Doing Laundry By Hand

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2016 • all rights reserved

In many cruising locales, laundromats or laundry services are few and far between. So we resort to doing laundry on the boat . . . a neat tool to make it a lot easier on your back and a few tips on how I do it.

When cruising, there often isn’t a nearby laundromat but there is a pile of dirty laundry. Some boats – the really lucky ones – have a washing machine, large capacity watermaker and the power to support them. Others, like ours, don’t.

So we “hand” wash.

On our first boat, Que Tal, I used a 5-gallon bucket and initially did it all “by hand” as if I were washing delicates. I’d wash each item separately and carefully swish them around.

Yeah, that lasted for exactly one laundry day.

Talking to other cruisers, I learned to use a new (used only for laundry) toilet plunger as an agitator. Infinitely less work and the clothes got cleaner, too!

But the length of the handle on the toilet plunger meant that I was still hunched over the bucket, and it slopped water over the edge of the bucket.

Fast forward to a few months ago. As we were getting ready to leave for the Bahamas, I was going to buy a new toilet plunger to do laundry with as I knew that laundromats could be a distance apart. But somehow I managed to spot an ad for the Washing Wand – supposedly a marked improvement on washing with a plunger. It intrigued me and I bought it.

It’s been a great purchase . . .

  • Designed to push water through a bucket a clothes, with water channels that let water go through the device so that water doesn’t slop out of the bucket nearly as much.
  • Shovel-type handle makes it much easier to agitate – just an easier, more ergonomic movement.
  • Larger diameter means more effective agitation in a 5-gallon bucket.
  • More than once, I pulled the wooden handle out of the rubber plunger when using a toilet plunger (and when it happens once, it will keep happening more and more frequently as the rubber stretches). This is all hard plastic with the plunger molded to the handle, and the handle pieces screwing together.
  • Yes, it’s in four pieces which make it much easier to store – and they screw together tightly.
  • All plastic – no metal to rust or wood to blacken.
  • It seems really sturdy – a similar item (different brand) that I saw locally after I’d gotten this one seemed much flimsier and the plastic more brittle.

You can buy one from Amazon –

Totally disregard their instructions that say you need two 5-gallon buckets – you only need one.

Pictures below, and then tips on how I do laundry:

In many cruising locales, laundromats or laundry services are few and far between. So we resort to doing laundry on the boat . . . a neat tool to make it a lot easier on your back and a few tips on how I do it.

In many cruising locales, laundromats or laundry services are few and far between. So we resort to doing laundry on the boat . . . a neat tool to make it a lot easier on your back and a few tips on how I do it.

In many cruising locales, laundromats or laundry services are few and far between. So we resort to doing laundry on the boat . . . a neat tool to make it a lot easier on your back and a few tips on how I do it.

Now, no method of hand washing is going to get clothes as clean as a washing machine does. But my goal is to remove the worst of the dirt, the stink, the mildew and make them fit to wear again.

If you really want to remove stains and are willing to spend the time, a portable washboard is a good extra piece of equipment – use a little bar soap or a stain stick, scrub on the washboard, then wash as usual in the 5-gallon bucket with the Washing Wand. I don’t go through the extra step with our work or sailing clothes, but a couple of people I know use a washboard similar to this one, available on Amazon.

Keeping the laundry pile from getting too big not only helps the boat smell fresh, it helps reduce the mold and mildew on the boat in general (basically, clothes that are wet with sweat just never dry out due to the salt . . . and then you combine that with salt air . . . ). I’m washing sweaty and/or boat-project filthy t-shirts, shorts, undies, rags and our pillowcases. Towels, sheets, rugs, blankets I leave for times when I do find a laundromat.

HOW I DO IT

I try to do laundry every few days so there’s not too much to do – this cuts down on the amount of water I need at one time, makes it easier to wash items and allows for enough drying space (we have lifeline netting so can’t hang wet clothes from the lifelines).

Late one day, I put about one tablespoon of concentrated biodegradable laundry soap in the 5-gallon bucket and add about a gallon of fresh water. Then I add the clothes and more water to cover the clothes if necessary. At this point, it’s okay if the clothes are crammed in. Agitate with the Washing Wand a bit, and then let sit overnight, agitating about 20 strokes periodically (we leave the bucket and wand in the cockpit, so it tends to be when we walk by . .  .).

