Water scarce and plentiful

A little more than a decade ago, watermakers were the exception rather than the rule. Supplies of the precious liquid had to be conserved if they were to last throughout a passage. Dishes were washed in salt water. If there were ample supplies of fresh water, the dishes may have been rinsed in fresh. Many boats were even equipped with saltwater foot pumps at the sink in the galley so that salt and fresh water were readily available.

Showers were primarily a saltwater affair. Buckets of salt water were tossed over one’s head. You lathered up with some kind of saltwater soap or Joy dishwashing liquid, which produced suds in salt water, and rinsed off with a few more buckets of salt water. Once the soap was removed, a quart or two of fresh water might be used for a final rinse.

Laundry day had similar complications. Washing cotton clothes in salt water left clothing that resisted drying. When the clothes were hung on lifelines to dry, the water would begin to evaporate. But as the evaporation continued, the ever-increasing percentage of remaining in the fabric inhibited further evaporation. Clothes could stay on lifelines for days, and the cotton would never completely dry. Synthetic clothing helped to provide fabrics that would dry when washed with salt water, but they, too, had a tacky or coarse feel to them. The only solution was to wash in salt water to conserve the limited supplies of fresh water, and get the salt out of the final rinse with a dose of fresh water. Not only did the process take a bit longer, the finite amount of fresh water was further diminished.

A leak in the tank

Fresh water was for drinking; every other use was a luxury. Aboard Flyer in the 1981-’82 Whitbread Round the World Race, we developed a leak in one of our freshwater tanks. It could have been a disaster for the 16 of us onboard as we entered the doldrums and were rationed at six cups of fresh water per person per day. That included all instant juices, coffee, powdered milk or any other drink we wanted to have that day. Six cups. In the tropical heat. While racing. Fortunately, within a week and a half we were able to replenish our supply of water from rainwater that filled the foot of the main during one of several cloudbursts. Containers were filled with the rainwater. To hide the taste of the DuraSeam that coated the sails, this water was used for soup or in powdered drinks. “DuraSeam Soup” had a flavor all its own, but we were glad to be free from rationing water for drinking during the day.

Voyagers during that era sometimes developed more efficient means of collecting rainwater. One idea was to attach a hose coupling in the foot of the main. When it rained, a hose was connected to the foot of the sail and the water tank was topped off. Solar stills were used occasionally, but they required a degree of patience that not everyone possessed.

Reliable, small, energy-efficient desalinators entered the market. With increased usage and development, they have become almost commonplace. The availability of fresh water in a saltwater environment has become so taken for granted that it is now common to flush the toilets with fresh water! In the last 2 months or so, I spent five weeks on two separate boats that had freshwater plumbing systems for their heads!

Backup supply

Image Credit: Steve C. D’Antonio
To prolong filter life, above, and to protect the all-important reverse-osmosis membrane, don’t make water in crowded, oily harbors.

Desalinators have attained a reputation for a high degree of reliability. They work &mdash most of the time. But, like anything mechanical, watermakers have their own set of problems. These problems don’t just stop with the actual machine that removes the salt content of the water. Water systems in general can have problems. As a responsible offshore mariner, you owe it to yourself and your crew to take a prudent approach to freshwater management and the backup systems that will promote safety.

Prior to the advent of the watermaker, it was commonly accepted that a person at sea required about one gallon of water per day per person. Some of that was used in cooking, some for drinking or as an ingredient in powdered drinks. A very small amount of that might be used for washing. With watermakers now available, more lavish use of fresh water can be made. But a minimum amount of freshwater tankage or bottled water should be maintained for emergency use. The day the watermaker stops working, you will be glad to have the bottled water handy. Will the watermaker pump stop working? Will your source of electricity to run the watermaker cease to charge the batteries? Will the water tanks get fouled with diesel fuel? Will the accumulator tank that delivers pressure to the plumbing system develop problems? You may be able to work around some of these issues, but having a separate supply of fresh water will go a long way in maintaining peace of mind and the knowledge that no one will go thirsty. Maintain a safe minimum of tankage for the number of crew and duration of the passage expected. With a watermaker, you can exceed the one gallon of water, per person, per day rule of thumb, but replace the water used on a regular basis.

