How to stow, conserve or generate drinking water for sailing is key for any offshore sailor. Toby Hodges surveyed the 81 skippers of the ARC 2020 fleet for tips

Water is the source of all life. For any sailor considering extended cruising or an ocean crossing, the ability to carry or produce sufficient fresh water for sailing is a top priority.

But how do you decide how much water to ship or how best to generate your own? Our survey of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) fleet last year focused on water.

We asked the skippers how much water they carried for sailing, in what form, how it was used and, for the majority with watermakers, detailed questions about the generation of water and how the equipment performed at sea.

Since we last ran a survey on this topic in 2014 our collective attitude towards waste has arguably changed for the better. That fleet of 193 yachts carried over 28 tonnes of bottled water with them across to the Caribbean. All sailors today should consider how every consumable item they carry aboard will be disposed of when they reach their destination.

Pogo 12.50 Rush. Photo: James Mitchell

The main decision ocean sailors face with water stowage is whether to fit a watermaker, which is both a practical and a financial decision. Generating your own water is one of the best investments cruising sailors can make towards comfort and true independence.

ARC skippers over the past two decades have consistently described watermakers as one of their most vital pieces of equipment. “To us, a watermaker is the single best thing you can have for cruising by a fair margin and fully changes the game,” thinks Rush’s Ian Baylis.

Three-quarters of the skippers who replied to our survey had watermakers aboard. The seven yachts listed as not carrying one were all smaller entries between 35ft and 45ft and typically over 20-year-old models. They carried extra water in bottles and jerrycans and used it sparingly.

Usage and conservation of water for sailing

Being frugal with water becomes second nature to most cruisers. The majority of respondents said their crew only showered every three days, 12 every two days and 13 daily.

One of the most common pieces of advice from skippers concerning water conservation is to fit a saltwater tap and to use seawater whenever you can. “Cook with salt water when possible,” advises the crew of Montana, a Swan 48 S&S from 1973. Yet over half of the respondents did not have a saltwater tap fitted in their galley, nor even a manual freshwater pump in the galley or the heads.

“The saltwater tap in the galley is essential,” thinks Tobias Gröpper on his Sunbeam 44 Pivot. “We still have 50% of our tank capacity on arrival although we took showers etc.”

Jorn Aalefjær, the Norwegian skipper of Ticora III, and Dane Martin Nielsen aboard his Jeanneau 53 also both stressed the benefit of fitting a saltwater tap.

Suffisant, one of the smallest entrants, a Beneteau Oceanis Clipper 331 from 1990, has only small tanks, but uses a Katadyn Power Survivor 40E watermaker. They used salt water to wash with and had manual taps fitted in the galley and heads.

Swiss skipper Marina Passet says: “Salt water is no use for washing clothes, but can be used for brushing teeth, washing dishes and vegetables.”

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Seasoned cruising sailors the Blacks aboard Bowman 57 Emily Morgan, say they have used their set-up for 8,500 miles and would not do anything differently. They relied on their Spectra Ventura watermaker, but advise closely monitoring the tanks: “We graph tank levels daily,” says Anna Black. “If the level is below the line then no more fresh water showers until it returns. Allow 20% extra in case of problems.”

Many other crews, including on the Sunbeam 42.1 Ibex, were happy relying on desalinated water without needing large back-up quotas of water.

The Chung family aboard Kaizen use a four-filter system to purify their water and drink everything from the tank. They have an instant hotwater tap, and “we make our own sparkling water and have reuse cannisters for emergency”, says Kean Chung. Their Oyster 49 has 1,000lt tanks and a Sea Fresh H20 watermaker, so the crew were able to shower daily and there was no need for any bottled water.

Water stowage

There should be no need to rely on single-use plastic water bottles when cruising. Reusable bottles, flexible or collapsible bladders and jerrycans are a perfectly adequate solution for storing reserve water, particularly if you have a good filtration system.

Use salt water when possible, for washing clothes, dishes or taking showers. Photo: Thomas Horgen

Recycling plastic is not possible on many islands. While in recent years IGY Rodney Bay Marina has provided a plastic recycling service for visiting yachts, run in co-operation with a local community group, due to COVID restrictions the service was suspended in 2020.

