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Laundry at Sea

NOTE: This post is dedicated to my Twitter friend and Maniac, @bexmith who got me thinking about laundry when we had a Twitter exchange one day. It began when she tweeted  the following:

“The phrase is not all intensive purposes. Just so you know.”

A few of us found this funny and started a conversation going to show how witty we were. We decided that “All Intensive Purposes” was a great name for an organic cleaner that would take could be used for anything from washing your dog to brushing your teeth.

It was funny at the time. Since @bexmith has visited the boat and likes to hear how we live – this one’s for her.


You know you’re from Maine when your 5-gallon Home Depot bucket has duct tape on it to repair a crack.Laundry Home Depot Bucket 5-13-2011 10-42-09 AM (That works, by the way.)

You know you’re a cruiser when you do your laundry in that bucket.  Laundry in the Bucket 5-16-2011 11-07-24 AM

While heading down the US coast from Maine, I did our laundry at laundromats (or the very occasional marina) from New Jersey through St. Thomas. The cleanest facility was  Ida’s at Black Point in the Bahamas. The one in the worst condition was on Main Street in Atlantic Harbor, New Jersey. Twice during the last six months I spoiled myself and EW by having the laundry done (and folded) by an attendant. I don’t know where they learn to fold but I need lessons – especially since we left the iron with Goodwill.) In some areas, even do-it-yourself laundromats are expensive, and in other areas laundromats of any kind don’t exist. Such are the joys of anchoring out. In Antigua, the sheets and towels were done on shore, but I did our clothes in the bucket, a system I’ve been perfecting since the Bahamas.

While in Nassau, we met a cruising couple who were heading north, to swallow the anchor after over 25 years of cruising around the world. I’d like to have talked with them for three days with a tape recording running, but was able to glean good information during drinks on board one evening. Somehow the discussion turned to laundry and I was stunned to learn that she had an  automatic washing machine similar to this Avanti model.  They’ve had two or three of them over the years, upgrading to a slightly larger one when the old one fails. They call it “the guest” as it is stored on the berth in the forward cabin; when the admiral wants to do laundry, the captain puts “the guest” in the cockpit and laundry gets done. The machine is filled via a hose to one of the faucets and is drained down the cockpit scuppers. These boaters also had a water maker and a generator, and both were needed for regular use of “the guest”.

We didn’t have a generator until recently and we still don’t make water, so EW was glad to hear that I had no desire to purchase our own “guest” right away. In fact, the storage of said unit would be a challenge for me as EW’s guitar is “the guest” and I’m not inclined to add any more clutter to the forward cabin. I’m embarrassed to say that a few years ago, friends gave us a hand washer that they’d no use for, which I kept it in the storage locker until we set sail, but did not bring with us. My bad. It just seemed … inconvenient, hard to store, too much work … really what was I thinking? For my sins, I’m doing laundry in a bucket.

The experienced cruising couple told me they use non-sudsy ammonia for laundry detergent aboard. They wash their clothes in the machine, the spin dry gets most of the moisture out, then they hang the laundry on the boat and let it air dry. Non-sudsy ammonia allows them to wash and not rinse, saving time and precious water. After some experimentation I’ve found a system that works for us.

1. Choose a day when no rain squalls are expected. (You’d be surprised how often I’ve gotten this wrong.) A breeze is good, but too much wind will whip the clothes off the line. I lost a towel that way.

2. Select two loads of laundry and separate them into “clean” dirty and “dirty” dirty. (We’re saving water here.)

3. Carefully inspect the laundry for stains, then treat said stains with nail brush and whatever you use for stains. I use an organic cleaning product that seems to work as well as anything else. Rinse much of the stain product out of the clothes.

4. Fill bucket 1/2 way and add about 1/3 cup ammonia. Plop the clothes in and stir with a boat hook. (Here’s the lazy part.) I just let them soak for a few hours. NOTE: if you let them soak together too long darker colors will bleed on the lighter ones they are packed next to. (I learned that the hard way, too.)

5.  Let’s discuss wringing. When I was a child my mom had a wringer washer. I don’t remember it much, but I do remember being about 4 years old when they purchased an “automatic” washing machine so she’d never have to use the wringer again. She was thrilled. Now I’d be thrilled to have an old fashion wringer, something I wished we’d purchased before leaving the states. (Really, I’d be thrilled to have that crank washer I gave away, Laundry hand wringing 5-16-2011 3-03-39 PMbut a wringer would make me happy, as well.) Since neither is available at this time, I’ve resorted to the “Mary and Barbara Wringing Method for Sweaters”. Mary, one of my roommates in college, and I had a lot of colorful, hand wash only sweaters. We would wash them in the sink, then wrap each sweater in a plush towel, put the bundle on the rug and stamp on it until the moisture from the sweater was absorbed by the towel. It worked great. On La Luna, I have a plethora of cham-like cloth purchased at a number of boat shows. They are great for drying dogs, so --- once the clothes have soaked for the proscribed amount of time, I remove one item at a time, wring it by hand and wrap it in a cham-wow-like cloth, then I stamp on it. The clean item no longer drips and I hang it on the line, wring out the cham-thing and tackle the next item. Works great. Laundry Feet Two 5-16-2011 3-04-45 PM

6.  A word about laundry on the line. Hanging laundry on your boat is forbidden when on the dock in most marinas. Since we anchor out, I’m not restricted by anything except my own good taste and nice manners. I will rig a clothes line on the foredeck from mast to forestay and neatly hang my laundry with clothespins. I take them down as soon as everything is dry. EW rigged up a nifty retractable indoor line in the forward cabin where I hang our under garments. Whether one is on a sailboat or living in a million dollar home on shore, I don’t think he or she needs to look at my clean underwear so I draw the line at hanging our drawers and my bras on deck.

Laundry on the line 5-16-2011 1-57-09 PM

7. Now, back to the bucket. Once the first load has been wrung out and hung up, I place the “dirty” dirty clothes in the bucket, add a bit more water and ammonia and let ‘em soak until the first load is dry.

If I stay of top of the laundry I can do this every 5 or 6 days – less often if we’re living in swimsuits – and not be over-burdened by the job. When dry, everything smells clean and feels great – no ammonia odor lingers at all. We haven’t been kicked out of restaurants or off of neighboring boats, so I’m pretty sure we don’t stink. 

If I have the opportunity to get another hand washer, I’ll probably do so as I suspect that agitation is a good thing, and it would provide for more upper body exercise. In the meantime, our Mainah’s Home Depot bucket works just fine.


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Love it! :)

Travis Swaim

Barb, Sophi and I have a wonder wash and it works well... when we use it. We are planning on taking a 3 months off next summer to sail to PEI and back, we may use it once or twice then.

Keep the posts coming, I curse thru you haha


Three months sailing in Maine sounds fantastic. There are so many places to see. I wish I'd perfected my laundry skills before we left, but live and learn. I've heard this has been a rough spring up there.

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