shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.

Laundry Aboard

March 31, 2014

When we made our escape from the house, careers and land 12 years ago, certain domestic chores followed us onboard our Creekmore, Eurisko. We still had to feed, educate, clean up after and clothe our three growing boys. Cruising on a budget, working only a few months a year, we found inexpensive, though frequently time-consuming, means of meeting these basic needs: we bake our own bread, home-school the children, and avoid laundromats by washing our clothes onboard.

Tools of bucket washing

There are many methods of doing laundry on a boat. The most ridiculous one I have seen is a full-sized household washer on the deck of a 48' sailboat. This was not just a floating home; this couple regularly traveled a thousand miles a year in the Caribbean, with their washing machine tied to the mast.

Only slightly more practical, there are combination washer/dryers designed for use in a boat or RV. Innovative Washing ( sells a variety of these units, starting at around $1000. These 110v machines require over 10 gallons of water per load. The smallest one is 34'X24"X22" and takes one hour and forty-five minutes to wash and one hour and twenty-five minutes to dry a 3.5 pound load. (For reference, a full-sized washer load is 22 pounds.) Even if these appliances were free, we would not have the space, electricity or water to afford to use one.

A more sensible option for sailors on our end of the spectrum is the plastic hand-powered washer sold at for $50. We have a friend who uses his often with great results. It is an 11" diameter barrel on a 14"X17" stand. Add detergent, 5 pounds of clothes and 1 ½ gallons of warm water, close the lid and use the handle to spin the barrel at a rate of 1 revolution per second for 2 minutes. The agitation and the warm water create pressure which is said to help remove dirt. Drain, repeat with rinse water, drain, wring and hang clothes to dry. This method requires a bit more labor, but the washer is small, portable, requires no electricity and, with no metal parts, should last a lifetime.

A full load

"Small" and "portable" are relative. What was great for our single-handing friend on a 50' catamaran was not practical for the 5 of us on a 34' monohull. We needed a different solution.

For our first few years of cruising we endured the expense and hassle of lugging dry bags of laundry to shore, finding a laundromat, getting correct change in the local currency and wasting hours while the clothes washed and dried. Then we remembered an elderly gentleman whom Dave befriended 15 years earlier. Over iced tea during one of their afternoon visits, Mr. Carney finished washing his laundry--with a bucket and a toilet plunger. From these memories, trial and error and the subsequent years of improvements, we reached our current laundry routine.

Add water and detergent.

I start by filling our 3-gallon bucket with dry clothes; this determines a load. Seven t-shirts is an average-sized load. (The one pictured is 3 t-shirts, 3 tank tops, 3 pairs of shorts and 3 swim suits.) After removing the clothes, I add water, including a tea pot of boiling water if I want a hot water wash. For a warm wash or rinse cycle in the tropics, I leave the water jugs or the bucket of soaking laundry in the sun. Next I add detergent and bleach if desired. A word of warning about detergent: only add enough so that the clothes feel a bit slippery. If you see suds or the water feels soapy, you have added too much and it will require more water to rinse them. Adding bleach seems to decrease the amount of detergent you should use. When available, we use a powder detergent made especially for hand washing clothes in cold water. We have only found this in Central America, but it may be available elsewhere. I use the plunger to stir and dissolve the detergent, then add clothes and more water until the bucket is full. Be sure not to overload the bucket with clothes--leave room for the plunger and for the clothes to move around in the water.

I "plunge" the clothes, being sure that the load gets adequate circulation--so that the shirt on the bottom doesn't stay on the bottom, for example. The agitation and suction of the plunger force dirt out of the clothes. I have seen people wash clothes in a bucket using their hands instead of a plunger. Neither my back from the bending nor my hands from being in soapy water for that long would tolerate this method.


After five minutes of plunging I inspect the clothes for remaining dirt and stains, using a laundry brush on the bigger messes (such as the boys' shorts) and a toothbrush on more delicate fabrics. To remove rust stains I make a paste of Bar Keeper's Friend (oxalic acid), rub it on the stain and leave it overnight, then wash as normal. After spot cleaning them, I plunge the clothes for an additional five minutes. If there is room on the line for this load, I rinse it immediately. Otherwise, I have left clothes to soak for as long as overnight.

