A Damned Good Flushing

November 30, 2017


We have all seen That Look. You’ll notice it on the face of every first-time cruise passenger on their very first trip to the bathroom.

You make yourself all nice and comfortable, do what needs to be done, proceed with the after-unmentionables, and then press the appropriate button or lever.

The resultant noise is enough to startle a dormant volcano. It begins with a ‘Whoosh,’ continues with a ‘Whump’ and finishes with an emphatic ‘Thunk.’

Welcome to the world of cruise-ship toilets.

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to fluster every newbie cruiser – and be one of the first jokes in the routine of every sea-going comedian – it is the prodigious, and usually totally unexpected, sound of the flushing mechanism on every modern vessel.

In essence, it is the sound of a massive suction system vacuuming the contents of the S-bend away in one mighty mechanical inhalation. It is not unlike a fighter jet taking off, only shorter, louder and more startling, the equivalent of having yours ears syringed from the inside.

It’s no wonder so many first-timers look shocked whenever they leave their cabins. It’s not that they are upset at how small the bathrooms are – unless they happen to live in a modern London apartment, in which case it will seem wonderfully capacious by comparison – it is That Sound that will haunt them whenever the call of nature arises, and often for weeks after the voyage.

Remember Arkwright’s vicious, finger-threatening till in Open All Hours? That’s exactly how first-timers feel about using the loo aboard ship. You know it’s going to do it; you fear for your under-carriage; but you have to use it just the same.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Until the 1970s, virtually every vessel used a similar system to that used on land, as developed by the late, great Thomas Crapper in the 19th century. Pull the chain, flush with water and, hey presto, a nice clean bowl.

Only with ships getting bigger, more cabins being added and the amount of precious onboard water remaining finite, an alternative to the big watery flush was necessary. Happily for the cruise business, Swedish engineer Joel Liljendahl had already come up with the answer, which he promptly sold – for an awful lot of krona – to Electrolux.

Yes, the company that pioneered the vacuum cleaner in Britain was the same one that first mass-produced the vacuum toilet. Makes sense, does it not?

Another Scandinavian engineer, Norway’s Olav Hofseth, then refined the process in the 1980s with his start-up company – the appropriately-named Jets Vacuum – and, just like that, the world’s cruise ships were suitably, ahem, flushed with success.

The big advantage of the vacuum system – in addition to its minimal water usage – is that it can extract waste both sideways and up, as opposed to Mr Crapper’s gravity-based system, and also utilise much smaller pipes over a much longer system.

That, in turn, requires a mighty suck, if you’ll pardon the phrase. And, hence, the aural component of the vacuum system is enough to waken the dead and frighten every living person within three decks.

There’s simply no escaping it. When you use the loo on Deck 9, your ship-mates on Deck 6 know all about it. And vice versa. It’s intimidating enough for adults. For children, the effect is akin to monsters streaming out of the cupboard on a nightly basis.

It reminds us of the story we heard back in the 1980s about an elderly cruise passenger in Vancouver who had needed emergency treatment after flushing while still in the seated position. The results were intimately painful and required emergency surgery, although she lived to tell the tale (to a reporter in Chicago, apparently).

Happily, that is not the case with modern vessels (although we still strongly advise being at arm’s length from the W/C when completing the process, preferably pressing the button with a long pole, if possible), but it is a salutary lesson about paying close attention to your surroundings when in a new bathroom environment.

Treadwell still regales anyone within earshot of her encounters with eastern European conveniences – using the word in its loosest definition – and discovering all manner of different flush systems, from buttons in odd places to foot-pedals that would put Heath Robinson to shame.

It’s a whole different (toilet) world out there. But we digress.

You might be wondering why we are pontificating on such a basic and, frankly, indelicate matter this week. Well, the answer is simple. On our latest cruise, our captain – of east European extraction himself – offered this gem of wisdom that caught everyone’s attention.

“On this ship we have flush toilet,” he intoned earnestly, his accent helping to emphasise the substance of his words. “Put only in it what should be in it. Do not put in it apples, glasses, towels. We have found those things in it, and, when we do, we have to open the whole pipe. There are only two public toilets on board and I don’t want to be number 45 in line. So, if you drop something in it what should not be in it and you are too shy to pull it out, call even me, the Captain, and I will come and pull it out.”

Thankfully, we didn’t hear the Captain being paged at any stage on our journey along the Danube, but his devotion to duty was certainly not in question.

As seasoned cruisers, we have learned to live with the vagaries of the vacuum lavatory, in all its ear-assaulting glory. We just hope newcomers are suitably warned. Or, as our comedian once said:

“The sign over the toilet says ‘Don’t put bulky objects in the toilet.’ Then they feed you 24-7. How do they expect you not to put anything bulky in there?”

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