A marine head that works—every time, without fail—doesn’t necessarily make a boat a happy place. But if it doesn’t work, perdition and pinched faces abound.
Those boat owners most likely to avoid the trauma of a “busted head” probably own either a Wilcox-Crittenden Skipper model or a British-made Baby Blake. However, there comes a time when even those two lofty thrones require service. Why else do they sell, for the Skipper, a “Service Kit” and, for the Blake a “Spares Kit”?
Because “servicing” these necessary evils is among the most unpleasant of a yachtsman’s tasks, the idea is to reduce to an absolute minimum the amount of hands-on attention given to what is essentially just a bowl with a seat on it, a pump and a few assorted valves and seals.
“Head” (the British say “heads”) is a clumsy term based on the place in a ship’s bow where sailors went to read Shelley. (Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned while sailing.)
We’ve come a way since fancy hotels covered the “water closet” with a wicker chair to avoid looking at the naked unmentionable, and no one expects the modern marine head to be pretty. It’s frequently jammed in limited, awkward space without even a level base.
What will be considered in this Practical Sailor evaluation of nine manually operated marine heads is how well each meets the basic goals of sound, robust construction providing horrendous reliability that requires as little service as possible.
The nine heads gathered for this bench review are the Baby Blake; Groco’s Models K and HP; Jabsco’s Compact; another British-made head called the Lavac; the Raritan PH II and relatively new Cricket, and two Wilcox-Crittenden heads called the Head-Mate and the Skipper.
It may be best to deal first with the “economy” heads, move then to the moderately priced models and finally take a close look at those that are considered to be the very best, with price no object.
In the “economy” class are three models, the Wilcox-Crittenden Head-Mate and the Jabsco Compact, both at $140, and the Groco HF, at $169. All three have side-mounted piston pumps that are, in our experience, troublesome.
The Wilcox-Crittenden Head-Mate probably is found, more than any other head, aboard boats built in the United States. Its low cost, compact size and easy installation make it very favored “original equipment” among boatbuilders.
A word here about Wilcox-Crittenden: This is an old company whose products long had the reputation for being rugged and reliable, but not exactly modern in design. However, in the five or 10 years prior to 1997, both metal and plastic castings for its marine toilets were sent overseas.
According to Jock Allpress, Wilcox-Crittenden product manager, there was very little if any quality control. He said parts broke that should never break. A piston lever arm was a particular problem.
After buying Wilcox-Crittenden in 1997, Richard Baierlein, of Newport, Rhode Island, set out to recapture the company’s proud reputation. It took nearly half a year to get the casting operations back in proper hands in the United States.
Jock Allpress said the company, which has 12 employees, intends to again build some of the best marine gear in the world.
Not included on anybody’s “best” list is the Wilcox-Crittenden Head-Mate. Unchanged for several decades, it has thin, complicated flap valves and a pump that won’t stand hard usage, clogs easily and is difficult to clear. It must be used and treated delicately. The flush water intake switch, when abused by a neophyte, can easily be broken (seven of the 10 items in the repair kit are for the water intake valve).
Jabsco’s Compact doesn’t enjoy a great reputation, either, but to Jabsco’s credit, it does have a pump that was recently redesigned. It appears to be an improvement over the prior one (see photo above), but the water flow still seems to be excessively circuitous and the fluids are required to squeeze through small places.
The Groco HF model has an extremely minor change—a T-shaped handle to replace the former knob—but the most important shift has been that Groco no longer offers the head with a plastic base. It comes standard now with a bronze base, which is a sound choice of materials. The Groco also has good robust valves and seals.
It is a shame that some builders, even of boats that sell for prices well up into six figures, opt for these “economy model” heads, purely because the buyers are not, perhaps, experienced enough to know about, let alone demand, a higher-quality head.
The medium-priced heads are the Lavac ($270), Raritan’s Model PH II ($230) and Raritan’s relatively new Cricket ($230).
The popularity of the Lavac is its simplicity. It is nothing but a toilet bowl with large lip seals (a new one with no joints or weldments was introduced in 1993) on both the seat and the lid. The Lavac uses a separate diaphragm pump, which can be mounted anywhere nearby. The standard pump (an electric model is available) is a plastic Henderson Mk V ($90), which was deemed “excellent” in an April 15, 2000 PS report on manual bilge pumps. However, we know of several Lavac owners who have replaced the Henderson with metal pumps.
In operation, after closing the lid, a half-dozen or so strokes of the pump creates a vacuum in the bowl. The vacuum draws out the waste matter and pulls in flush water. The whole cycle takes about 15 or 20 strokes of the pump. Because the intake is open to sea water, a simple bleed plug must be installed at a high point of the intake line—both to prevent siphoning (if the bowl is near or below the waterline) and to release the pressure in the bowl so the lid can be raised. The bleed plug is very tiny (keep it freed up!), so that the vacuum can overcome its effect and permit the pump to pull in flush water.
Raritan’s Model PH II is plastic and has a side-mounted pump. However, the piston pump has an unusually large diameter (2-1/2″) and is operated with a lever on an articulated hinge. The valves are spring-loaded balls and there is but one rugged flap valve, in the base of the bowl.
It’s old-fashioned looking, but the excellently designed Raritan Model PH II is very easy to work on and the overhaul kit costs but $35.
Raritan is very proud of its “old reliable” PH II; so why did it bring out several years ago the new Cricket model in the same price niche? A company spokesman said the Crickets is smaller, with a more modern appearance. In addition, in our view, it’s even better engineered than the PH II.
