How to Poop on a Sailboat

June 3, 2024
Pollution Incidents
Jasmine Fournier, Executive Director

Ever wondered how a simple sailing trip could turn into a deep dive into environmental ethics? Join the executive director of the Ocean Sewage Alliance as she navigates the Gulf of Mexico with a bucket for a toilet, revealing the stark realities of human waste disposal at sea and its impact on our oceans.

Read Time: 3 minutes

Most days, I am situated about a mile from the Mississippi River. At home, as I do most mornings, I use the bathroom. When I flush the toilet, that waste is carried through a series of pipes to the wastewater treatment plant. Once treated, the now (mostly)1 cleaned water is discharged back into the Mississippi River making its way downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week, I embarked on a trip sailing from Isla Mujeres, Mexico across the Gulf back to my home in New Orleans. And that pathway from the toilet to the ocean was much, much shorter. 

Onboard our toilet was a small bucket kept in the back of the boat. After using these facilities, we were instructed to dump the waste into its final receptacle which was, well, the open ocean. While extremely unfortunate (and gross), this setup is typical on small cruising vessels. 2 

View from the back of the boat. © Jasmine Fournier/OSA

As the executive director of the Ocean Sewage Alliance, this bathroom system put me in a bit of a quandary. On one hand, getting the opportunity to sail across the Gulf—incredible! On the other, I’m faced with the intimacy of my own sewage pollution and its immediate harmful impact—not ideal. 

This made me confront two key facts: 1) wherever they are, everybody poops, and 2) much of our waste enters nearby waterways with minimal treatment. 3

The amount of sewage entering your local environment can vary dramatically depending on where you live, work, and recreate outside. However, barring some calamity like a backed-up toilet or a sewer line break, we mostly flush our toilets ‘away’ and forget about it. We don’t see this fecal fallout live, up close, in action. But when you are using a bucket and throwing it directly over the starboard side… you get the picture.

My plan, aligned with OSA’s mission, was to keep my sewage out of the ocean. The practical reality looked like a diet consisting of handfuls of nuts and enough water to survive but not enough water to keep me peeing in, and then dumping the bucket. The trip was planned to take two days and I calculated that I should be fine on that timeline.

I’ll spare you the gory details but my plan worked. And while this was immensely humbling, I was able to complete the trip without dumping my own shit directly into the ocean. 

I talked extensively with friends and fellow sailors about my experience with this bathroom system. Their resounding reply, ‘What’s the big deal?’ This emoji most accurately captures my reaction:  🫠

Another common response was that whales, fish, and even the dolphins that swam next to the boat all poop in the ocean too. Disappointed and dismayed, I explained that all those animals are part of the marine ecosystem. A system evolved to beneficially use their fishy poo to support the circular harmony of all marine life. Our human poop, however, is not part of that system. Plus, our feces is more than just feces. There are all sorts of things in our sewage like plastics, pharmaceuticals, and PFAS/PFOS. These elements, in addition to the poop itself, are extremely harmful to endangered habitats like coral reefs, mangroves, and wetlands. 

Sailing across the dead zone. © Jasmine Fournier/OSA

As we sailed from Mexico to New Orleans we crossed the Gulf deadzone. Once again, I was confronted with another grim reality. 

The deadzone is what it sounds like. Part of the Gulf of Mexico cannot sustain life because of nutrient pollution, like nitrogen and phosphorus. When there are too many of these nutrients in the water, they devour all the oxygen. No oxygen means no life.  

Reaching New Orleans, I couldn't help but reflect on the entire journey. Sailing across the Gulf provided a visceral, albeit unpleasant, reminder of the critical need to rethink how we handle human waste—both at sea and on land. It's a call to action for better systems, technologies, and global practices to protect our waters.

This trip reaffirmed my commitment to the OSA’s mission. Systemic changes and innovative solutions are essential to ensure the health of our oceans, which in turn supports a healthier planet. After all, everyone poops, but it’s how we manage it that makes all the difference.

1: Small caveat here, the majority of wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. are not equipped to filter out microplastics, pharmaceuticals, or PFAS/PFOS.

2: Similarly, larger boats like cruise ships, discharge their waste directly into the ocean as well. In fact, raw, untreated sewage from cruise liners can be dumped in the ocean once the ship is more than three miles off U.S. shores.

3: Seriously though, if you live near a harbor, go count all the small boats anchored in their slips and try not to cry.

Jasmine Fournier, Executive Director