Drinking Water From The Ocean

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First departure through Joes Sound cut

March 7, 2019

We had not grown tired of Long Island in the least.  Quite the opposite; it was one of those places that you could easily find yourself continually making excuses as to why you needed to stay.

Like Cat Island, it had come to represent a slice of the Bahamas we had been searching for… a place that felt like something more than simply Florida’s backyard playground.  Not the imagery of resorts, marinas, and attractions catering to passing tourists.  Real people stuck in living real lives.  Fiercely proud people who had, for generations, been been carving out an existence on these islands which occupy the very edge of development and “mainstream” travel.  The same people who had been helping those around them carve out that same existence at the same time.

Both qualities, capable independence and magnanimous hospitality, seemed to be a common thread woven into the fiber that makes up these tiny communities.

Still, we were both in agreement that it was time to move on.  

When you are enjoying yourself, the difficult decision of moving on seems counterproductive.  You travel to seek out enjoyable places, so why leave once you reach one of those places?

Sometimes, you have to remind yourself that the only reason you arrived at the location you are currently enjoying so much, is because you made the decision to move on from the previous location.  

However, our general intention to continue pushing east as the opportunity arose was meeting resistance.  Loosely, the plan was to work as far east as possible utilizing erratic wind patterns early in the year before the prevailing south-easterlies set in, which would force us to start heading south with the intent of getting below a Latitude of 5ºN for hurricane season. 

It was becoming more and more apparent that the prediction of Chris Parker (SSB radio’s weather guru for boaters), that the prevailing SE Bahamas winds seemed to be setting in early this year, was coming true with a vengeance. 

This didn’t leave a lot of options for us from southern Long Island.

Motoring, which is always at the end of our list of options…

Push northeast; but we would likely be putting ourselves in a corner, trapped by southeast winds with only southeast to go…  

Forego any further attempts to get any closer to the Caribbean, and make for Cuba, Puerto Rico, or Jamaica…

Make for a tiny chain of largely uninhabited islands less than a day away called the Jamentos and the Ragged Islands, ultimately still leaving all the options on the table…

As we continue to move further and further away from the safety net of marinas, supply stores, and easily obtained resources, we find a necessity to become more and more completely self-sufficient.  We are constantly forced to second-guess and re-evaluate… what is the weakest link at any given time?  

Though we feel confident that, even in remote locations, people will offer whatever help they can, we also feel adamant that traveling into more remote areas depending on other people, because you are poorly equipped or ill prepared, is foolhardy.

Fortunately, we have not found ourselves in an area so remote we have been unable to secure fuel or basic provisions if needed.  Largely, it’s about having the foresight not to get close enough to running out of something that creates an emergency by topping up when the opportunity arrises.

With full fuel tanks (diesel, petrol, and propane), full water tanks, and recent provisioning, we should be able to go at least a month or more before needing to replenish something (with the obvious exception of fresh produce).  

And yet, time and time again, we find ourselves most concerned about fresh water.

The two hundred gallon capacity of our tanks sounds endless.  

At one gallon per person per day, that would last three months… Spartan.  Basically, minimal drinking/cooking water and cleaning everything with salt water.  We know people who do it but it amounts to survival living.  

At the average dirt dweller’s consumption rate of one hundred gallons per day per person, we’d run out of water every day… silly.

Five or six gallons per day for both of us, our current average fresh water consumption rate living aboard Exit, affords us some luxuries within frugal constraints, and also makes water a monthly concern.

Not a problem in places like the United States, where free potable water can be obtained from a spigot on every dock.  

Our travels through the Bahamas became our first initiation into the reality of having to buy the drinking water we were filling our tanks with.  

Without city-plumbed drinking water, fresh water wells or reverse osmosis watermakers are a very limited commodity.  We found that, when available, marinas would charge anywhere from twenty to fifty cents per gallon. Not cheap… but still available.  

And understandable, when you have multi-million dollar pleasure boats wasting hundreds of gallons of fresh water to clean the salt off their decks.

However, as we explore areas with less and less development, even obtaining drinking water becomes a bigger and bigger issue. 

The water from a tap is simply not potable, and drinking water is bought only by the bottle.

We thought rain catch would be the answer.

In theory… a no brainer.

In practice… at best, we’ve not been able to collect even half of our consumption over the course of a month.  More like ten to fifteen percent has been the average over a year’s time.  With different geographical rain patterns or better rain catch methods that might change; but for now… it is what it is.

Which leaves us:

  1. Carrying free water as far as needed when available
  2. Buying water when necessary
  3. Scrambling to catch never enough rain when it falls from the sky
  4. Living with self-imposed militant water restrictions
  5. Potentially dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean
  6. Considering the alternatives…

When we purchased Exit, there was already an installed watermaker aboard.  It was a French made Aquaset… twenty five years old… looked almost unused… rated at twenty gallons of fresh water production per hour (seriously high capacity for its size)… listed as needing service by the previous owner.

Turns out water makers don’t like to sit unused for long periods and we eventually learned this one hadn’t been turned on in over fifteen years.

Still, we didn’t give up. 

Optimistically, we left the rather massive contraption in place, undisturbed in the engine compartment and under the floor, where it had resided for a quarter century, largely sight unseen.

Numerous people who know far more about electrical, mechanics, and watermakers in particular, said this is a serious watermaker, but it’s not gonna be worth trying to revive… shit.

Apparently, the watermaker was rated to run on 350V (which the original generator on Exit must have been)…maird.  Those crazy French.

It would cost at least a thousand dollars in parts, filters, and membranes (not including any labor) to find out if the Aquaset would ever make water again.  At that point, it could cost another two or three times that to get it fully functional… shit. 

