Lessons aboard: what sailing has taught me about potable water

There are 2.1 billion people in the world without sufficient access to potable water, and we are two of them.

A lack of access to potable water invokes images of women and children walking for miles with jugs over their heads or shoulders, arid landscapes, and families gathered around questionable sources. The image we don’t see, the one that is not widely circulated, is the image of two salty sailors hauling a blue jerry can down a single-lane road to fill up at an obscure faucet wondering if they too will suffer from dysentery. Two sailors and a jerry can does not conjure the same level of empathy as, say, a malnourished child. And I don’t think it should. Our current conditions are born out of a privileged choice we have made. I bring up the comparison for the mere fact that we don’t have permanent access to high-quality water and I have been forever marked by deep empathy for those whom this reality is permanent.  We are surrounded by water, in all shades of blues and greens, yet we cannot drink it. A fundamental difference is that our lack of an abundant, clean, safe, reliable, and affordable water source is a result of a lifestyle choice, not circumstance, and our personal and financial development is not hindered by it.


Kids in in Cochabamba, Bolivia showing off their water faucet (March, 2013 trip with Water for People)

This global issue already held a tender spot in my heart. I traveled to Bolivia with Water for People in 2013 on a skills-based volunteering effort to help the non-profit monitor the success of potable water and sanitation solutions over the long term. The two-week trip transformed my views on foreign aid, sustainable solutions, community engagement, and even happiness. In 2017, I led a campaign that raised over $200,000 for the same organization. Water for People opened my eyes to this issue and sailing made this constraint a part of my world.


Our boat is capable of holding 66 gallons (approximately 250 liters) of water at a given time. According to the United States Geological Survey, an average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day. That means that an average American uses more water per day that we can hold in our boat, total. We estimate using 33 gallons in a two-week period, meaning we use 1.18 gallons (4.46 liters) of potable water per person per day.

How is that possible?

Like a backpacker out in the woods monitoring supplies, we make constant and proactive decisions as to never run out. We’ve been asked before by drought-stricken states to conserve water – Colorado told us not to water our lawn, California told us our restaurants would only serve water upon request. These restrictions seem comical to us now when the reality of actually running out of water looms true. Conservation for us is way of life. Instead of a gushing faucet, we use a foot pump to minimize fresh water flow when washing dishes. Pot too sticky? Rinse with salt water first, to minimize the use of fresh. The toilet flushes with salt water. Laundry is done in a small bucket, and infrequently (unless we are at ports where we use coin laundry machines or the marina water hose and hand wash ourselves). We bathe in salt water and rinse in fresh, and take what are known as “Navy showers”. “Boat hair don’t care” is embraced. Small choices, like cooking couscous instead of spaghetti, and making hardboiled eggs in salt water, reduces water needs when cooking.

Locating a source of water, diesel and fresh food are main priorities when we arrive on land and every new port, wharf, marina, town center and village faucet presents a new opportunity to fill up. A 2015 study on South Pacific islands concluded that more than 90% of the urban population in most of the islands we have visited have access to improved water sources, of which we have been able to take advantage. More than 4.8 million people in the region are still not so lucky. Some sailors adapt rainwater catchment systems to fill their tanks. We have a water desalinization unit on board that has proven useful, albeit energy intensive and slow (like all water makers are), so we have chosen to rely on municipal sources and use the water maker as a backup.

When we arrived at Vuda Marina in Fiji and warm showers were once again possible, I found that navy showers have become second nature; anything beyond that seemed unnecessary and inefficient. I can’t help but smile at the many lasting shifts a life aboard seems to provide, and I am grateful for the opportunity to glance beyond my personal bubble and into the realities and challenges faced by others. Ensuring access to water and sanitation for all continues to be a global challenge, and is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I feel more compelled than ever to do my part to bridge this inequality. The sight of running water and a flush toilet have become sights of luxury, and ones I will never again take for granted.

Water 1
Our trusty jerry can
Water 2
 We found a water source in the Marquesas on shore (no dock!). In an attempt to reduce our dinghy rides (and safe fuel), we filled up our water bladder, which then had to be lifted on to the boat, and emptied inside our tanks. One hammock, two halyards and a lot of creativity was employed.


Compelled to learn more? Check out waterforpeople.org and the United Nations SDGs for more information, and to learn about other non-profits tackling global access to clean water and sanitation. Contact your local municipality and learn more about water quality and access in your own area.