Until a few years ago our wringing method was hands-on. We wrapped the clothes around the tiller and twisted. While this did remove most of the water, it also occasionally distorted the shape of the clothes and after a few loads it irritated an old injury in my finger.

Wring, if you are so lucky.

In defiance of our "keep it simple" rule, we bought an old-fashioned hand-cranked clothes wringer. (This act of rebellion was only made possible by the empty locker we have not yet filled since the older two boys went off to college.) Not only does the wringer not misshape clothes, it removes much more water (and subsequently dirt, as well) than hand wringing. Our clothes are cleaner and require half the time to dry.

Our first method of rinsing clothes was to return them to the bucket after wringing out the wash water, fill the bucket with rinse water and plunge again. The water was cloudy with soap, the clothes were slippery and never fully dried, and they often mildewed in the lockers. Now we rinse each piece individually with only as much water as necessary, pouring out the water and using fresh after each one. We have found that the clothes feel cleaner and dry completely, and we actually use less water this way.

Use cow hitches, clove hitches, whatever is
necessary to keep clothes from blowing overboard.

A note on water conservation: we have read and heard about a clothes washing method touted as requiring less fresh water--washing in salt water, then rinsing in fresh. Some people use a bucket, others drag their clothes behind them as they sail. The first flaw with this idea is that detergent is not as effective in salt water. Secondly, rinsing all the salt out of clothes requires more fresh water than both washing and rinsing in fresh. We strongly discourage the use of this method.

Once the clothes have been rinsed and wrung again, we hang them to dry. After years of living in the trade winds, we have learned a few tricks for keeping clothes from blowing away. Small items we attach to our lifelines using any tie or strap available (such as on board shorts) as well as clothes pins. Swim suits and underwear we cow hitch around the lifeline (pull it through itself). I have sewn strings on the short edges of bath towels so we can tie them with a clove hitch in addition to using clothes pins. For anything that hangs down very far (towels and shirts) I pin the front two edges together to prevent them from flipping up in the wind and possibly popping off the clothes pins holding them to the lifelines. We secure shirt or shorts with any buttons or snaps around the lifeline as added wind proofing.

For drying sheets or more laundry than will fit on the lifelines, we tie a double braid line from the mast to the cutter stay at eye level and use it as an additional clothes line. We have seen boaters string a similar line athwartships from shroud to shroud. At anchor this gives the clothes the full power of the wind head on. Beware, if it is very windy, a lot of clothes forward of the mast will cause the boat to yaw if at anchor. When laying beam to the wind because of current or gusts, this added windage may even cause you to drag, as personal experience has proven.

Inclement weather or over-zealous washing late in the afternoon occasionally leaves me with clothes that are not dry by sunset. I do not leave laundry on the line overnight: they get wetter with the dew, they are noisy, add windage and make dealing with anchors during a midnight squall that much more difficult. After one smelly incident, however, I no longer simply make a pile of damp clothes; they will sour overnight. Instead, I hang them under the awning or down below, draped or hanging anywhere that allows them to air out.

Like most of our money-saving efforts, bucket washing laundry is time-consuming. We choose a sunny, dry, breezy day when we would normally be lounging in the cockpit anyway. Over a cup of tea while enjoying the scenery and each other's company, we plunge, wring and hang. As our reward, the clothes are cleaner, smell better and do not wear out as quickly when they are hand washed and hung to dry. Best of all, we can do laundry wherever we may be without ever leaving home.

Previously published in Good Old Boat Magazine.

We have recently discovered a new bread recipe that is simple even by our standards. MONDAY we'll share the secret and the benefits, including fresh baked bread from idea to table in under an hour.

Recent Articles



People and Places

Yarns and Opinions




Bolger AS-29


Can't find your favorite post?

Did you find something of interest? Consider donating $1.
Thank you.