Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Cruiser's Difficult Relationship With Water

I think I smell bad.  After spending three hours in the park then hiking over the hills of Noumea in 30 C heat, how could I be anything but sweaty?  I lean away from the woman sitting beside me in French class, hoping that the cool air in our basement room will mitigate my stink before it reaches her. But I know the real answer to my problem: I need a shower.  Again.  The very thought fills me with despair.

You may have noticed that cruisers are somewhat preoccupied with resource consumption.  Obsessed is a better word.  But when you carry around all of life's necessities in what amounts to an oversized backpack, you want to be sure you have absolutely everything you need.  Especially water.  If you run out of your favorite saltines out on the blue, you'll live.  If you don't have drinking water, it's an emergency.

So cruisers learn to conserve.  I mean, really conserve.  We are a stingy bunch when it comes to H2O.  Every guest who comes aboard gets the same lecture.  And they all nod and agree and are eager to cooperate - absolutely, we'll be careful with the water.  Be sparing, got it.  And then we hear the water pump run, and run, and run, until Erik and I bury our faces in pillows so no one hears us sobbing.  Because "being sparing" means something very different to a land-dweller than it does to a cruiser.  To them it means: try not to use more than you need.  To us it means: use the absolute bare minimum.  Land-dweller: don't forget to turn off the tap when you're done brushing your teeth.  Cruiser: you get two tablespoons of water for brushing your teeth and not a drop more.

Our big awnings are perfect for collecting rainwater.

But now, in deference to cyclone season, we are in the marina.  And the marina has water.  Beautiful, clean city water from a tap at the end of our dock.  We turn on the hose and out it comes - like magic, like a dream.  Like something disposable and worthless, because the tiny cost is hidden in our marina fees.  Like something not to be conserved or even thought twice about.

At anchor, showers are a luxury.  We swim every day, so we are clean and (I hope) non-smelly.  Washing hair is reserved for once a week, and we'll even do that in salt water when we can, capped off by a freshwater rinse.  We wash our dishes in salt water when the bay is clean enough, two inches of fresh water when it isn't, and our toilets use salt water, too.  But in the marina, the saltwater wash option is closed.  We certainly can't swim here (take your pick between the risk of electrocution from the many power cables dipping in the salty brew and the risk of an ear infection from its less-than-pristine condition), so that leaves the showers.

And, oh, how we love the showers.  It is a long, hot walk to Indy's school and back - a trip we make three times a day.  By the third go-round, it is a pleasure to come home, grab a towel and dance off for a quick rinse.  But it still makes me feel guilty, and I do my best to be quick.  When I can.  But I admit - having a proper shower in a proper bathroom instead of hunched on the floor of the cockpit gripping a garden hose spray nozzle is almost irresistible.

And the laundry.  I have washed all of my laundry - even the sheets are clean, for crying out loud.  And I feel bad about having clean laundry  Under normal circumstances, we don't use our washing machine at all; we use the laundromat.  When we get desperate between ports, I wash a load of underwear on the Quick Wash setting.  Or in a bucket, where I can be even stingier.  Here, I have caught up on the backlog, and had to face just how much water a washing machine really uses, even on the low-use settings.  

Our boat holds about 1000 L of water.  That generally lasts us 6-8 weeks.  So, at anchor, we use around 18-24 L of water per day, or 4.5-6 L per person each day.  (As a yardstick, a low-flush toilet uses 4.8 L per flush.)  This week, we used and refilled two of our tanks, or 2/3 of our water supply.  That means we used 95 L of water per day, or almost 24 L per person per day - four times our normal usage.

Already I find myself closing half an eye to people rinsing their decks for what seems like hours at a time.  To people doing laundry not in a bucket, but under a running hose on the dock.  There are days when I wish that water were as expensive as it is really worth.  Maybe if we all had to pay for it properly, we wouldn't leave the tap running in the park, or decide to hose off that almost non-existent layer of dust on our cars.

Years ago, we made friends with another boat family.  When they went home for a visit, seven-year-old Manfred helped his grandmother to wash the dishes.  When she pulled the plug, he looked under the sink and was shocked to discover the water was draining not into a bucket, but down the pipes and out of their lives forever.  When his grandmother didn't have a good explanation for why she wasn't saving this "perfectly clean" rinse water for later, he gave her a stern lecture on how much energy it takes to produce city water, and the immorality of wasting it.

Cruisers aren't better than other people.  We are just forced to notice what we use, because when it is gone, it is gone forever.

I won't make the woman beside me in French class to endure my sweatiness.  I won't insist my family walk around in dirty clothes.  But I very much hope we can keep some of our strict rationing habits while we are marina-bound this season.  And when I am tempted to use a little extra because I can refill the tanks whenever I want to, I'll try to remember Manfred and his grandma.
Equally pretty and important.


Kate said...

I am glad you value the water. We all need to do that.

But right now I am grateful for my rain shower head and whirlpool tub.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more! We were talking about water this weekend with some other many boaters we've met complain about having to pay for water. People don't mind paying for soda or juice, and yet many Americans feel that clean water is a right, not a privilege.

Amy Schaefer said...

That is just the problem. People don't think about (or don't want to think about) the amount of energy it takes to produce a litre of clean water. We all just want it to come out of the tap when we are ready for it.

CGL said...

Hey - I noted the reference to Edvard Munch's The Scream. Do I win a glass of water?

Anonymous said...

Duly noted. Dad & I will be sure to conserve when we visit.
Love Mom

Amy Schaefer said...

CGL: This illustrates the difficulty I sometimes have in choosing photos for these posts. I thought: "Indy fresh out of the shower - perfect." You saw The Scream. And Erik said, "I didn't know what you were trying to say there." So we'll go with your highbrow interpretation, and that's an extra cup of water for you.

Mom: Yes, we plan to dole out your rations on a daily basis.