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Water, Water Everywhere

No man is an island, but every crew should realize that there are limited resources when it comes to the use of freshwater.
A couple of years ago, I spent 10 days cruising the Grenadines on a 51-foot boat with nine ladies and 300 gallons of water at the tail end of dry season, when the islands are browned and scorched. At the chart briefing, prior to the trip, the charter company guy told us that there would be only two places to get water once we left St. Vincent. We could fill up in Union Island and maybe in Petit Martinique, if they had rebuilt the dock damaged by Hurricane Lenny. He wasn't sure if they had, but he did know that wherever the topping off would happen, it would cost at least 25
cents the gallon, or 75 dollars for a refill. Seventy-five dollars for water! Holy cheapskates! That could pay for several really nice meals, a good pair of shoes, or five tanks of gas for my car at home—that is if we ever needed to take on more water. The ladies on my boat had come to experience and learn something about cruising from me and here, by gum, was incentive for the perfect lesson.

Early on in my sailing career, I had learned about water conservation from a severe and, some would say, an overly obsessive teacher. This was my father; in the early ‘80s—the days when sextants were still used more than unreliable SatNavs. Back when many cruisers were still distrustful of gadgetry and cruising boats were fairly simple and functional, he bought his first boat for our first family cruise that took us from England to New York via the European Coast, the Canary Islands and the Caribbean. Always one for lectures, temporary suffering, and lessons learned the hard way, he began drilling us about the many aspects of the sailing life from the time we first set foot on deck. One of his main issues was water. All the way down the European coast, where all we had to do was turn left and head for any harbor for more water if we ran out, we still had to practice going without to be prepared for the potentially desperate times that lay ahead.

To ensure that the water supply would last, the author resorted to mixing salt water and freshwater for cooking pasta.
Among all the uses for salt water we discovered and explored, figuring out how to calculate a potable ratio of salt water to fresh water for boiling pasta was invaluable on a boat where both the failed freshwater pump and the galley hand pump that wouldn't prime easily went purposely unrepaired to facilitate frugality. We could drink as much tea and eat as many noodle soup as we wanted, but suggesting a weekly freshwater rinse for the hair would have been received as a request nearly as ludicrous as asking for ice cream on a boat with no refrigeration. What, are you kidding? You want to waste freshwater to rinse your hair when we are surrounded by the ocean? Keep dreaming, kiddo. And dream my sisters and I did with our long hair, until we arrived in harbors with public showers. 

Then came the Atlantic crossing, the big one where we could be at sea for weeks, even months if we got dismasted, said my father almost hopefully, eager to meet a real challenge. He filled the fuel and water tanks while my sister and I made sure we had enough books to last forever because with my Dad, we couldn't rule out that possibility. The trip from Gran Canaria to Guadeloupe ended up taking a modest 24 days because of some long-lived calms and strict conservation rules that applied to fuel and engine use as well. We children learned to abide by my father's strict adherence to self-discipline, but not without lots of laughs at his expense. I can't remember how many gallons that boat carried, but she was a 38-footer designed for long-distance cruising, so the tanks must have been fairly substantial, yet we even had to brush our teeth in salt water for the crossing. When we got to Guadeloupe, those tanks had been barely touched; there was still enough for a Pacific crossing.

There was no end to the ribbing he got for his extreme ways, but two years later, when I left on a circumnavigation on my own boat, I took some of these ways with me. With only 40 gallons in tanks and 10 gallons in jerry cans, I managed crossings that lasted up to 50 days at the longest, and, thanks to the ocean, was never deprived of the means for cleanliness. My cat and I never went thirsty, either, but several times, the Swiss stockpiling genes kicked in and I became concerned enough to rig a bucket underneath the main boom during heavy rains to increase the already healthy safety margin and my peace of mind. 

It's easy to take water for granted until you hear that last fateful suck of the water pump and realize that the tanks have run dry.

Years later, on a week-long charter in Thailand's Phang-Na Bay, I skippered a boat for a group of women. There was nowhere to fill the tanks during the trip, there were no jerry cans aboard for lugging any additional water, and I hadn't worked enough yet in the capacity of captain to be able to command anything near the authority my father had wielded over us. I wanted all the ladies to be happy, and when my feeble requests for bathing and doing dishes with salt water went largely unheeded, I just gritted my teeth and cringed every time I heard the water pump go on until, on the last day, there was nothing left to pump. 

The ladies weren't being disobedient; it was more than that. It was a combination of me not feeling self-confident about my knowledge to assert it strongly enough and the inability of these ladies to radically ratchet back on the consumption of something we take for granted and that must be unlearned. The Swiss Army and my father's years of independent traveling in desert regions had taught him how to ration, how it's always better to learn how to live with the minimum than to run out. Without becoming quite as extreme as he—I have never made anyone brush their teeth with salt water—I also had learned how bathing and doing dishes might be nicer with freshwater, but the salty stuff works very well, too. I can't say I would have known this, though, without having spent so many years at sea, cruising.

This enterprising young mariner knows the value of conserving freshwater.

After my experience in Thailand, I never wanted to run out of water again, least of all with nine women on a boat. So the Grenadines, a new and more mature version of me stood at the helm. Cruising isn't just about navigation, sail handling and engine maintenance, I told them. It's a way of life that uses available resources and an economy of living that we rarely get exposed to on land, especially in the US. I showed them how wonderfully some soaps will lather up in sea water, how great it is to be able to sit on the aft swim platform to soap up, then to jump overboard and stay in the warm tropical water for as long as needed to really get clean, without standing in a tiny head, using a trickle and feeling guilty because the electrical pump is a loud tattletale and I have good ears. Then, with the deck shower, I allowed them to rinse off the salt water at the end—without the encumbrances of soap, this never uses much more than a pint. Best of all, I told them, with a bath off the stern, one never has to wipe down a stinky head, one of the most unpleasant things you can do immediately after getting clean. 

They also learned how resilient dishes, cutlery and pots and pans can be, how these things don't even need a freshwater rinsing if they're dried properly. The initial response was pretty doubtful, but by the end of our 10 days, the biggest skeptics were washing and drying dishes with buckets full of water without a second thought. On our last day, except for the one woman who had never put her toes in the water, we were all jumping in, lathering up, jumping back in to get rid of the soap and lightly rinsing off with a stern shower as if it were the most normal thing to do, which it is when you are surrounded by beautiful, clear, and warm ocean water. We returned to the dock having emptied only three of the four water tanks, well within the safety margin, not only with clean dishes, clean decks, and nine clean women, but $75.00 ahead of the game.

Tania Aebi is offline  
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