Doing Laundry on Your Sailboat

Updated on February 8, 2017

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.

Version 1

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.

Version 2

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.

Caribbean Version

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.

New Guestbook Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Bee3 6 months ago

      to be completely honest, I spend the days in my underwear!

    • profile image

      jmi4 3 years ago

      Ammonia can cause severe eye irritation, headaches and lung damage.

      It's also EXTREMELY POISONOUS TO FISH AND OTHER AQUATIC LIFE, even in dilute amounts. That means that any ammonia you put down the drain is poisoning the water around you.

    • junkcat profile image

      junkcat 4 years ago

      I never thought about doing laundry on a boat. I would need to use a laundermat.

    • junkcat profile image

      junkcat 4 years ago

      I never thought about doing laundry on a boat. I would need to use a laundermat.

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 4 years ago

      @Kailua-KonaGirl: When the weather is good, I wear nylon shorts and maybe a tshirt if the wind picks up but I'm with you on wearing as little as decency and weather will allow!

    • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image

      June Parker 4 years ago from New York

      Whenever I have done any long distance sailing, we didn't have the luxury of a washing machine or ringer. We always tried to wear the least amount of clothes possible in fair weather. Having a couple of swimsuits worked for me to wear one while the other was washing and drying. Wearing clothes caked in salt is not a good thing as it tends to create sores. Usually a laundromat has been available when in port, but if laundry needed to be done while out at sea, it was the bucket route and hanging on the rigging in the rain to rinse well. I didn't know about ammonia. Good to know. We always used Dr. Bronner's castile soap for bodies and clothes. LOL.

    • profile image

      myront-babler 4 years ago

      @SheGetsCreative: It would be best if you mixed the vinegar and baking soda before adding to the wash because the chemical reaction if mixed in a sealed container would be impressive as well as destructive

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 4 years ago

      @SheGetsCreative: I'll try it and let you know!

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      I love the Wonderwash too but I would never be able to use ammonia -- I'd hope that vinegar and baking soda would work as well.

    • Cynthia Haltom profile image

      Cynthia Haltom 4 years ago from Diamondhead

      Washing clothing on a sailboat can be a real problem, I like clean clothes and would have a problem if I was unable to water them on a regular basis

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      Great info.

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 5 years ago

      I have never thought of how you would be washing your clothes on a boat! MAkes me appreciate my washing machine all the more....

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 5 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      I love the idea of the dinghy stomp! I'd love to live on a boat. I've known quite a few people who did (including one couple in their eighties) and I love the challenge of small space living.

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      This is something I've never thought about, but what an interesting lens! Now I know how to get my clothes clean if I ever get to sea. This would also work out in the bush in a drought, I'd imagine.

    • kabbalah lm profile image

      kabbalah lm 5 years ago

      I didn't know they still made clothes wringers

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 5 years ago from New York City

      Very down to earth for the high seas.

    • CoolKarma profile image

      CoolKarma 5 years ago

      I have heard of people using contraptions like that sail boat clothes washer, by putting them in the boot of their car. When they get home from where ever they are going, the clothes are all clean and ready to dry. Great page.

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 5 years ago

      Cool Lens, interesting; thanks for all the great information.

    • profile image

      johnsja 5 years ago

      Fascinating. I don't think I could live on a sailboat for long. I prefer the ground under my feet. Boring I know!

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      @Julia1000: Glad I could help! Does your cousin have a blog about his sailing adventures? I'd love to read it.

    • Julia1000 profile image

      Julia1000 5 years ago

      Lovely lens. Been looking for a wonderwash for years. Have sent link to your lens to my dad, so he can buy me one for my birthday. My cousin spent 5 years sailing the world, never thought to ask him about how he did his laundry.

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      @Speed-Racer: I love redondo! Just wrote a sailing guide for it actually.

    • profile image

      Speed-Racer 5 years ago

      A very interesting topic. My family had a sail boat in Redondo for many years. You have to use every inch of space very wisely.

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      @HomeStuff: Do it! Sailboat life is everything you dream it will be.

    • shauna1934 profile image

      shauna1934 5 years ago

      To have to deal with the problems of doing laundry on a boat... hmmm... I think I could live with that!! Highly interesting subject for the land dweller ;)

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      @shauna1934: Lots of sailors complain about doing laundry but it's really not that bad. The trick is to pick 2 sets of clothes and wash every day so it doesn't pile up on you. Your clothes do wear out quickly this way though and you look a bit like a scruffian much of the time.

    • HomeStuff profile image

      HomeStuff 5 years ago from Canada

      Fascinating. One day we hope to live on a sailboat, so I will look back and remember this article then!

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      @anonymous: =)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Well, I'm sure blushing, guess I thought this was so interesting that I forgot to leave a rating when I was here in December, fixed that.

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      @CruiseReady: I think it'd be fine but, to tell the truth, I'll never find out. I've been using the bucket and plunger method to great effect so I'll probably be sticking with that unless I buy a bigger boat. Thanks for the blessing!

    • CruiseReady profile image

      CruiseReady 5 years ago from East Central Florida

      hmmm ... I wonder about using ammonia instead of water in the Wonderwash machine. Would that work? Or would the ammonia do something undesirable to the mechanisms, whatever they are?

    • profile image

      dream1983 5 years ago

      Very nice lens, well done! Squidlikes

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I never thought of doing laundry as being an adventure until now. I had never thought about the issues with salt water and like the idea of the dingy stomp. A very cool DIY with fascinating narrative from start to finnish.

    • Ben Reed profile image

      Ben Reed 6 years ago from Redcar

      You've done it again - another lense where you have made the every day so interesting, informative and memorable. Love it...

    • profile image

      SandyPeaks 6 years ago

      I wondered how it was done, now I know!

    • SayGuddaycom profile image

      SayGuddaycom 6 years ago


    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 6 years ago

      @clouda9 lm: Mucas Gracias Clouda9! Trust me and do yourself a favor, go live on a sailboat! It's great. If you find yourself in San Diego before the end of December, let me know and you can come sailing on my boat for the day. I promise you will love it!!

    • clouda9 lm profile image

      clouda9 lm 6 years ago

      Interesting read. If, and that is a big if, I ever find myself living on a sailboat I'll definitely remember your tips and tricks for doing laundry on a sailboat. :) *Blessed today because I know this article is going to help a sea-going sailor somewhere.