The next morning, I take about half the clothes out, wringing as I do to keep as much water in the bucket as possible – all I’m trying to do is make more room in the bucket (in other words, the clothes I’m taking out aren’t “done” yet). The clothes need space for the water to move through them as I’m agitating!

Then I use the Washing Wand and agitate 100 or so strokes. Then I take these clothes out, wringing as I do (getting as much soapy water out as possible so it doesn’t go in the rinse water later). I put the other clothes back in the bucket and do the same. All the clothes are now washed.  I dump the wash water.

I fill the bucket about 4” deep with fresh water and add one or two pieces of clothing at a time and agitate 20 to 30 times to rinse. Then I remove the items and wring well. Dave does another wring after mine and always gets more water out, then he hangs the items to dry. We repeat until everything is rinsed and hung to dry – if the rinse water gets particularly dirty, I discard it and get fresh.

TIPS

A big key is not to use too much soap – if you do, it will take a lot of fresh water to rinse it out. Do not use salt water, even for the washing – you’ll use more fresh water to get all the salt out than it would have taken you to wash the clothes in fresh . . . and if you don’t get all the salt out, your clothes will never completely dry and they will mildew instead.

If you have a little white vinegar to spare, adding 1/4 cup to the rinse water will help cut the soap, but you won’t smell it on your clothes.

If I think about it, putting the soak/wash water into the bucket earlier in the day and letting it sit in the sun gives me warm water to do laundry.

Once upon a time, I used ammonia in the wash water instead of laundry soap — it used less water as you don’t have to rinse ammonia out. I no longer recommend this, for two reasons: it is very hard on clothing and there is controversy over whether putting ammonia into sea water is harmful to fish (specifically their gills) or not and I’d rather err on the side of caution.

ALTERNATIVE

I’ve had several readers ask me about the Wonder Wash – basically, it’s a hand crank washer (see it here on Amazon). I’ve seen a few posts from cruisers on various forums saying they love theirs and others saying they didn’t find it that helpful for the amount of space it took up. I’ve never used one and we just don’t have the space, but it certainly does look interesting.

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Comments

  1. I have one that was my grandmother’s probably from the thirties.

  2. Always look at these, wondering if they are good. The ammonia thing always seemed strange with no rinse…..filthy looking water.

  3. It was alright, but it snapped the first time my husband used it. I would rather pay more for a better made one. Now we have a Splindide washer dryer combo unit though.

  4. This was helpful. Thanks.

  5. Taunya Couts says:

    I have been using something similar, but I had to provide my own handle… (although the ads show it coming with one.) http://amzn.to/29kQemv

    In addition to that, I use a commercial salad spinner to spin dry my clothes… It actually works pretty well… Although your double wring is probably just as effective. I’m lazy and don’t like to wring so hard…
    http://amzn.to/290vf6V

  6. and gives an extra half knot down wind

  7. I have watched this foot pedal video many times and wondered if this would be a good item to take. Has anyone used of these? http://www.gizmag.com/yirego-drumi-foot-powered-washer/37586/

  8. J Crysler says:

    Anyone tried the Scrubba Wash Bag? A dry bag with nodules inside that do the scrubbing for you. Sounds intriguing , Amazon $60.

  9. When I was aboard the tall ships Picton Castle and Kwai, we all did laundry by hand in 5-gal buckets. No fancy plungy thingies to be found. Typical procedure on both is salt water wash (any detergent works fine in salt water), salt water rinse, fresh water rinse. It works a treat, but I certainly wish I didn’t have to hunch over a bucket while washing. I thought many a time about getting a toilet plunger and modifying it with slots. Both ships are quite large enough to store them away but, on both ships, the plunger would likely be repurposed for something you don’t want to clean your clothes with ever again.

    Picton Castle has two “laundry halyards” for raising and lowering the drying lines (each three 10′ lines stretched across three sticks on the foredeck). No clothes pins; just jamb your clothes in between the strands of the three-strand hemp lines. The harder the wind blows, the tighter it grips your laundry. Wonderful.