So it was disheartening to find that nearly half the fleet still shipped over 100lt of bottled water each, while seven yachts carried over 250lt of bottled water, despite five of these having a watermaker.

Many skippers still like to carry bottled water as a contamination-proof back-up or for monitoring intake. Aboard Escapado for example, a Beneteau first 40.7 with no watermaker, they carried over 250lt of bottled water.

Skipper Sophie Iona O’Neill says: “One person kept a tally and did three fills of everyone’s water each day.” She says the total daily consumption amounted to: “two litres of drinking water per person, plus one litre of tea/coffee, giving a total of 3lt of fluid per person, per day,” – a useful statistic for those planning water consumption.

Water generation

If installed correctly and serviced properly, a watermaker should perform consistently well. The majority of 2020 ARC skippers rated their watermakers most highly, with 70% giving 5/5 for reliability.

Wash-up in seawater, then just rinse in fresh. Photo: Tor Johnson

Just eight skippers reported having any issues with their equipment. Any problems were either fixed with spares or the result of another issue, such as a power source problem (Adagio had issues with their genset and, in the case of the Malo 43 Ydalir II, the fault was traced to a leak onto the inverter).

The few who experienced any faults with their watermaker’s performance were typically those who had only installed it that season. The overriding advice is to make sure you have tested your system thoroughly at sea before embarking on an ocean passage.

With prices typically ranging from £4,000 to five figures, it is worthwhile making sure a watermaker is working smoothly and knowing how to service it properly in advance.

Have the power

The ability to harness power naturally and to store it efficiently is changing the watermaker world.
“If you don’t want to use diesel to make water you need a lot of power generation,” warns Lucky Girl’s Charlie Pank, who has a Schenker Modular 30. However, only five skippers say they increased their battery capacity when their watermaker was fitted.

Paul Lemmens was very happy with his Rainman AC 120lt per hour unit aboard his Hanse 455 Veni Vidi Vix, but advises: “You need good batteries/large inverter to function.” He fitted an extra 400Ah of lithium batteries when the watermaker was installed.

The advent of high DC power has had a marked effect on watermakers, says Mactra Marine’s Jim MacDonald, who, COVID restrictions apart, usually attends the ARC start for any last-minute watermaker problems or services. “Go for a low-energy system that will run off the batteries,” he advises. A good bank of solar panels or a hydrogenerator can really help – nearly half the fleet used solar to help charge their batteries.

Many of the crews in the ARC still carry significant amounts of bottled water.

“As lithium has become more prevalent, DC systems with energy recovery are coming into their own,” MacDonald continues. “This means that whatever your means of power generation, you can always use your watermaker – whereas with the old-fashioned AC/high-pressure pumps you had to run the genset to make it work.” He has also seen the reliability of modern watermakers improving as they increasingly use electronics where possible.

Despite its modest output of 20lt per hour, the Blacks on Emily Morgan rate their Spectra Ventura very highly. They installed it themselves in 2017 and describe it as “invaluable in the Pacific – simple and reliable”.

The German Schaals aboard their Bavaria Cruiser 42 Nikajuma say they wouldn’t change their set-up and that the Echo Tec DML260 always worked – but noting “that the test tap is very important”.

Filtering water

Whether storing water in tanks or making desalinated water from the sea, filtering out any impurities makes sense. “We added 5ml of chlorine in the tank to kill bacteria and used LaVie water purifiers to get the chlorine smell out of the tap water we drank,” says Patrice Charbon, who was sailing the new Fountaine Pajot Astrea 42 Eden Blue for LP4Y with four friends.

Bottled water is still popular on board, despite the potential environmental impact. Photo: James Mitchell

They were trialling a new form of UVA water filtration technology on their desalinated water. Charbon, an associate of the inventors Solable, explains: “The strong LED light beam generates UVAs which break the chlorine molecules. As a side effect, an advanced oxidation process flushes the water eliminating all molecules of pesticides, medicine or hormones that one can find in tap water.

“A 30-minute purification would bring fresh, pure water to our table every day,” concludes Charbon, calculating that the watermaker and filters helped them save “over 200 plastic water bottles for our crossing and over 12kg of PET since our departure”.

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