On Matters of Laundry


Getting your whites whiter than white is no mean feat when living onboard a sailing boat and crossing oceans. It’s not just a question of your favourite wash powder brand…


Let’s face it, we stink! Well, no, not really, but most people assume we do and that we disguise our rancid body smells by using exotic lotions, just like the olden days during the Middle Ages. You see, we don’t have the modern day laundry appliances onboard Sänna that are found in even the most humblest of homes nowadays.

Whenever we get into any landlubber conversation with anyone remotely interested in how we manage our lives onboard a sailing boat, the first question we are asked in almost every instance is “How do you do your laundry?”…

I always respond by saying it’s a simple matter of managing what you wear and for how long. For example, I explain that a guy’s underpants can be worn the right way for the first week, back to front for week two, inside out the right way around for week three and inside out back to front for week four, thus meaning a single pair of underpants are good for one whole month.

Of course, I take delight in their change of facial expression as my underwear thesis continues, especially with you females out there. But then, with some guys, I’ve distinctly noticed a “Gee, I never thought of that…” look of genuine interest. Even so, like you, we take great care in choosing our laundry detergent. Invariably, ours is a simple choice of selecting ones suitable for hot or cold washes…

New ‘Improved’ Tide Two ‘Plus’

As an ex marketing man and advertising copy writer myself, I know a thing or two about leading brand laundry detergents… and why we all buy them. You may be relieved to know I don’t really wear my underwear for one whole month if I can help it. Firstly, the current Mrs Ungless, my dear wife Marie, would soon resign her role and leave me stranded and, secondly, we’re as finicky about our laundry as you are.

Before I proceed to explain how we wash clean our bedding and clothing whilst at sea, often in quite demanding conditions, let’s first discuss why we all want our whites to be proudly whiter than those hanging on our neighbour’s drying lines whilst billowing in the warm summer sunshine wind. It’s a well defined status thing, you see.

Detergent technology has advanced enormously over recent years as each competing brand fights mercilessly for our loyalty. It’s a huge multi billion market worldwide and, not surprisingly, immensely profitable for the multinational giants who want our crisp clean money. Alongside this, the increasingly complex white machinery we employ to process our dirty laundry nowadays has undergone a small industrial revolution too.

The astounding benefits of chemical artificial cleaning compounds were first noted in 1917 during the First World War in Germany. Soaps were in short supply there due to the Allied naval blockade. Experiments were conducted using a variety of chemicals and in no time at all wash powder technology soon outperformed traditional soaps… which was also good news for whales. For the imagefirst time the wholesale slaughter of whales for the production of soap started to decline. Between the wars there was rapid advancement and the first leading brands of detergents appeared… FEWA in Germany and DREFT in the USA. However, it was the American’s slick advertising skills that really drove things and the concept of the wash powder commercial went ballistic during the 1950’s with the advent of TV. Luckily for all of us, redundant aviation fuel production plants abounded after the Second World War which were readily converted to the manufacture of laundry detergents… and we all began to clean up. But, consider this…

The human body does not demand that we wash the clothes we wear or that we even bathe ourselves. We do not die if we fail to do either and constant showering is not critical to our survival. And our clothing is first and foremost a cold weather protection layer, vital since we lost our layers of animal body hair during our early evolution. And I can tell you this… some of my daughter’s student friends thoroughly tested the non bathing theory and they survived wholesomely.

More importantly, how we dress is undoubtedly a useful display mechanism, used to attract the opposite sex in a mating ritual that is, in actual fact, common in both the animal and bird world too. Whereas a male feathered friend will exhort itself in exotic colours to attract a sometimes rather dull looking female, both the male and female of our own species will take a trip down to the shopping mall and spend hours browsing latest fashions and this years colours to wear enticingly during the prime mating period… early evening.

