, fresh water and food, and numerous radios and alert devices. And each one requires an operator who has some idea what the hell is going on. So the safety side of all this is impressive.

Lastly, there is the tender "dock" at the ship. Walking along the ship's length when it's tied to a pier, I notice a bunch of sealed openings in the hull, just above the waterline and a couple levels above. They are obviously to gain access to the interior of the ship, but I didn't know whether they were just used in constructing the ship and were now sealed shut. Turns out, they still use them, and some of them are quite large enough to drive a car through. We saw one of them opened outward so that it was parallel to the water, and then bumpers were attached to its edge. The tender then docked at this platform, and we came on and off the ship that way. (Actually, the dock led into the crew-only portion of the ship, and we climbed a metal staircase hanging out over the water which led from the dock up a level to an entry and security checkpoint in the passenger area of the ship. I watched them, when the tendering was done with, dismantle this dock and close it back up, and it was impressive to see. The whole thing, a reinforced section of the hull, is raised and lowered with a couple big hydraulic cylinders, and the crew quickly reconfigured it from dock with bumpers back into necessary part of the ship's hull, and I watched them rinse it off as it slowly raised and was locked back in place.

(The crew converts the dock back into mere hullplate, and retracts it)

Each of these pass-thrus in the hull seems something that needs to be carefully considered in the ship's design and in its operation. Each hole will weaken the ship's structure to a degree and creates an opportunity for water to enter the ship; so there must be procedures to ensure that everyone involved knows how to operate the passages and can verify that they are not in a dangerous condition. And, of course, the opening that becomes a docking platform must be stressed and overstressed to take what can be huge loads placed on it by a fully-loaded tender thrusting against it in rough seas.

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