The hygiene section.

WABI’’’ real time : at anchor in the Anse de Toulven far upstream in L’Odet-Fleuve. 

This morning I woke early, as I tend to do on the boat, to a clear and sunny start but with cloud coming in from the west again.  By the time I’d had my first coffee it was raining steadily so I had another hour in my bunk.  Later…I had a look at the last section of the Anse de Combrit but I was running out of water on a rapidly falling tide, exactly a peak spring in fact, so I gave that up and exited the bay and motored the short distance to the next run of moorings upstream.  By happy coincidence I found a mooring almost alongside ‘SABI’…a Hchunky and capable looking steel cutter.  With the ebb then running hard there was no point In fighting my way upriver, with the sun breaking through as well I decided to call it a wash day.



In the time that iv’e been running the blog : two and a half years now, I often used to get asked a lot of questions about life at sea.  Just before I left for this trip one of my colleagues asked me what we do at night….assuming that I didn’t sail at night and maybe anchored.  I had to explain that while it’s nice to be on the anchor in a quiet wooded river or sheltered bay there are also times that we have to sail non-stop 24 hours a day.  In the past I have been asked about cooking and sleeping and once about keeping clean, iv’e never really dealt with the basic domestic side of life aboard a small sailing boat, especially one this small, so I thought I would cover it today.    My own practice now takes a lot from my time in bushcraft, from long distance mountain and back-country hiking and canoeing so some of my terms and techniques might seem a little strange.  They work in the field though where it’s even more difficult and iv’e taught others the same techniques.

This morning I moved WABI’’’ out of the small wooded bay which would have been an ideal place for the job except that I knew that if I moved out into the main run of the river my little solar panel would be directly in the sun for a few hours .  Also, aside from a couple of the tourist vedettes passing in the main channel there’s really nobody around , not that cruising sailors on other boats are remotely disturbed or even interested in another skipper doing his wash and shave.

Fresh drinking water is now one of my critical resources aboard WABI’’’ as I try not to go into marinas and don’t rely on landing to find water. When I do land I almost always carry a 10 litre portable container and a multi-tool in case I find a tap or stand-pipe with the handle taken off.  As I described in an earlier post I carry around 55 litres of drinking water which I normally only use for drinking, cooking and doing teeth.  The exception is that I’m happy to have a ‘soogee’ wash once every few days especially when I feel that my hair is getting greasy and/or salty and greasy.  On a daily basis just about all I do is my teeth in half a mug of water and maybe a quick pass of the sticky bits with some wet-wipes….I’m going off wet wipes though.  I’m going to talk a bit about the ‘soogee’ wash technique because that can be done with minimal water and minimal heat.



Traditionally, ocean cruising sailors always used to talk about having a wash with clean seawater and it times past I used to do that every day in ‘warm’ water : the Caribbean for example and during the delivery trips in those latitudes.  One problem though is that leaves salt crystals on the skin unless rinsed off with fresh water.       Leaving salt on the skin can lead to skin eruptions…a painful example being ‘gunnel-bum’ and also gradually transfer more and more salt into the bedding and boat cushions. Over a long time salt in the boat just pulls in water so the boat will often start to feel damp unless the cushions are washed in fresh water once in a while.  Aboard the maxi-yacht I used to work on I made it my regular routine to wash our bunk cushions with a ‘wet-vac’… should see what comes off them…..a grey sludge of salt and dead skin cells !.

While I was working on the post this morning I was reminded of an incident that happened at sea aboard the OOD 34 ‘Robbery’, in the Fastnet race if I remember right.  It was the second or third day at sea and we were reaching west in startlingly blue water, all was well on board with half the crew on watch and the others bunked down.  It must have been late morning because I was working in the galley to port starting to make lunch.  There was a bit of talk and banter on deck.  Just above Robbery’s galley is one of the side-lights (windows) and as I looked up, the light had changed. My previous view of blue sky and clouds was totally obscured by a very wide, pale and hairy bottom !….Henry apparently having a deck wash.

In nice weather I enjoy a swim, here the water is still a bit cold and I’m not acclimatised to it yet, that’s a good way of starting a wash as often all it needs is a rinse off In fresh water.  We used to have loads of a salt-water specific shampoo on one boat but to be honest diluted washing up liquid is far more effective.  Nowadays though I tend to use the ‘soogee’ wash technique just as I do in the bush.

