Cruising essentials, part 1, Fresh water

A major difference between weekend sailing and setting off to cruise the wide blue yonder is the requirement for self sufficiency. You’ll need to look at your systems and gear in a different light when faced with a lack of ready access to shore side facilities.

In particular you’ll need to carefully consider fresh water supply, electricity generation, maintenance and repair, sun protection, anchoring systems and safety gear.

Let’s take a look at the fresh water supply: You’ll need enough fresh water to sustain life and to maintain an acceptable level of hygiene when away from the dockside tap for considerable periods. Two sides to this equation – storage and supply. You need enough tank capacity to meet your requirements between opportunities to refill.

We’re not talking here of provisioning for a single long passage such as a transatlantic or a non-stop round the world race – we’re looking at the needs of living on the hook away from marinas for reasonable periods in relative comfort and respectability.

How much water? In the UK the average person uses an astonishing 150 litres (33 gallons) a day of fresh water so it’s obvious that something has to change when you go to sea in a small boat. We each need 2 litres (0.5 gallons) a day to drink, the rest is squandered on washing, laundry and cooking. You can’t afford to squander anything on a small boat, so you’ll need to modify your lifestyle if you’re a habitual waster. For instance, running the tap whilst cleaning your teeth is a sure sign of a newbie to the cruising life – waste not, want not is the mantra of the cruising sailor. A shower takes about 7 litres a minute, that’s 35 litres (8 gallons) if you can keep it down to 5 minutes a go; if you wash in salt water and only rinse in fresh you can probably keep it down to 5 litres for a complete shower.

Allowing for an adjusted lifestyle and some laundry and cooking you’ll need 10 litres (2 gallons) per person per day when cruising. A couple of weeks supply is the minimum you’d want to consider if you aren’t going to be constantly looking for a shore side tap or chasing rain clouds so a cruising couple will require minimum water tankage of 280 litres (60 gallons) which is about what we had on Adriana (32’ LOA). Twice that would have been more comfortable and that’s what I’d aim for. Small cruising boats such as the Nicholson 32, Sadler 32, Vancouver 27 and the like don’t have that sort of capacity and you’ll need to look at supplementary storage – bladder tanks is one way, and 5 gallon containers on deck is another. (Actually you’ll need containers anyway, even if you only use them to carry water from shore to the boat).

To summarise, a crew of two will want 600 litres (130 gallons) of water storage and a crew of four will want 1200 litres (260 gallons).

Water storage is one thing, supply is the next problem. The available sources are the dockside tap, rain and the sea.

Obviously, if you are going into a dock for any reason, don’t leave without having topped up your tanks. In some parts of the world water is scarce and expensive; don’t be surprised if you have to pay for it or, worse, find it unavailable. We once arrived in a parched South Caicos with dry tanks and were gifted 5 gallons of drinking water by the proprietor of the small marina there – he said it was too precious to sell. Without his generosity we would have been in trouble.

Rain is an unreliable source but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready to collect as much as you can when the opportunity presents itself. You can collect a lot of water in a tropical downpour if you’ve thought out the system ahead of time. On Adriana, water running down the scuppers was diverted into the open tank inlet, after allowing a few minutes to clear the salt off the deck. We would also create a gutter with the mainsail cover slung under the boom and put a bucket at the gooseneck to gather the water that poured off it. Many a time we’ve filled our tank in a single squall and had wonderful deck showers into the bargain. That others in the anchorage are also running around on deck feverishly lathering their naked bodies in some semi-erotic rain dance could be considered a bonus.

By all means carry a solar still for emergencies but a reverse osmosis water maker is, at the present time, the only practical way of desalinating sea water at a practical rate. I’ve often considered installing one but have always been put off because the complexity and maintenance regime offends my KISS philosophy, but for others it might well be an answer. You wouldn’t want to risk minimising your water tank capacity in the confident hope of never having your water maker fail, but as long as it’s fully functional you can have a veritable aquatic orgy. We met a couple with a domestic washing machine installed on their aft deck, supported by the output from a huge water maker.

To keep your water safe it’s a good idea to treat your tank with a tablespoon of bleach to 130 litres (30 gallons) of water. Having your precious water supply turn foul is not something you want to contemplate. If you’re fussy about water taste store your drinking water separately or buy it in bottles.

In Part 2 I’m going to be considering self sufficiency in your electrical supply. Keeping your water maker going is just one reason for keeping a steady flow of amps available.