  10. Jessica Heinicke says:

    Great information! Thanks! I find one helpful piece of equipment for hand washing has nothing to do with the washer – it’s a laundry wringer. I have a powder coated cast iron old fashioned wringer with two rollers and a crank. I put the clothes through after rinsing and it gets 90% of the water out. The clothes are almost dry enough to put away! And it saves the strain on my paws…

  11. I bought an antique wringer on eBay after reading several reports that the wringer is more useful than one of those laundry pods etc. aboard

    I bought mine for, I think it was $60 with shipping and all? The new wringers are pretty expensive and this one seems to do the job. The trick is finding somewhere to mount it. We’re also looking at modifying the handle receptacle to take a sailboat winch handle 🙂

  12. Throughout my 12 years of cruising, I’ve always done laundry by foot. When I began cruising, I had symptoms of carpal tunnel in both wrists; plus, my legs are much stronger than my arms, so I have a bucket large enough to fit both feet in, & I stomp away. It works great, & the big wide-mouth basin that I use doubles as a rinse bucket for dive gear, for rain catchment, & could also be used as a bathtub for kids.

    Also, because wringing is sometimes painful for me, I simply don’t do it. I dump the clean, wet laundry on deck & stomp on it some more. A surprising amount of water comes out this way, & the rest comes out by the drip method. As a cruising friend from Alabama once said to me, “We’ve done the washing; let God do the drying!” (That goes for dishes, too…)

  13. I was wondering if anyone uses a clothes wringer? Why or why not?

  14. I have a large sturdy salad spinner. I start with about a gallon of water and a squeeze of soap/detergent. I wash 2 or 3 pieces of underwear, a long sleeve shirt, or long trousers at a time. Starting with whites, then pastel, finally darks. Put the item(s) in the spinner, pull the rope once or twice, let soak 5 minutes (or until I remember it) pull the rope again. Dump the soapy water into a bucket to be saved for the next items. Put the lid back on and pull the rope again, dump and spin again until relatively dry. Look for spots on items and rub with bar soap until spot dissappears. Now for the rinse water, add a dash of white vinegar, and fill to cover the cloths. Pull the rope a couple times, dump the rinse water in a different bucket to be saved, spin and dump untill you are satisfied your garment is dry enough to hang. Start the next item (s) reusing the wash and rinse water.

    If things get bloody or greasy do 2 washes, first warm (so the stains don’t set), then a hot soapy water with more soap, soaking and agitating until it comes clean

    YouTube Alaska Granny has a video on it.

    Thanks

  15. StarWish246 says:

    You can use a regular plunger, just drill a few small/medium size holes in 3 or 4 places in the plunger for the air to get out, and the water to take over the space, as you use it.

    • StarWish246 says:

      Just a thought – drill the 3 or 4 holes in the bottom part of the plunger bell (away from the stick), because if the holes are higher up, the water pushed through during plunging will spray upwards, and maybe out of the bucket.

  16. Kathryn says:

    I have a mid sized rubbermaid bin that I fill partially with water, laundry soap and a load of clothes. I put it in the cockpit, don my bathing suit, crank up the tunes, and hop in. I dance a few songs on the clothes until the “cycle” is over. Then I wring out the clothes and place into a pile. I repeat with a second wash load if necessary. Then I start with fresh water and repeat with a rinse cycle and more dancing. When all is rinsed and wrung, I string up lines in the rigging, hang it all up, and get in the hammock with a cold drink to watch it dry. Exercise and clean clothes!

  17. Years ago, last century, on a smaller cat (35ft) we used an 80 litre wide mouthed barrel with a screw lid – also in the days before getting a water maker. At the same time we also had a small mains wash machine and a small Italian spin drier that each drew around 150watts. We usd very little water. Whilst sailing we literally did nothing when we used the barrel as the motion did all the work. We then graduated to a small twin tub wash machine. We always used the spinner to get the soapy water out before rinsing. We now have a bigger water maker and an automatic top loading washing machine that runs from our invertor (we dont have a diesel gen set).

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