So the ‘soogee’ wash then :  the expression ‘soogee’ comes directly from sailing and all it means is a well diluted detergent solution made up in seawater and usually used for washing the boat. My simple technique is to warm up about a litre and a half of fresh water in the second of the 2 pans I have on board : a 2 litre stock-pot that I mainly use for cooking pasta or enriched soups.  That only needs to come up to ‘nicely warm’ so it doesn’t use much fuel.  In the bush it can be the use of fuel that is critical , with the ability to use open fires and easy access to fresh water we would use plenty of water, on the boat it’s the fresh water that is in limited supply.    Once I have heated the water I usually have a shave first by transferring water into a very big mug and just using that amount. Next I di[p up another mug of water and mix about 5mls of detergent into that.  I scoop up handfuls of that into my hair and work that vigorously for the shampoo.  The next mugful also gets some detergent although for the main, body, wash I then soak a flannel and use that to scrub with. I can do all of my main body wash with one mugful…just wringing the flannel about between passes.  I usually finish the wash by wiping off the excess water with the damp flannel.   The last remaining mugful I tend to pour through my hair to get the small amount of detergent out….if I can stand in the cockpit to do that part then the water gives me a rinse as well.  I usually finish the whole job by wiping off with the wrung-out flannel.  Today with nobody around I let the sun and wind do the rest of the drying…sometimes to be a bit more discrete, happens once in a while !, I do most of the job standing in the companionway which works as the wet area of the boat anyway.

Worth a try is another technique that I messed about with when I had the Frances 26 as I could and did carry more water aboard that boat.  The technique is a boat shower one but using a hand pressurised garden sprayer.  My one I think had about a 2 litre capacity, can be pressure-primed, and then used as a water gun to shower with.  Iv’e never bothered to carry the so-called solar shower bags although some sailors like them.


Things we carry : I hardly ever carry conventional shampoo because I am forever leaving in shoreside showers….on this trip I’ve only had a marina shower twice in 60 days…just no need to. I carry plenty of  basic detergent anyway.  I did once have a small bottle of outdoors ‘universal’ soap but as far as I can tell it’s nothing more than standard washing-up liquid but at least 5 times the cost. Nowadays I use the bottle but refilled from my ship’s detergent supply.  I do carry stick deodorant, some wet-wipes but tend to use far more kitchen roll that anything else.  I don’t carry toilet paper at all because kitchen roll is far more effective….it also makes a very effective bum-wipe if slightly damp.    I feel I should also say a few things about sun and skin care here.  I do carry sun block but mainly I sail in the sun with a long shirt and Tilley hat, I ought to block-up more than I do but mainly just nose. Tips of ears and cheeks (not bum-cheeks I add !) because for me they are the bits prone to burning.

Anse de Combrit.


Skin and sun exposure then.  Let me start by saying that I am at extremely high risk of skin cancer.  That is primarily genetic because I was a red haired, blue-eyed and freckled kid who got lots of sunburn and that’s just about the highest that risk goes.  Does it worry me ? Not in the slightest although I do manage myself reasonably carefully.  As I said earlier I tend to sail in long shirts and use a broad brimmed Tilley hat when it’s sunny.  I do however wear shorts just about all year around in fact one of my neighbours only comments now when I’m not wearing shorts.

I try not to be directly in the sun at mid-day, during this trip sun exposure will be a problem as I’m going to be here at peak summer conditions and not wanting to be stuck inside the boat.  For this trip I’m just finishing my temporary sun awning which we will use to create a sheltered outside space.  That’s similar to our long term camping approach in which we live outdoors most of the time under a large tarp set between trees.  As some readers will know we have fairly strong naturist tendencies and having an outside living space at camp keeps us outside but also out of direct sun. Just thinking about our time camping down in the south-west of France at a naturist site and I don’t think I have ever had significant sunburn.

Because of my own high risk of skin cancer I looked at the whole subject a few years ago when we were more actively ‘going bare’ for quiet long periods each year….at least 40 days one year.  For sure there are some basic bits of really useful advice about sun exposure time and not, for example, having long exposure when the sun is very high.  Our own practice was usually to get a long walk on the beach down there in the morning and then again in the late afternoon.  At peak sun, say between 10000 and 1400 (GMT) we would always be under the tarp.  I have gradually reduced the amount of sun creams and sun block I use, mainly just using a fairly high factor on nose, cheeks and ears.  