Ready for anything

Having made these suggestions for safety, I have to admit that I haven’t always done so. During two long-distance speed records aboard Great American II (one from San Francisco to Boston, and the other from New York to Melbourne, Australia), we kept only five or 10 gallons of water on hand for the two of us on the trimaran. It could have been woefully little. We did, however, have considerable stores of fruit juice, long-life milk, and other drinks in liquid form. Additionally, we had spare parts for the watermaker and separate watermakers as backup systems. The day the primary watermaker stopped working in our first speed record in 1993 was a day that our focus was directed on that piece of equipment. It wasn’t a dire emergency, but the situation certainly had our attention. If you’re subsisting on freeze-dried food and the watermaker packs it in, your food supply is also compromised. Reconstituting the freeze-dried chicken Tetrazzini with apple juice or long-life milk may not fit the fine-dining standards you had in mind.

Ideally, watermakers shouldn’t add to an emergency situation but rather help to alleviate one. Small, portable watermakers can be stowed in the life raft, awaiting the time when they may be called into action. Aboard The Card in the 1989-’90 Whitbread, our watermaker ceased operation only a day or two from our destination. While conserving water, we felt that it was a good time to pull out the little hand-operated emergency watermaker to find out how it worked. Squeezing the small unit’s handle, it took about 15 or 20 minutes to make enough water for a cup of coffee. The effort was enough to both strengthen forearms as well as curb an appetite for caffeine. If you’re ever in a life raft with a manual watermaker, start early to make the water, filling as many containers as practical. If you wait until you need to drink in order to start producing water, you are not taking a preemptive stance against the emergency. Act early, and keep the containers topped off.

Blocked water intake

Problems with watermakers are few, but if yours does fail, don’t create a disaster where one may not exist. Look for the cause of the problem. In my experience, a blocked water intake or an intake that was located too far up the hull from centerline stopped the water from flowing. If the intake is too high from the centerline, the solution may simply be to reduce sail, slow down and let the intake settle back into the water.

Filters, of course, have to be maintained, and one way to do that is to avoid making water in a crowded, oily harbor. If you’re pushing clean water through the filter on a regular basis, it’s less likely to get ruined. Even overfilling water tanks can sometimes be a problem.

Aboard one vessel I recently sailed on, the watermaker was left running for too long. The tank overfilled. Rather than push the column of water up to the vent hole and stream the water overboard or into a sink, an improperly bedded inspection port on top of the water tank provided the escape for the excess water. Water spewed out of the tank through the bottom of the inspection port and into the bilge. You would be surprised how much water can be made and put into a bilge. If the electro-mechanical elements for the watermaker are also located in that bilge, you will confront even farther-reaching problems. Fortunately, the electrical parts of the watermaker aboard that boat were located high enough that they weren’t destroyed by the water.

Later, however, aboard the same vessel, diesel fuel leaked into the water tank through the same inspection port. We could make water, but essentially, we had no place to store it efficiently. We could go to jugs or other containers, but the drinking water that was certainly the easiest to get at was the emergency supply in two-gallon jugs. As they were used, they could be refilled again with a hose from the watermaker to maintain enough water in the event of further problems.

In light of the myriad &mdash although rare &mdash problems that can occur to a freshwater system, here are a few thoughts. The freshwater system is a series of electrical and mechanical devices that can make your life offshore much more enjoyable. At the heart of the modern freshwater system is the watermaker. To make sure that your system works properly, everything in the system needs to be inspected and maintained from time to time. From the through-hull to the raw-water pump, to the watermaker itself, to the water tank, to the accumulator tank to the plumbing itself. Everything needs to work if you’re going to have a properly functioning water system. To actually make water, you will need electricity, and that generally requires diesel fuel to generate the juice to feed the batteries that are also part of the larger system. A considerable number of functions need to work properly in order for you to open the water tap in the galley and have a good glass of water stream into your cup.

Watermakers are truly a boon to passagemakers. Today’s reliable watermakers enable us to drink, shower off after a swim, better clean our clothes and other things with relatively little worry.

But these wonders of technology should not be taken for granted. They need and deserve regular maintenance if we expect them to serve us well. Offshore, of course, there are few things more important than fresh water. Treat your water supply like your life depends on it.

Bill Biewenga is a freelance writer, delivery skipper and ocean-racing navigator based in Newport, R.I.

By Ocean Navigator