Doing Laundry on Your Sailboat
Keeping Your Clothes Clean on a Sailboat
Washing clothes is one of the most dreaded chores onboard a boat. The cramped quarters and limited fresh water common on most sailboats just compound the difficulty of a task that is already problematic due to a lack of available electricity. But the challenges don't stop there! Once the clothes are washed, how do we dry them? All those issues will be addressed here with advice and recommendations from experienced live-aboards on the best ways to tackle the laundry problem.
Can I Wash My Clothes in Salt Water?
Some boats are lucky enough to be equipped with sizable water makers, a piece of equipment that will take ordinary sea water and turn it into fresh, drinkable water. These modern marvels greatly improve the quality of life aboard ship but are expensive and beyond the financial reach of many live aboard cruisers. For those of us that can't afford one of these magical desalination wonders, fresh water is at a premium on our boats and we are always careful about how much we use.
In the never-ending quest to conserve water, some sailors mistakenly think that they would be better off by washing their clothes in sea water. While it is technically possible to wash your clothes with salt water, it's not recommended for two reasons:
- If you don't succeed in thoroughly rinsing out all of the salt water, your clothes will dry stiff as a board and be very itchy, causing you to scratch yourself like crazy!
- It takes more fresh water to rinse out all of the salt than it would to just wash your clothes with fresh water and rinse them clean. In short, it's a false economy that ends up costing you more fresh water than it saves.
Question: Can I wash my clothes in salt water?
Answer: Yes, but don't!
Should I Use Detergent to Wash My Clothes on a Sailboat?
Use ammonia to wash your clothes! Experienced live aboards will tell you that the best thing that you can use to clean your clothes is ammonia. Most new cruisers are surprised by this and wonder why ammonia is better than the usual detergent for washing your clothes on a boat. The reason is simple, using ammonia instead of detergent means that you don't have to rinse your clothes clean. Why? Because the ammonia will evaporate when you hang your clothes out to dry. Detergent doesn't evaporate in the same way so, if you don't completely remove it from your clothes by rinsing with fresh water, it leaves behind a soapy residue that makes your clothes uncomfortable to wear.
An added bonus of using ammonia is that no rinsing means less water used, and for most of us (the poor unfortunates without a fancy water maker), using less water means fewer trips ashore lugging heavy cans of water. That gets old real quick, trust me!
What equipment should I use?
One option: Wonderwash
The Wonderwash is somewhat of a controversial piece of equipment among the cruising community with some sailors giving it a reasonable rating in terms of performance and convenience. To be fair, most of those cruisers have larger sailboats (over 35 feet) and can more easily afford the room for this bulky mechanism.
The Wonderwash fared significantly less positively with those of us who are sailing in the 28-32 foot range largely because we can't find a place to store this beast. In fact, I couldn't even get it inside my boat because it wouldn't fit through either of my hatches!
Best Sailboat Washing Machine: Simple and Cheap
The vast majority of experienced live-aboard sailors say that the most convenient sailboat washing machine is an ordinary toilet plunger and a bucket. Now there are two versions of this device.
I've never tried this one myself but you can sure bet that it's the next thing on my "I gotta try this!" list. But a lot of sailors use it on a regular basis for washing their own clothes. Here's how the old salts do it. You get yourself a sturdy bucket with a solid lid that seals well, and you put your clothes, some water, and some ammonia in the bucket. Then you trail that bucket over the stern of your boat while under way, letting the motion of the ocean agitate it and the clothes inside. It's best to use a snubber to reduce the constant series of shocks out of the line.
Alternatively, if you are anchored somewhere, you can also let the wind chop bounce it around for you.
Same bucket, no lid, more effort, less fun. You put the clothes, water and ammonia into the bucket and then use the plunger much like you would a butter churn. This method works best if you give the clothes a good plunging and then leave them to sit for a while. This method is slower and may take several rounds of plunging to get your clothes clean but it does work.
An old sea dog from the tropics told me that, when it rains in the Caribbean, the locals do what they quaintly refer to as the "dinghy stomp." When a few inches of rainwater accumulates in the bottom of their dinghies, they throw their clothes and some detergent in and act like they are stomping grapes to make wine. They keep this up until their clothes are clean, then empty their dinghies, wring out their freshly clean clothes and wait for the rain to fill up their boats enough for the rinse cycle. Those crazy islanders! That must be what's meant by "island fever."
Drying your clothes on a sailboat
The clothes are washed, what now? Washing your clothes is only half of the challenge; you are left with the question of how you dry your clothes on a sailboat. Well, the consensus view is that it's a twostep process. Step one being wringing as much of the water out of your clothes as is possible. You can get a fair amount out by twisting your clothes up with your hands but that only does so much. Best practice is to get yourself a quality, hand-operated clothes wringer. One of these little gems will press your washing so hard between two firm rollers that almost all of the water will be pushed out, leaving your clothes ready for stage two: good old-fashioned hanging in the sunlight.
Use the Rain
This is a late addition to the different ways to wash your clothes on board a sailboat. Recently I met a sailor who starts the laundry process by soaking his clothes in saltwater for a day or more. Usually he uses a bucket but sometimes he just runs a line through them and hangs them over the side to get the agitation working. (Note that this also seems to snag debris like kelp and trash). Then he wrings the salt water out of them as much as he can, and when it rains he and hangs the clothes on his lifelines and lets the rain wash the salt out.