The opposite side of sun exposure is that it might actually be very good for us health-wise. It seems to be the case that a short period/s of whole body sun exposure is the best way of generating vitamin D which is quite possibly strongly anti-carcinogenic, especially of soft organ cancers.  If you think in terms of risk matrices then the way it looks is that some sun exposure is positively very beneficial with very low risk but that the risk of skin cancer then goes up with exposure time and possibly as sunlight becomes more intense (shorter actual wavelength). I think it was the president of the USA’s dermatology college who was hounded out of his position by expressing his considered opinion that sun might even be good for us.  Not suggesting here laying about on the beach at Arnaoutchot like a toasted lizard but just getting 10-15 minutes a day if possible of decent sun on skin time….which is what I try to do on wash days on the boat.

What else can we say about boat hygiene tasks ?

Not long before I left my job it was a different nurse who asked, or tried to ask, delicately……”how do your….err…you know”….?.  Now, this was a bit odd because we were sharing a small office and our afternoon’s task was to phone about 25 people and tell them all about the preparation for having a long black tube….up their bottom….!.  Why it was my nurse colleague couldn’t just ask what we do about taking a dump….or whatever you want to call it but there you have it.  The answer on WABI’’’ is of course the bucket, not any old bucket but the designated bucket that has “Heads Bucket’ written in large letters on it’s side. 

WABI’’’ is actually a very posh boat now because we have at least 4 buckets all of which do different jobs.  The current ‘heads’ bucket…..if you didn’t know then ‘the heads’ is the sailors expression for the loo, khazi, dunny, thunder box or whatever and the ‘heads’ on a sailing ship were always at the head ie bow of the ship…..except for the officers ‘heads’ which were at the stern !.   Anyway the new heads bucket is a spiffy blue one and one of a new pair I bought in Brest.  The other new bucket is labelled ‘BOSS’ which stands for ‘bucket of stout construction’ which was always an IOR requirement.  

Now, here’s a little linguistic thing : I discovered just recently that the French for bucket is ’Seau’ because I had to go and ask the very nice man at the Poissonnerie for “Une seau de la glace” ie a bucket of ice please.  What I don’t know and can’t work out is what a heads bucket would be in France ….you see a direct translation as far as I can tell would be ‘bucket-head’ and ‘buckethead’ is a rather good guitarist who just happens to wear a bucket on his head during performances !.     Not a lot of people know that btw.

So….buckets.  I’m just about to do the evening washing-up in the BOSS and tonight I’ll be doing that in seawater first.  There are places where I will, and where I won’t, use seawater for the washing-up.  Generally I do when I’m offshore and don’t when I’m in rivers, a notable example being the Tamar which has a sewage plant just upriver of where I normally keep WABI’’’.  Here I’m in a river and technically downstream of Quimper although I’m actually in a side channel that’s recently been filled by a strongly flooding tide.  So tonight I’ll wash the dishes in seawater and then rinse them with hot fresh water.  So far , to the best of my knowledge iv’e never had a water-borne gut nasty although I have heard of an entire crew going down with something like that.  One place we visited in my professional days stank, at night, from the sewage discharge , we never used seawater there and I used to rinse/soak all of our utensils in a Milton solution.

Of greater importance on big boats is teaching the guest crew the sheer importance of ‘clean-hand’ cookery as a ‘dirty-hand’ can give an entire crew a dose of the runs…..often staphylococcal if poor hand hygiene is the cause.   In other boat hygiene tasks I do consider the management of our water and food as part of the job list.  My usual practice , because it just happens to work out that way is to mop out the cool-box once a week and just discard the water.  Usually on the same day I wipe out the main food crate and re-stow.  Once a week if iv’e been at sea I strip everything out of the galley, including de-mounting the alcohol stove and wash everything with fresh water.   Aside from that I try to keep to a regular routine of brushing the cabin cushions out to get rid of the dead skin cells , dust and biscuit crumbs.  Iv’e never had a problem with cockroaches on this boat although they are a nuisance in the Caribbean….and may I add many old British hospitals !



  1. Another good piece Steve, on the delights of small boat life and practicalities. We had a minor heads bucket failure last season, a crack developed thankfully above normal operational levels now I have to find a new one with the required rounded top edge and of stout construction.


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