Thursday, 8 October 2015

What people REALLY want to know about long-distance rowing (sadly)

You plan, you train, you organise, and then you struggle, you overcome and you achieve! And what is it that other people want to know about your gruelling but wonderful feat of oar-powered endurance? The blisters? Sometimes. The scenery? Maybe. The weather? Yes, fair point.

But with depressing frequency, what they ALMOST ALWAYS want to know about are... the toilet arrangements. So I shouldn't have been surprised when the web analytics for this blog revealed that someone had reached it by searching on the phrase "when long distance rowers use the bathroom". I kid you not. However, since at least someone wants to know, and in the interests of encouraging expedition rowing by sharing my experiences, here is the "bog blog"...

Before I start, though, please would American readers of this blog (as the anonymous searcher must surely have been) get over the fact that an item into which you relieve yourself is NOT a bathroom. It may be IN a bathroom. But even in polite UK parlance it's a toilet, a loo, a lavatory, or possibly a urinal. Thank you.

Going to the toilet in an ocean rowing boat
Of course, the full facilities of mains plumbing can't possibly be available in any outdoor, movable vehicle. That said, yachts have heads (sheer sanitary luxury), and caravans have portaloos (with SEATS for goodness sake).

When it comes to ocean rowing boats (arguably a very small yacht without a mast, or a self-propelled, floating caravan), things are more rudimentary or, as its practitioners generally say, "bucket and chuck it".

Yet whilst the basic principle is easy to grasp, there are a couple of details that it's well worth knowing before you, er... go there yourself:
  • Put some water in the bucket before you sit down.
  • Take a toilet brush. I trust that you can work out why. One ocean rowing crew accidentally dropped theirs overboard. Horrified at the prospect of having to live without it, they rapidly fashioned a replacement from a spoon, a nailbrush and some cable ties. No, I wasn't sure why they had the nailbrush either, but thank goodness they did.

The picture above inadvertently shows the full range of options my husband and I had aboard for "going potty", on our 75 day Atlantic row (that's my leg on the right).

You'll notice that there are two yellow buckets: well, we you wouldn't want only to have one and then to drop it over the side, would you? Despite having the spare, both buckets are also attached to long ropes to reduce the chance of accidentally throwing it overboard whilst emptying it.

The normal wire handles have been replace with rope handles, stitched to a rope that runs round the under side of the rim of the bucket – well, we all know how often those wire handles come off, and as they'd likely also rust at sea, we wanted to be sure that all aspects of bucket engineering were solid, and were going to stay that way.

Incidentally, we also had a black bucket aboard which was used for occasional clothes, body, and eating utensil washing. Colour coding is vital. Your brain is addled at sea, and you NEVER want to use the wrong bucket by mistake.

A receptacle for light relief
Next to the bucket on the right is a milk carton. This was my husband's, and is the rowing-boat equivalent of a urinal. Having the inbuilt-handle makes it easier to use on a rocking deck than a plain wide-necked bottle, if you get my drift. And the lid can be replaced after use (and emptying), to ensure that any odours are contained, which is nice, even in such a well-ventilated environment.

Finally, by the left-hand bucket you can just make out the black net bag (tied to a fixing point on the boat) which contained the current packet of baby wipes. My advice here is to go for the higher-quality products which have a hard plastic resealable opening. You really don't want the packet to get infiltrated by salt water. Using seawater-soaked baby wipes leads to skin that is not in the slightest bit as soft as a baby's bottom. Trust me on this.

Of course, some ocean rowers find the whole bucket thing a hassle and unhygienic, and make use of the fact that the sides of the boat are about 10" wide and flat, and just sit themselves down on that with their posteriors hanging over the edge. The choice is yours, and sharks hardly ever come that close.

(I can't believe I've just written six paragraphs on this subject, but there's more...)

Going to the loo on a long-distance row that's shorter than a day
The assumption here is that you get in your boat in the morning, row for some or all of the day, and get out in the evening. Maybe for several days on end, but that's irrelevant. The point is that you should be able to avoid any need to do a "number two" whilst afloat. Make sure all crew-members understand this, and plan your tea or coffee drinking beforehand accordingly to have the required effect.

So, girls, we're talking about weeing...

This object is affectionately known as Jemima because it looks faintly like a duck, with a handle along its back, that's had the top half of its head chopped off.

Jemima proved to be the winner from several similar designs we've tried over the years, all bought from websites that sell what are known as "mobility aids". There's usually a section called "bathroom" or "toileting", once you get past the walking frames and wheelchair cushions. Checking one such site just now, I was amused to see one model described as a "cygnet urinal"; to us, Jemima is far from an ugly duckling.

On several occasions I've come across women rowers at the 160km Tour du Léman who proudly tell me that they've got a Shewee. These are very useful little objects for all sorts of situations, but in my view, they're useless for rowing boats, for which they're not designed. The main issue is that they don't have their own "chamber", so you'd need to hold a bottle for them to funnel into, and this requires an extra hand you don't have when you also need one to hold the Shewee and another to hold yourself steady. And really, don't underestimate how useful that handle is on a Jemima.

I've almost always done the Tour du Léman in an all-women's crew, and my various female crew mates have always agreed that the toilet arrangements are a good reason for this choice. However, if you have to row in a mixed crew, ladies, the options are:
  1. Keep your Jemima up in the bow seat and arrange your swaps so that the girls use it up there, and the blokes don't turn round on pain of pain.
  2. Have a cape.
How to pull your shorts down in a rowing boat
You need to have ever tried this to find out how hard it is... In general, when doing the Tour du Léman in a coxed quad, we try to use Jemima only when coxing, so as to limit change-over time, although weeing whilst steering is a skill. In that case, you just kneel up, pull 'em down, and away you go.

But if you need to use Jemima (or "duck", as we say) whilst on a rowing seat, you'll find this works well:
  • Push your rowing seat behind you so you're sitting on the deck between the slides. 
  • Lie back onto the seat, so it's in the middle of your back. 
  • Lift your bum off the deck, and you should be able to pull those shorts down fairly easily with one hand. The damper and sweatier you are, the harder it is, of course, and particularly tight-fitting shorts don't help either (my favourite long-distance rowing shorts are a size too large for this reason). And all-in-ones are right out.
Then, just sit up, put on hand behind you on the deck to support you, lift your bum up, insert duck and... you get the idea.

And that, I'm relieved to say (groan), is all I have to say on the subject. Do share your experiences in the comments if you have other advice to add. Just keep it clean, kids!


  1. WOW... RESPECT !
    I can understand your husband using he milk bottle for the less solid discharges, but someone of the female persuasion ? That would be something to see (or not, perhaps)
    And I always thought ladies couldn't aim straight to save their lives ?
    In the middle of a rolling ocean aswel, now that's what I call hand - eye co ordination.

  2. By the way, if you need to use that duck thing, and you're rowing a mixed crew, trust me, none of the guys will be watching.