This came up in another thread, so I thought I would discuss it here.
As most know, we have been living aboard/Cruising since about 2000, and have been boating since about 1995. All that time we have the same problem: Keeping clean clothes. Now when you own a house, it is not as big of an issue. But as liveaboards especially, it becomes quite an issue. SO here are the ways we have used over the years, and our thoughts. Others are free to chime in one way or another.
Dragging behind in a mesh bag.
I have heard about the old time cruisers doing this and tried it with minimal success many years ago. However, it was not as successful for us as I am sure it was for others. For one, you still have salt in your clothes, which is one of the things we are trying to get rid of. Second, you have to be a gorilla to pull that bag in under any kind of speed. Third, we got a lot of sea weed caught up on the bag. Lastly, our mesh bag did not break, but if it did, that would be a real problem. Wet clothes sink like a brick (especially if the are expensive or new or stain free... snicker). Personally, we will never do that again. Plus, liveaboards are often in one spot, not cruising and sailing in pristine water.
Washing in Salt, Rinsing in fresh.
We have done this several times. Basically, it involves a 5 gallon bucket, some detergent, salt water, and a fresh rinse thereafter. I will say that salt water, if clean, does as good a job of washing as fresh. My wife thinks it does better. However, and here was the real kicker for us, we ended up spending more fresh water to rinse the clothes than if we had just washed in fresh too. Inevitable, there would be salt residue when the clothes dried and they always felt damp. When completely dried, they resembled an old chamois and chafed sensitive areas like sand paper. We avoid this method now.
Washing in fresh/Rinsing in fresh.
Maybe the best method for some. You use a lot more fresh water than the method I will describe below, but in my opinion, less than those above. When you are done, your clothes smell good and are marginally clean. The best method here, assuming you do not have a lot of clothes, is to actually let them sit in the soapy water for a while - hours if you can. Then wash them in one bucket, squeeze them out until they are as dry as you can wrench by hand, then rinsing in another fresh water bucket. Two buckets makes this a lot easier. In a pinch, you can keep the dirty water and re-use, as well as the rinse. And if a good rain storm comes, use your bimini to collect that water for washing... just let the bird droppings and salt rinse off before filling. Some people use a stick, they also make a special plunger looking device for agitation, but we generally just used our hands. It works ok, better if you let soak for a while.
Washing with Fresh and Lemon Ammonia.
In a water conservation mode, this may be my favorite. Basically, you fill a 5 gallon bucket with water and add roughly a cup of Lemon Scent Ammonia. Let them sit a bit. Shake them around or stir as discussed above. Then pull them out and wring them out to dry. No rinsing necessary. You will not smell the ammonia and it does a good job of getting the clothes pretty clean with minimal fresh water. Negatives, obviously, are that you cannot use bleach (CL + Ammonia is toxic). Another negative is it takes longer and does not do as well as a traditional washer. But for most cruisers I know, this is how they wash their clothes if they do not go to a laundromat.
Thanks to Tim R., we bought this little contraption (thank you Tim). He suggested it. My experience is it works pretty well. You can certainly go through a lot more volume of clothes than doing any of the above methods. It uses moderate amounts of water, with the trick being to be cautious about your soap usage. Basically, you add clothes to this little bucket, small amount of soap, and spin. We personally use cold water and spin longer, but it suggests hot water. THe problem for us is that hot water is even more of a premium than fresh water, so I will tell you, cold water works fine. After you put the lid on, you spin this thing for a few minutes, then stick in the drain pipe and drain it out. We wring dry (method stated below) between rinsing and washing to really help conserve water. The cost of the Wonder Wash is circa $55. We purchased it from here: Clothes Dryers, Washers & Dryers, Portable & Compact Washing Machines
I think this may be the bests option for liveaboards - especially if water is available. For drying between cycles, we use a 5g bucket with many holes drilled across the bottom. You can put the clothes in there and step on it repeatedly and it will wring them out (see pic).
Note: Some people also use a spin dryer. I think this would be the ideal way to do it, as you simply cannot wring the clothes as dry as it can. However, it cost power, money, and space. As such, we have not done that yet. The method above works. It also serves as a good bait bucket for Lobster (would have to see my Facebook post).
Washing clothes in a laundromat.
Most marinas and mooring fields have these. But let me warn you: Many are expensive ($3.75 wash here, plus $2.25 to dry and one dry often does not do it). Also, inevitably every colored piece of clothing you have will get a bleach spot from some yahoo that spilled bleach on the washer or where you spread out your clothes. I have also seen oily clothes washed in there, muddy clothes, lines, canvas, etc. Don't expect the washers to always work and certainly not to always be available. Sometimes 'laundry day' can take all day or two days. If nothing else, something like a Wonder Wash may save you money and frustrations.
One last comment about washing clothes and keeping them clean aboard. Other ways to help conserve water and keep clean clothes are when you shower, throw your dirty clothes at the bottom of the shower before starting. We always do this with our bathing suits. Wring out when done washing and they are 'ok' clean (at least the salt and smell are gone). Another trick is actually being careful what you buy. Cotton clothes (with things like blue jeans) are a nightmare on fresh water, harder to get clean, soak up salt air, and take forever to dry. On the flip side, clothes with a lot of Polyester (100% preferably) wash easily and dry so quick you won't believe it. Salt does not stick with them well. I like the Climalite products, but the reality is that most 100% polyester products will work. These products have also held up well for us. Third, we try to avoid buying too many colored clothes. Remember my 'Musings of a Liveaboard' where I said my best shirt has only one bleach stain? You got it... colored clothes are a killer for us as they never stay looking nice for long. My last suggestion is to avoid any product that does not fit into a standard washer. I have literally traveled miles to find a washer big enough to wash a stupid comforter. So instead of the big, luxurious comforters that are so popular (and unpractical), get multiple sheets or the thinner polyester/cotton blend blankets that look nice. They will fit in a standard washer and will make your life aboard so much more enjoyable.
Hope these hints help everyone... happy boating...