Like the expensive heads described in the next section of this report, the Cricket has, built in the base, a double-action, lever-operated diaphragm pump. The waste from the bowl is drawn by the pump through a big, thick flap valve and expelled on the next stroke through a 1-1/4″ discharge elbow. The flow path is very simple, involving only one 90° turn. The pump housing gasket includes a simple, cam-actuated valve to shift from “dry pump” to “flush.”
The Cricket’s only negative is that getting at the pump’s innards (for service or clearing clogs) requires the removal from the bottom of 10 machine screws, some of which are difficult to reach, especially when replacing them.
Most of the advantages of the diaphragm pump, as enumerated in the next section about premium heads, apply to the Cricket.
The Cricket is a purely manual pump. It cannot be electrified, like the PH II, which is perhaps another reason why Raritan keeps the PH II in production.
For the money, these medium-priced heads all have good pumps and strong valves. They are far better designed and built than the “cheapies” and much easier to service with the standard repair kits.
At the top of the heap are the Blake ($1,650), the Groco Model K ($482) and the Skipper ($781). The price range is considerable.
The Groco Model K and the Skipper both have bronze pumps below the bowl, which gives them a huge edge over heads with small side-mounted pumps. Included in the “pluses” are the size of the pumps, the pumps’ locations and their strong lever actions. With these pumps, the undesirable matter drops straight down and is expelled through one 90° turn, a considerable advantage over the route taken by waste matter via a side-mounted pump.
A side-mount piston pump must draw the waste down, through a turn to the pump base, through another 90° turn up into the pump, and then through another turn through the joker valve into the discharge line.
Groco’s Model K, has a 3″ diameter pump below the bowl. It is a rugged mechanism that should resist clogging. The Model K is sealed with two simple O-rings, which lead to the only negative comment about this otherwise excellent head. The O-rings are not easy to replace. The entire head must be disassembled to do so.
The Wilcox-Crittenden Skipper model, unchanged for years, has an enviable reputation. It’s big, heavy and reliable. Its position as a top-flight head rests on that desirable quality mentioned earlier, that being that it comes closest of all heads to “working—all the time, without fail.” Hinckley used to special order Skippers with all exposed metal parts chrome-plated.
It has a big 4″ bronze pump operated with a 26″ lever. The pump piston has a thick leather seal and the valves are big and tough.
With the Skipper, most any clog can be cleared just by laying into the lever. That’s good, because if it does clog, it’s difficult to work on.
The other head in this premium group—the British-made Baby Blake—is almost revered. Other than using better materials for the seals (the changes were made in 1992), this bronze classic has not, believe it or not, been changed in about 70 years.
The Blake has a side-mounted pump built to last. In fact, it has two of them—a lever-operated version for discharge and a piston-type for washdown. The pumps have both lip seals and gland packing, and its the gland packing that does the work, with the lip seals providing back-up protection against leaks. The Blake has a built-in water shut-off valve (very handy), a mahogany seat (painted white), and, of course, a bowl that used to be made of Royal Doulton china (the one we examined was not labeled).
The Blake comes in right- and left-hand versions, offered, we suspect, not only to fit various installation situations but to accommodate human differences. Besides the Baby Blake, there are two other models (the Minor and the Victory) with different space dimensions.
The Blake’s “Spares Kit” costs nearly as much as several of the low-cost heads discussed above. Should you elect to do your own maintenance and repairs, Blake’s set of two keys and five spanners (wrenches) is a desirable option.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps it would suffice to say, “Don’t choose an economy model head, unless you have no choice.” If in a corner, the Groco HF definitely is preferable; it’s well worth the extra $30.
The medium-priced heads are head-and-shoulders above the economy models, but it’s very difficult to select a Best Buy in the medium-price category. If you want something that might be considered a bit funky, the Lavac is the ticket. Raritan’s new Cricket has a great deal to recommend it, including its looks and the fact that it is the only relatively low-cost head with a diaphragm pump built into the base. However, despite it being known as the “Fred Flintstone Model” around Raritan’s empire up the Maurice River from Delaware Bay, we’ll take, for the day-in-day-out reliability you want in a head, Raritan’s Model PH II.
Choosing among the ultimate heads is a bit easier.
If you want the head without which Eric Hiscock said he would not sail, if you think antique iceboxes are gorgeous and if you don’t mind having your pocket picked, pay the shot and go for the Baby Blake. It’s a tremendously refined and archaically elegant contraption upon which to sit and read Frankenstein (which was written by Shelley’s wife).
Despite the company’s lapse in recent years, the Wilcox-Crittenden Skipper deserves its lofty reputation. With a new owner committed to making it the “best in the world,” the Skipper is a fine choice, if its weight and size are not a problem.
However, coming in lighter and smaller and for about $300 less money, the Groco Model K is the most logical choice.
Contacts- Blake & Lavac, made by Chillington Marine Ltd., Ringwood Rd., Poole, Dorset BH12 3LJ, England, 01202/747400, fax 01202/737445 and available in the US from Defender Industries, 42 Great Neck Rd., Waterford, CT 06385; 800/628-8225, www.DefenderUS.com. Groco, Gross Mechanical Labs, 7240 Standard St., Hanover, MD 21076; 410/712-4242, fax 410/712-0160. Jabsco, ITT Industries, 1485 Dale Way, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; 714/545-8251, fax 714/957-0609. Raritan, Raritan Engineering, 530 Orange St., Millville, NJ 08332; 609/825-4900, fax 609/825-4409. Wilcox-Crittenden, 24 Rope Ferry Rd., Waterford, CT 06385; 860/447-1077, fax 860/447-1170, email firstname.lastname@example.org.