Our Bay: Waste Watcher

Pumpout boat does a honey of a job helping keep the bay clean

The Capital 06/06/09

Pamela Wood - The Capital
Max the dog supervises as Michael DeRogatis, captain of the Honey Dipper pumpout boats, hands the nozzle to Philip Thomas of Montgomery County, who needs to pump the waste from his 40-foot catamaran, Platypus. The pumpout boat is operated by the West/Rhode Riverkeeper organization.

It was the numbers that really got Bob Gallagher's attention. He had just started work as the first West/Rhode Riverkeeper when someone mentioned to him that what the rivers really needed was a pumpout boat to go around and pump toilet waste from all the sailboats and powerboats.Popular in New England, pumpout boats aren't common on the Chesapeake Bay.

Gallagher looked into the situation and found a startling need. On the West and Rhode rivers, there were nearly 3,000 registered boats, but local marinas were only recording 1,500 pumpouts per summer.

If all those boaters weren't getting rid of their waste at marinas, where was it going?

There was a good chance a lot of it was being released into the rivers, fouling the water with bacteria and nutrients, Gallagher said.

"That was a hint there was a problem," Gallagher said.

So Gallagher arranged for the riverkeeper group to use a pumpout boat being retired by the Annapolis Harbormaster's Office to do a trial run of offering floating pumpouts in the West and the Rhode. Once word got out that first summer, 2007, it became quite popular.

"People really appreciated it," he said.

Fast forward to 2009 and the riverkeeper has a new boat with a full-time captain and a growing list of customers.

Michael DeRogatis pilots the Honey Dipper, an 18-foot powerboat with a bright yellow hull outfitted with a 300-gallon tank and a powerful pump, around the West and the Rhode on the weekends.

This year, the pumpout service started earlier than ever, in early May, and will continue through October.

This also is the first time the riverkeeper has charged for the service. Pumpouts are free to riverkeeper members; others pay $5. Tips, though not required, are appreciated.

The Honey Dipper mostly operates on a $60,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources, which was less than last year. The $5 fee is intended to cover the funding gap so the operation can break even.

The fee hasn't deterred customers, as it's still less expensive - and more convenient - than a marina pumpout.

As he cruises the rivers, DeRogatis answers cell phone calls and is flagged down by potential customers. He also monitors VHF Channel 71 and an e-mail account, but most service calls come in over the phone or with a good old-fashioned wave and a holler.

"Good morning, Honey Dipper," DeRogatis answers his phone on a sunny and mild Saturday. "And what slip number? Sailboat? OK. Will you be on board in about an hour?"

Another stop goes on DeRogatis' mental list of planned pumpouts.

It doesn't take long for the holding tank on the Honey Dipper to start filling up.

An average pumpout is about 20 gallons. DeRogatis maneuvers the Honey Dipper close to the customer's boat and he ties up.

He unfurls a long, ribbed tube that looks like a vacuum cleaner hose. At the end is a nozzle that the boat owner attaches to opening in the boat's holding tank.

DeRogatis flips a switch and it launches a rhythmic chugging sound as the wastewater pumps from the customer's boat into the Honey Dipper holding tank. The operation isn't messy and doesn't smell too bad, either. The Honey Dipper has a faint sour smell, but it's not overpowering.

"It only takes about five minutes to do a boat," DeRogatis said. "Probably more time is spent getting from A to B."

"It's handy," said Steve Carpenter, who lives in the Montgomery County town of Boyds and owns a 28-foot Sea Ray called Carpy Diem. "He comes to your boat instead of having to go the dock and wait in line."

Convenience was a common theme among Honey Dipper customers. On a recent weekend, many were still getting their boats ready for the season and hadn't yet left their slips.

Many of the boats are large - some call them "floating condos" - and difficult to maneuver in the close quarters of a marina. It's easier and cheaper to have the pumpout boat pull right alongside, boaters said.

"I thought it would be interesting to try," said Paul Kowalski of Bowie, who pumped 25 gallons of waste off of Easy Living.

Philip Thomas was getting his 40-foot catamaran ready for a ceremony and party to rechristen it as Platypus. He needed to pump out the dual holding tanks and rinse them out. His dog Max, a rescued German shepherd mix, checked out the action.

"It's a great service," Thomas said.

Once the holding tank on the Honey Dipper approaches capacity, DeRogatis takes it to a nearby marina and uses a pumpout on the dock to offload the wastewater from the boat into the sewer system. Some marinas let the Honey Dipper pump for free, others charge a fee.

A few miles to the north, the Annapolis Harbormaster's Office offers a similar service with its own pumpout boat.

There are no official records, but DNR's head of boating services, Bob Gaudette, said he knows of just three pumpout boats on the bay: the Honey Dipper, the Annapolis boat and another one in the upper bay.

Gaudette said pumpout boats are a good way to augment the stationary pumpout services that marinas have.

"They've been very successful," he said.

The Annapolis harbormaster staff has been doing floating pumpouts since the early 1990s, when the DNR was pushing for all marinas to have pumpout facilities, said Harbormaster Ric Dahlgren.

The city didn't much like the idea of having a stationary pumpout at City Dock, with all of the people and cars and boats coming and going.

"We didn't want a pumpout station where people promenaded and concerts," Dahlgren said.

So the city wound up getting a pumpout boat, which Dahlgren said works out well. Like the Honey Dipper, the Annapolis boat (appropriately named Annapolis Pumpout Boat) tends to both visiting boaters and boats docked in marinas.

Dahlgren said the pumpout boat is busier than ever, pumping out 78,000 gallons of wastewater a year, up from just 35,000 gallons a few years ago.

He said increased awareness of environmental concerns has spurred more people to do the right thing.

"I think most people are ecologically minded and don't want to dump," he said.

(Revised June 2009)