The emphasis is unwittingly focused on the all deciding time of 7.37pm. Research has shown this to be the exact time of day when both male and female humans are most responsive to each other’s pronounced efforts to attract the attention of the other. We have only a limited opportunity to make an impression and prime time TV advertising executives understand this in a very perceptive way. Hence our hardest work, and theirs, goes into manipulating our appearance to make the maximum impact to the opposite sex in the shortest time possible. In addition, this has ultimately lead to the relentless march of the ‘Designer Label’ brands… displaying important status to the opposite sex whilst at the same time demonstrating a clear warning to competitors of the same sex, and is a powerful selling message. It works BIG time, but not on the telly! Prime designer brands are far more sophisticated than that, never using traditional advertising methods but instead employing clever product placement techniques. The right clothes and accessories on the right body eh?

Consider this too. Almost all hair care and body vanity TV advertising (including female menstrual products) are targeted between the hours of 7.00 and 9.00 in the morning and 6.30 to 8.30 in the evening and are invariably reinforced by extensive glossy magazine Ads. Ever wonder why? Well, when we rise out of bed most of us are impressionable to how we look and feel, and then, during the early evening, it’s when mating games begin. TV executives and magazine editors know full well when we watch and read. For your information, food marketing is fed out to us when our hunger instincts are at their height and alcohol marketing eases in from around 7.30 in the evening onwards, whilst gambling and sensual contact products abound after normal viewing hours for obvious reasons. When did you last see a condom advert before 10.30 pm?

But, and here’s the thing, once close partner contact has been established in the hunt for your ideal companion, the real tricky part comes in keeping the interest of your new spouse and not losing your conquest to other predatory humans. That’s where the success of the worlds’ perfume industry derives from and exceedingly clever marketing men have been quick to take advantage. Next time you watch a TV advert or see a magazine display Ad, take a long look at the facial expression of the model used to tempt you to their brand of nice smelling mixture of solvent and oil. If you were to walk down a parade line of prospect partners whilst wearing a blindfold and relying only on your sense of smell, which one would you choose?

And so, what’s the point of all that sudden nice body odour when your clothes stink of unwashed fibres that are best burned in an environmentally secure oil barrel to avoid universal contamination and disease?

That’s where the really smart advertising boys have grown rich… the rise and rise of the laundry detergent. Conglomerate organisations sell you their message of what will happen if you don’t buy their brand of compound chemicals that are, for all intent and purposes, exactly the same as their competitors. Are you comfortable if your clothes don’t wash clean? If your whites aren’t that white? It’s all about the enticing carton box message and how you will think your partner or spouse, or even your imagebeloved child, will ditch you for the next predatory charlatan who comes along to steal your loved one. Again, look into the animal kingdom to see nature playing the same game… chimpanzees and orangutans for example. Spouse loyalty can be fickle and the ape world thrives on mutual group grooming for the same reasons. A good marketing guru worth his salts knows this and employs the same techniques. It’s called Peer Group Acceptance. That’s why our whites must be whiter than white… or whiter than those you compete with for group inclusion. Clever stuff eh?

Never underestimate the power of an advertising man. They get you every time. Even if you’re the wise guy who’s adamant you’re cleverer, choosing to ignore the marketing message that’s being thrown at you. Yeah right! The advertising wizard just comes to you from a different and unsuspecting direction… your favourite sport or by the use of the well proven technique using humour. Just take a look at men’s beer adverts to see how well that method has succeeded. Right guys?

So, exactly how do we survive clean and intact on a sailing boat without killing each other…?

Five Ways To Wash Your Laundry On A Boat

I am, according to my worldly wife, what’s commonly known as an oily fellow. That’s not to be confused with the slimy second hand car salesman guy or anyone who works for FedEx. No, my problem is that my skin exudes oil in well gushing quantities during the hours of darkness whilst I’m asleep. I’m not proud of it, in fact I cringe when I see the crumpled yellow bed sheets and pillows when compared to my wife’s pristine, white, creaseless ironing imageboard side of the bed where she’s sleeps motionless throughout the night. I shower a hundred and fourteen times a day but it makes little difference. It’s just the way I am, and you guys out there who are the same know what I mean. I’m lucky to survive and divorce isn’t an option. After all, there are five basic ways to clean bed linen and clothing onboard the confining space of a sailing boat…

