H2O Options

Water – to make or not to make, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to collect water from local sources or to suffer the cost and noise of making your own is a debate among cruisers today on par with what I heard surrounding interior kerosene lights in the 70’s.  When considering water acquisition solutions for long-distance cruising, you are really left with two options; passive water collection or active water making.

Passive, Water Collection: Collecting water from a municipal tap, a communal or private well or cistern, or from a natural spring, brings with it its own adventure, exercise, and local interaction.   When plentiful and accessible at desired locations, that is to say, places you actually want to visit, it’s the simplest option and the most economical. Once a source of potable water has been identified and permission granted or purchased, the cruiser either fills her jugs or, if close enough to shore, connects his water hose and fills directly his tanks. Cruisers concerned about sediments, externally strain cloudy water through one or two sediment filters (discussed in more detail below) before it enters the boat’s water tanks. Sediment filters aren’t fine enough to block bacteria, so for every 10 gallons of water, it’s recommended to pour about a teaspoon of household bleach into the water tank (or other safe to consume antiseptic), and internally pull that solution through a combination carbon (chlorine) and KDF* (heavy metals and bacteria killing) filter as it is pumped electrically or manually (foot pumps typically) to and through the freshwater spigots.  There are also on-demand ultra-violet light therapies available as well, which require electricity and spare bulbs.  In either case, voila – good tasting, safe drinking water.

Cruisers following this practice are often prepared with long lengths of garden hose, several 5-gal. plastic jerry jugs (with arms stretched a little longer from the weight of carrying two +40 lbs. jugs at a time), and with a willingness to tie their vessels up briefly to docks, piers, and wharves if need be.

Rainwater collection is another passive water collecting technique. Most cruisers are in some way equipped to capture rainwater from their sails, canopies, and/or decks. Boats have been known to chase squalls in the middle of the ocean, sometimes even engaging their diesel engines in an effort to capture the freshest of water supplies, “liquid money” as farmers call it.

Passive water collection (not so passive, really) tends to make for a more conservative use of the ship’s water. Washing, rinsing, cleaning, bathing, and even cooking rely on fresh seawater (as opposed to seawater extracted from a cove or harbor). When sailing aboard Getel in 1976 with my uncle and his family of three from Ventura, California to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, over the 30-day passage, the five of us collectively consumed less than 50 gallons. For the 18 months we were in French Polynesia, I personally carried and rowed nearly every gallon brought aboard, Papeete and Uturoa excluded as these ports offered access to taps and water hoses when we were Med-tied to their wharves. Being Med-tied is when one end of the boat is tied to the quay; the other end, anchored away from the quay, pulling the boat off far enough so as to not hit the top edge of the concrete wharf or wood-decked pier when a wake bobs the boat up and down, but close enough to support the use of a wooden plank between your boat and the quay’s edge.

Active, Water Creation: Another option available to cruisers is to make water with a desalinator, employing ever-popular reverse osmosis (RO) technology. (Read the blog post titled: RO 101 and see the video for a more detailed description of the process)  

Owning a desalinator is a bit like caring for a pet: it needs to be tended to regularly. Because of marine life build-up on the membrane, even if it were rinsed with freshwater, desalinators must be run every 3-7 days to flush the membrane’s surface. If a cruiser isn’t making water every three to seven days, he or she must instead push freshwater through the system at the same interval of 3-7 days.  A freshwater rinse takes from 3-5 minutes. Left un-rinsed, a membrane will build up hydrogen sulfide gas, a by-product of sulfur eating bacteria consuming remnant sea life.  This reaction produces water tasting like rotten-eggs. “Yum, yum . . . sign me up!”  If this happens, there is a cure: soak the membrane in a food-grade antiseptic, a process otherwise known as “pickling.” This is also what you do if you plan to leave your desalinator dormant for a while, preventing the issue in the first place.  You can leave a system pickled for 6 months or more before you’ll need to re-pickle it again. So for those sailors with desalinators without an automatic flush feature must enlist the assistance of a fellow yachty (cruiser) to “feed” his or her “pet.”

Even though the RO process doesn’t pass bacteria, a cruiser still needs to add a little bleach to the water supply to keep algae from growing in the tank, and carbon filters to lose the bleach taste and to protect the watermaker’s membrane when flushing with freshwater (chlorine kills the membrane).  It doesn’t hurt to pass the drinking water through a KDF filter as well.

Having a watermaker is a commitment of scheduling, money, and space (the unit + supplies + possible generator and gasoline). But cruisers accepting this commitment afford themselves the luxury of freshwater for cleaning and showers, the freedom to go and stay in areas less available to those who can’t make water, and most importantly, a supply of safe drinking water.  In some cases, yachties have been known to supply remote families or villages with much needed water. As desalinator supporters say, “No one ever complained about having too much water.”  For these reasons, we decided to install a desalinator, anticipating that the advantages of safety and freedom will be far greater than the cost and inconvenience of having an expensive “pet”.  We chose to go with the dual membrane AC model offered by Cruise RO Water and Power. (The blog post Aquarian Rite describes the commissioning experience)


* “Kinetic Degradation Fluxion (KDF) is a high-purity copper-zinc formulation that uses a basic chemical process known as redox (oxidation/reduction) to remove chlorine, lead, mercury, iron, and hydrogen sulfide from water supplies. The process also has a mild anti-bacterial, algaecidic, and fungicidic effect and may reduce the accumulation of lime scale.” –-Home Plus Water

One thought on “H2O Options”

  1. Eric and family,

    The Johnson family is keeping you in our prayers and can’t wait to hear about your adventures. We are all very excited for you.

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