Laundry While Cruising

Drying laundry on our rails. Dewey and Riley are there keeping the birds away. Also, ignore our messy deck. And blue tape.

When I moved aboard our boat with promises of sailing off into the sunset I knew I that I would be giving up some of my land based luxuries – one being access to regular washing machines. The truth is that I’ve kind of been prepping for this for some time now. I haven’t had access to an in home washer/dryer since I moved the NYC. The closest I ever got to living the luxurious life was when my studio’s building finally installed a laundry room down in the basement. This meant I didn’t have to trek through blizzards and hurricanes with a giant bag of clothes on my back. WIN. I don’t mean to be picky, but those machines kind of sucked so I still brought my laundry to the laundromat some of the time. Now that I will be living on a 34′ boat for the foreseeable future I can forget about ever having a washer in my home. While we’ve been at the marinas we’ve always been able to use the machines in their laundry rooms, but with only a few short weeks left until we untie the dock lines for good I have had to perfect my laundry while cruising ways.

I’ve always done my delicates by hand, but I’ve never had to rely on it as the sole way of getting our clothes clean. Let me paint you a picture. You are in the Caribbean on a boat (pretty picture, right? And so detailed.). You are sweaty and salty. And so is everything you are wearing. My standard 30 minute soak in Woolite with a little agitation just wasn’t going to cut it. Thankfully The Monkey’s Fist recently put out a topic on laundry where I was able to see how the seasoned pros have been doing it. Google also helped in the process and I think I’ve come up with a pretty nifty method that leaves our clothes so fresh and so clean.

The supplies that make our laundry smell fresh and look clean: Environmentally friendly detergent and ammonia (which I have no idea what it does to the environment)

You guys know ammonia, right? That stuff that you use to mop the floor and burns your nose if you get to close? Well apparently that stuff is great for washing your clothes. It cuts through dirt and grime while leaving your clothes smelling nothing at all like ammonia. It also helps cut the suds in your detergent so you use less fresh water when rinsing which is a definite plus when your water is limited to what you can carry in your tanks. So, my whole process starts with a good ammonia/water soak. My research states that you should use a 2/3 ammonia to 1/3 water ratio but who wants to carry gallons and gallons of ammonia on board? So, I pour about 2 – 3 cups of ammonia into my 5 gallon bucket and fill it up about 2/3 full. Then, I put in a load of clothes and let it set for about 30 minutes. I feel the lemon scented ammonia leaves clothes with a more floral scent than the regular. Weird, I know.

Mobile Washer and one of my 5 gallon buckets.

Once the ammonia has had a chance to break down the dirt, sweat and salt in our clothes I add some detergent to the bucket and then I go at the load with my mobile washer. This thing is as cool as plunger like laundry tools can get. It has a few different chambers in it that help push the water and detergent through the clothes getting them cleaner than a regular plunger would. Or, at least that is what I am told. I’ve never used just a plunger to do my laundry before. The handle unscrews, allowing for easy storage. As a bonus, the handle is the same size that fits in my broom in case you want to only have one handle on board. Us sailors love a good multitasking tool! Anyway, then I let the clothes sit in the detergent mix for another 15 – 30 minutes depending on how dirty the load is.

Before I rinse the load I agitate it for a few more minutes to get it really nice and clean. The rinse process works best with another bucket. I take each garment out of the soapy bucket and squeeze out what I can by hand. Then I plop it into the rinse bucket. Once all the clothes are in there I use the mobile washer and mix everything around. To make sure everything is super soap free, I rinse out the soapy bucket and fill it up again with fresh water for the final rinse. Everything is agitated one final time, and then rung out as much as possible with my hands.

Everything gets hung on our rails and netting to dry. I use these super sturdy plastic clothes pins that I picked up at the flea market for a $1 a pack. Those babies have survived some pretty high winds so far and nothing has come undone. I also have some regular wooden ones but I don’t really like them as a few of them have gone a bit moldy. Something I have read over and over is to always double up on clothes pins. Every garment gets two pins. If it is really windy they get more. Better safe than sorry. These days I can’t afford to go buy new clothes just because something fell overboard. These days I jump in after them (happened today unfortunately). I’m surprised how quickly the clothes dry in the sunshine and wind, sometimes even more quickly than the dryer. Its amazing. I haven’t figured out how to best hang my sheets to dry yet though, any suggestions there? They are just so big.

And that is how I do my laundry on the boat. It is a lot more work than before, but it certainly isn’t my worst boat job.

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  1. Awesome post! I’ll need to reference this one in the coming months for sure. PS – I see that astro turf in the background of your photo…have you trained your dogs on it? If so, how did it go? That’s exactly what we are planning for Oliver.

    • We haven’t trained them yet (yikes!) we’re somewhat banking on the fact that when they have to go they have to go. I will say that this can be made a lot cheaper than buying one. You can buy the turf at home depot by the foot.

  2. This is a really interesting post. I have been wondering how to do laundry on the hook. I am planning on using the sheets as shade cloth while they dry. I have these shark clips I bought from the home depot that should work to hold the sheets for shade without grommets.

  3. Concerning the sheets ( the ones in the laundry ); you could hoist them aloft…
    You may want to wait until you are out of the marina.

    • The easiest way to dry your sheets is to attach a line from your forestay to the mast and then use lots of clothes pins to attach to the line. Works great. We are on Merritt Island, just down the street from you. Good luck on your cruising..Bill and Jeanne, SV Iron Jack and SV Magic.

  4. I’m wondering what you do with the water/ammonia after you are done washing your clothes… Is ammonia safe for marine life? Biodegradable? If so it’s an awesome thing for cruisers, we are heading out next spring with 8 people aboard including my 3 little girls, and I am trying to find the greenest and easiest way to do laundry….

    • I just dump the water overboard. I just did a quick google search and it seems ammonia is biodegradable. I never even thought to check – yikes! Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

  5. Hello,
    Enjoying reading your blog but you may need to do some more research about ammonia. I know ammonia exists in the environment naturally in different forms – but I am fairly certain depending on circumstance and levels, it is highly toxic to aquatic animals. It damages their gills and can cause death. I know it’s a little different then the ocean but ammonia build up in fish tanks kills fish this is why keeping PH balance is so important. Anyway, I just thought I’d mention so you can reevaluate maybe.
    Enjoy you adventures! _/)
    Thanks and enjoy, Jenette