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Free At Las- - 7/17/03

By Little Gidding - Published July 17, 2003 - Viewed 950 times

Clean at Las -

 July 17, 2003 

Eileen taking a shower in the Bahamas, where the sea water is clean and the fresh water is expensive

We thought we'd be on our way to Long Island Sound by now, but instead we're languishing in the Oxford Boat Yard in Oxford, MD. The bad news is that our diesel engine is torn apart. Last week we pulled the injectors to have them checked and serviced. When they were reinstalled a few days ago, we discovered that only three of the four cylinders fired - probably due to a faulty injection pump. That's the engine equivalent of visiting your family doctor for an annual check-up and ending up with open heart surgery. We hope the engine (and our pocketbooks) survive the operation.

The good news? We can hide from the Chesapeake summer heat in an air conditioned corner of the boatyard office; and we can take as many showers as we like in the adjacent restroom building. Many land dwellers take air conditioning and unlimited showers for granted. But, as the 17th century English clergyman Thomas Fuller wrote, "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry" (or, we might add, "until the water tanks are empty"). For us, soaping up under a torrent of warm water is the highlight of the day. It's pathetic, really.

When we bought "Little Gidding", one feature of the boat that Eileen really liked was the midget bath tub in the head compartment. She used to enjoy splashing around in it, even if that required Houdini-like contortions. Then Eileen began performing her music publicly and we had to find a place to store her newly-acquired sound equipment. The bathtub was perfect. Unfortunately, this has meant that Eileen hasn't had a bath since 1997, when we bought her first mixer/amplifier.

Eileen going for a shower in Oxford, where the sea water is not-so-clean and the fresh water is free

Now before you make notes in your logs to avoid anchoring downwind of "Little Gidding", let us assure you that our level of personal hygiene hasn't plummeted too far. We DO take frequent showers on board. In our November 14, 2002 log entry, we explained how we shower on deck, using either a "solar shower" suspended on a halyard, or a pressurized sprayer. In the islands, we usually jump overboard first and soap up in sea water. That way we use only a small amount of precious fresh water to rinse off. In the current circumstances, jumping off the boatyard dock in Oxford would be counterproductive if the point of the exercise were to get clean. Hence the inordinate amount of time we spend in the splendour of the boatyard shower stalls. True luxury.

Our clean up routine works pretty well down island unless we're anchored in a particularly polluted harbour. Going for a swim in Simpson lagoon in St. Maarten or Chaguaramas Bay in Trinidad, for example, could be a life-threatening activity. In those places, we have no choice but use more of the water we have in our tanks. In Trinidad, where it rains a lot, potable water is free at the dock; the only issue is the inconvenience of schlepping our plastic water containers back and forth in the dinghy. In St. Maarten, and most other spots in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, drinking water is NOT free. It's at least ten cents a gallon in St. Maarten and as high as sixty cents a gallon in arid George Town, Bahamas.

The goal of keeping clean while avoiding bankruptcy has led Eileen to question why we don't have a watermaker on board. "It seems that everyone else has a watermaker," she complained. "Why don't we get one so we'll have cheap water and I won't feel guilty every time I take a shower?"

David, knowing that he would have to install and maintain the watermaker if we bought one, had to scramble to find some good reasons for depriving Eileen of unlimited fresh water showers. After a few queries, he found that a lot of progress has occurred with watermakers since they were first introduced to the recreational boating market a couple of decades ago. The early ones were real energy gluttons. The more efficient (albeit expensive) DC units now aimed at the typical cruising boat consume about an amp-hour of electricity for every gallon of water they produce. Watermakers tend to be maintenance intensive, however, which adds to their ongoing costs of operation (and to the level of aggravation of those who are not mechanically inclined). Depending on the quality of the sea water, filters usually need to be replaced every two or three weeks (although they often can be washed and reused). The RO membrane itself has a typical life span of three to five years. The cost of a replacement membrane for a small to medium output watermaker ranges from about $200 to $500. The high pressure seals last about the same length of time and replacing them will probably set you back another hundred bucks or more.

The most significant cost factor in producing water by reverse osmosis, however, is the initial price of the desalinating unit itself. Cruisers who gloat about making fresh water for virtually free conveniently overlook the fact they invested a few thousand dollars in a machine (plus possible installation charges) before they even produced their first drop. David investigated the costs of buying and operating five different popular brand watermakers, ranging in price from around $2500 to $6100, producing between 3.5 and 8.3 gallons per hour. He assumed the units were self-installed and that energy costs were nil, but factored in the costs of filters, membranes and seals. He considered a 10 year time frame - a reasonable upper limit for how long most cruisers live aboard full time - and an 8% interest rate, which is roughly in line with current boat loans. Under this set of assumptions, he calculated the cost of a gallon of water produced by each of the watermakers if it was run for an hour every day over its projected 10 year economic life. The outcome ranged from 29 to 56 cents per gallon - rates that make Bahamian water seem competitive!

"See," David told Eileen, "watermakers don't make economic sense. Look at all the money I just saved us by not buying one. Maybe we can afford to fix the engine now."

Eileen was not impressed. "See you later," she said. "I'm taking another shower."

David & Eileen

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