A toilet on a ship is called a "head", for reasons that go back to the days of sail and nothing but wind power. Once we explain the origin and meaning of the term head, we can look at toilets on board Greek, Egyptian, American, and Scottish ferries, and on French canal boats. Plus, we'll see the toilet from Hitler's yacht.
Why is a Ship's Toilet Called a "Head"?
The crew's toilet area in a sailing ship would be in the head area or the bow of the ship
Yarr, that be the "front" to ye land-dwellers.
To go to the head of a ship meant to go to the area where the toilet is located.
The toilets were placed there because ships were powered by wind, and since sailing vessels can not sail directly into the wind, this placed the toilets downwind most of the time.
Now, with various forms of engine power plus holding tanks and manual or powered pumps, the "head" can be anywhere. But the name stuck.
The term poop deck has nothing at all to do with this! That term comes from poupe, the French word for the stern (rear) of a boat or ship. The French word poupe comes from the Old Provençal or Italian word poppe, which in turn comes from the Latin puppis.
Let's look at some sea-going toilets!
This scenic head is on board the F/B Artemis Greek ferry en route from Ios to Santorini in the Aegean. It's not in the bow, it's looking out to the side from one of the upper decks.
The Artemis is the smallest conventional ferry of the Hellenic Seaways line. 89.9 meters long, 14 meter beam, carrying up to 1,250 passengers and 74 cars at a speed of 18 knots.
That sounds large to me, but the same company operates the Nissos Mykonos and Nissos Chios at nine times the gross tonnage each, 141 meters long, 21 meter beam, and 1,915 passengers and 418 cars, running at 28 knots.
The conventional ferries are great ways to travel between Greek islands. They have large open decks and great views. The high-speed ferries get you there faster but you can't see as much along the way.
Even the conventional ones make fast port stops. They drop the rear ramp, drive any cars and trucks off and on, and load passengers off and on. Some have a single wide ramp and passengers wait for the vehicles or vice-versa, others have a second narrow ramp just for passengers. And, of course, at small islands there may be no vehicles getting on or off. In those cases the ramp may only be on the pier for seven minutes or less.
Be on time, don't miss your boat!
Click here for lots of details on traveling around the Greek islands by ferry.
French Canal Cruiser
Here is one of the heads and the flushing mechanism on board a rented Crusader canal boat in France.
Below is the head on an Orion, a very similar rented canal boat in France.
The Crusader was derived from the earlier Orion design. The only differences I noticed between the two boat designs were:
A bow thruster was added to the Crusader design.
The main helm position is designed a little differently.
The domestic water supply is designed differently, with multiple much smaller pressure tanks on the earlier Orion versus a single much larger pressure tank on the Crusader.
The simpler toilets on the earlier Orion worked much better. The Orion toilets are operated by pressing a waterproofed button on the panel below the counter to pump water into the bowl, and stepping on a foot pedal (barely visible below the bowl in the image at right) to open the large flapper valve into the holding tank. For much better performance, use the detachable shower spray nozzle. The entire head compartment is the shower, see the picture at right with the drain in the floor. The Crusader heads had a complicated and poorly performing T-handle pumping mechanism.
I have taken these canal boats on trips on the Canal Latéral à la Loire between Briare and Decize, and on the Canal du Midi between Port Cassafieres and Castelnaudary. Click here for many more pictures of those trips.
It has no sprayer, but at least there's a hose.
This is actually pretty nice by Egyptian public toilet standards.
And I must emphasize that it's rust you see there!
Staten Island Ferry, New York
The Staten Island Ferry provides free rides from the lower tip of Manhattan (New York, USA), past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, to Staten Island, and back.
If you need to go before you board, the first picture shows an all-stainless-steel model in the Manhattan terminal.
The second is one of the heads on board the ferry itself.
Also see the Stainless Steel Toilets page if you are interested in that category.
New York Water Taxi
The New York Water Taxi is a smaller ferry crossing the East River between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, Here is its on-board toilet.
Orkney Island Ferry
The M/V Hamnavoe ferry links the Orkney Islands with the north coast of Scotland.
There are several sailings a day, 90 minutes en route each direction.
Here are the heads.
Inner Hebrides Island Ferry
The M/V Isle of Mull is one of the many ferries connecting the Inner Hebrides islands with the west coast of Scotland.
Here is one of the heads as photographed during a trip from Oban to Craignure on the Isle of Mull.
Adolf Hitler's Toilet
German madman Adolf Hitler led Germany from 1933 until his suicide in 1933. He wanted to rule the world, but the only throne he ever occupied is a ceramic commode now sitting in an auto repair shop in a small town in New Jersey.
The Grille was the official State Yacht of the Third Reich. It was converted to military use during World War II, laying mines along the coast of France and patrolling in the Baltic Sea. Karl Dönitz stood on its deck on 1 May 1945 to announce that Hitler had committed suicide as the Soviet Red Army was taking Berlin, and Dönitz was now Germany's leader.
The British Royal Navy seized the Grille at the end of the war, and sold it to private owners in the U.S. in 1947. In 1951 its owner scrapped the ship after removing and selling a lot of small pieces — portholes, flag poles, decking, and some plumbing.
The owner of an auto repair shop needed a toilet and sink for his garage, and happened to be good friends with the surplus ship's owner. He installed them in his garage, and there they sat and functioned for sixty years, through the purchase of the garage by a new owner.
See the dedicated page for many more pictures and historical details, and a description of how you can see the toilet today.