  1. Use of the Raster Man Technique – this method is commonly used by Rastafarians and is actually scientifically proven to work. Hard core believers follow a rigid principle of never bathing, relying on natural body oils to cleans their skin and hair. There is undoubtedly merit in this as clothing takes up the oils from the body surface extracting bad stuff along the way. Clothing is invariably hung out in fresh wind to air away odours without being laundered or is invariably burnt once past its prime. This method usually works best on boats crewed by other Rastafarian believers.
  2. Trailing Rope Technique – we’ve seen this commonly used by long distance sailors and have tried the method a number of times ourselves. All clothing is tied to a trailing line and heaved overboard from the stern whilst the vessel is underway. All laundry is then left to twist and turn in the sea, the motion forming a very effective tumbling and rubbing motion just the same as that employed in top of the range wash machines. When left for an hour or more the laundry is recovered by using winches and tackle and clothing losses are generally no more than found in any average land based Chinese laundry. Of course, there then remains the problem of saturated salt levels in what is highly laundered clothing and bedding. Whites are exceptionally white through the chemical and abrasive action of salt. This salt is then eradicated by soaking for ten minutes in a low urine/fresh water solution before soaking again for ten minutes in purely fresh water. This works exceptionally well, but one particular purist of this technique insists that urine donated by virgins of either gender works best. Personally, I don’t see how this can make a difference and is almost certainly a wind up. In any event, finding virgins desperate for a pee is sometimes not easy.
  3. The Pummeling Technique – labour intensive and hard work. It’s just a simple case of putting laundry into a basin or shower tray, turning on the cold water (hot water on a boat should be conserved for personal cleanliness) and pummeling hard with your feet or hands and then slamming garments forcibly against any object. This technique is often employed by native inhabitants by the side of rivers and lakes, particularly the great Ganges or Mekong deltas. Wringing can be hard work but this method is surprisingly effective providing you have the time and energy to spend seventy percent of your time doing your laundry. Of course, you can always hire someone to do this work for you but there is then the problem of extra safety at sea and another mouth to feed. Slavery or what?
  4. Automated Technique – many vessels nowadays are equipped with sophisticated watermakers, sometimes referred to as desalinators. We have a large watermaker onboard Sänna and we therefore have an ample supply of fresh water. These days small front loading washing machines are manufactured purely for boats and the RV market (caravans and motor homes). These provide excellent laundry facilities but are power and water hungry. Given that most vessels are run on 12 or 24 volts through battery banks, it’s sometimes not practical to install and run onboard laundry equipment unless an electric generator is available. Therefore such laundry equipment is generally found on the larger pleasure cruisers and super yachts… or plastic pigs as they are commonly referred to by most sailboat cruisers.
  5. Onshore Laundromat Technique – that’s what we do when in harbour. We rely on the traditional Chinese laundry or self service laundromat. Found in every port, usually very close to harbours and available in nearly all quality marinas. Easy but not always cheap. Carrying too and fro can be a pain but there’s often no other choice. And… we make good friends with other sailboat cruisers which often leads to sunset beers and good friendships. But there are two golden rules that must be followed. First, we never expect to use the laundromat on a Monday if the Aussies are in town… Monday is still their traditional washday and is religiously followed just like the 1950’s and we would not find a machine available. Secondly, and this is important, never try and out white a German or a Belgian. I’ve witnessed remarkable scenes after snide comments from one proud totalitarian.

What do you think?

Dave Ungless


Dave & Marie Ungless are currently sailing their boat Sänna around the world from west to east. Their nine year voyage so far has taken them into the North Pacific and to Alaska where they are now located. Dave is a freelance writer and journalist writing about their travels and the social aspects of their journey.

You can view their sailing website at www.sanna-uk.com and their sailing blog at www.sailblogs.com/member/eastwards.

You can also Like their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sv.sanna.

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