Why is a Ship's Toilet Called a "Head"?
A toilet on a ship is called a "head", for reasons that
go back to the days of sail.
With nothing but wind power, a sailing vessel cannot
travel directly into the wind.
The one location that is always downwind is the head or
Yarr, that be the "front" to ye land-dwellers.
The toilets, really just seats with holes opening down toward the water, were placed in the bow. To go to the head of a ship meant to go to the area where the toilet is located. The wind, as perceived on the vessel itself, would always blow along the deck, appearing to come from behind or possibly across the deck if sailing at an angle to the wind. This would carry most of the odor away.
Now, with various forms of engine power plus holding tanks and manual or powered pumps, the "head" can be anywhere. But the name stuck.
Marine toilets on smaller vessels must be designed differently, because the ship may be rocking from side to side, front to back, or both. Traditional toilets would spill water from the bowl. Marine toilets for smaller vessels are designed so the bowl is kept dry until it is used, then water is pumped into the bowl for cleaning and immediately pumped out. For an example, see the French canal boats below.
Larger vessels which are more stable can use toilets which are a little more like the land-based ones we are familiar with. But not exactly the same! They are generally kept dry or at least with very little water in them routinely. If the vessels are only operated in relatively calm conditions, like the New York harbor ferries shown below, then the toilets can be more or less standard land units.
So far, this is about raised commodes. If you have a squat toilet, like the Egyptian ferry shown below, there is no bowl to hold water. What would be very important in that case would be either a one-way valve or one or more goosenecks adequately shaped, sized, and oriented to prevent stored liquid from coming back up from the storage tank through the toilet.
The toilet itself is just one component of what U.S. regulations call the MSD or Marine Sanitation Device. The important details are in the holding tank and whatever processing is done before the waste is pumped overboard, possibly discharged out into the water. If the waste isn't pumped overboard, it is stored in the holding tank until the boat returns to the dock and the holding tank is pumped ashore for treatment. The MSDs are classified as Type I, Type II, and Type III.
A Type I MSD must totally liquefy solids and paper, while reducing the bacteria count to less than 1,000 per 100 milliliters. It's a liquid, but it's very dirty. A Type II MSD must reduce the bacteria count to less than 200 per 100 milliliters, and also have less than 1,000 particles of suspended particulate matter per 100 milliliters. The resulting liquid is almost completely clear, although still colored. Types I and II would then discharge the resulting liquid out into the surrounding water, pumping it out through an opening called a seacock. A Type III MSD is a holding tank. Unlike the Types I and II, a Type III does not discharge any liquid into the water. It holds all waste until it can be pumped ashore for treatment.
Vessels up through 65 feet in length may use any of these three types. Vessels larger than 65 feet must use either a Type II or Type III. In other words, a larger vessel, with more people on board and thus more sewage, and with a larger overall budget, must get its waste much cleaner before pumping it overboard. Smaller vessels, with fewer people and less waste, are allowed to be much dirtier but at their smaller scale. A Type II MSD much larger, expensive, and power-hungry than a Type I, and so Type II MSDs are usually found only on larger vessels. A Type III MSD can be quite simple, and is likely the best choice as long it can be large enough for the planned time away from a pump-out facility.
So, if you're going to be away from the dock for a long time on a large vessel, you will need the expensive Type II. You will be at sea too long to keep it all in a holding tank, but it's a larger class of vessel with more people on board and so you must discharge cleaner material. Of course, if you can afford to buy a large yacht and go on extended trips, the addition cost of a Type II MSD is just a relatively small part. On today's yachts you would see high tech, lavish restrooms. If you were to look at Hatteras yachts for sale you would be amazed at the interiors of their bathrooms.
The need to make waste pumpable (Type I) and fully liquified (Type II) is why it's important that you put nothing down a marine toilet except human waste and special marine-use toilet paper. That toilet paper breaks down completely. A macerator is an electrically driven device that liquifies the waste, much like a kitchen blender.
You can probably see why there is a distinction between septic waste and grey water. Septic waste from the toilets only, handled by the MSD, versus grey water from showers and sinks. You don't want to macerate or store any more than you have to. However, in some areas such as the Great Lakes between the U.S. and Canada, you have to hold grey water on board.
Let's look at some heads, the toilets on board Greek, Egyptian, American, and Scottish ferries, and on French canal boats. Plus, we'll see the toilet from Hitler's yacht.
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 ToiletAdolf Hitler's
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.