Or it could be pronounced dead on arrival… shit.

*****

Salinity in ocean water is measured as TDS (total dissolved solids) in parts per million (ppm).  Though it takes salinity levels of about 1000ppm to actually taste the salt, anything above 750ppm is unhealthy for drinking.  The World Health Organization considers water to be potable, if total TDS do not exceed 750ppm. 

Desalination of water on a scale compatible with daily use requires specialized pumps and filters, adequate power, adequate space, religious maintenance, and a healthy bank account (this intentionally excludes hand held survival watermaker products here – if you are afloat on a life raft, pumping by hand for hours to make water is considered survival; if you are trying to wash dishes, it is a ridiculous life style choice…).  

Replacement options were daunting… $5-10k were numbers that were bouncing around… the appeal of 12-volt systems seemed obvious – our solar panels would recover the battery draw; but 12V water makers either generate much less fresh water or have much higher energy consumption… 230V would give us maximum volume of production without the battery concerns but would force us to use the very generator we were trying to minimize feeding more diesel to… at least 12V could rely on the solar when available but fall back on the generator to charge batteries if needed… unless the power drain was too much… or the output so low the watermaker had to be run for hours every day… watermakers ranging from three to thirty amps of electrical draw… watermakers ranging from two to twenty gallons of hourly production… arrrrrrgh!

Lots of info… no clear choices… everything is a compromise… easier to not make a decision and keep your money in your pocket for now… 

… and deal with monthly fresh water concerns…

… still on Long Island… time to move on…

… but the Jumentos and Ragged Islands have no water available… sigh.

Enter the mysterious stranger… the unforeseen variable… the wild card… circumstance… the hand of Fate…

A passing comment from Jay over a week earlier regarding a used watermaker having recently been sold at Salt Pond’s local hardware and marine equipment store prompted us to inquire about used watermakers when we stopped by to ask about fishing spears.

After being introduced to Craig Fox, a Salt Pond local resident as well as owner and manager of Seafarer Marine Supply, we learned that, yes indeed, he did happen to have a used watermaker that had just become available.

The 2015 Spectra Newport 400 MKII, a 12-volt system well beyond anything we would have remotely considered new, had been installed aboard a boat that was the unlucky recipient of a lightning strike in Florida.  After an insurance settlement that replaced the entire system, the previous owner (a good friend of Craig Fox) gave the system to Craig hoping that he could sell it and maybe make a little money.  Craig refurbished the fried system with an entire new electrical board, DC motor, and membrane.  Though $12,000 new, this particular used 2015 model was priced lower than a lesser performing model we might have considered.

Spectra has a reputation for manufacturing some of the quietest operating watermakers in production.  Furthermore, at about one amp of energy consumption for every gallon of fresh water produced, Spectra watermakers are among the most energy efficient on the market.

Around fifteen gallons of fresh water produced per hour; enough to not be making water for hours and hours every day… perfect.

And, to top it all off, the Newport incorporates an automated fresh water flushing system.  After a session of making water, it back flushes approximately seven gallons of the fresh water it has just produced through the filters and membrane, cleaning out all of the salt water.  This procedure extends the life of a $500 membrane from one year to as much as a decade or even more. 

Normally, a watermaker that isn’t run for three days has to be “pickled” (a process involving chemicals which has to be followed religiously to prevent the membrane and filters from going bad).  Fresh water flushing the system every five days prevents the need to use or “pickle” the system every three days, making it more foolproof, simple and less prone to membrane deterioration.

It had the potential to nearly pay for itself in saved membrane replacement costs alone… sweet.

Realizing the necessity for having a watermaker aboard was more of process to reach that realizing the necessity for solar power.  Still, in the end, a year’s experience delivered us to that conclusion. 

We knew it was going to happen… it was just a matter of when.

Now, once again, circumstances seem to have landed us on the doorstep of our dear old friend Opportunity.

And so, after what could more accurately be described as a year long process rather than an isolated discussion, we decided to bite the bullet.

While Tami and Jay sailed for the Jumentos and Ragged Islands, we spent the following week installing a watermaker.

We were adamant that we wanted to install the new system outside of the hot environment of the engine compartment, where the previous one had been located.

Generating precious extra space in the engine compartment by removing the old watermaker, as well as some leftover bits and bobs from the original engine driven refrigeration compressor, was a bonus in and of itself, but it was a trade-off in giving up some storage space in the starboard aft berth, where we ultimately decided to locate the new system.

The task of determining where to locate the various watermaker components, relocating the contents of already full lockers now earmarked for said watermaker, running some new hoses and electrical, not to mention actually installing the new system proved much less problematic and troublesome than we anticipated.

No doubt, having the through hulls already installed and a reference from the layout of the previous watermaker made things much easier.

No doubt, having Craig’s expertise and skills proved invaluable in keeping things as painless as they turned out.

In addition, his decades of experience as a local fisherman and contractor, as well as the fact that he showed up at our boat every day in his own twenty foot skiff, meant that he had no problems doing work aboard Exit while she sat at anchor.

No docks or marinas necessary… nice.

In the end, the system integrated perfectly into what looked like part of the original boat design.  The process of switching out watermakers, all within the confined and very limited space belowdecks of a sailboat at anchor, proved daunting but achievable.

Above and beyond all of the other considerations, resides the peace of mind factor.  Creating a situation where water is no longer a monthly concern is priceless.

Not unlike the situation we found regarding installing solar on the boat: a painfully difficult upfront investment sets the stage for achieving a significant increase in self-sufficiency, while simultaneously contributing to achieving a significant decrease in stress levels.  

With the solar charging system, it was a decision that has been absolutely without regret since day one.  Hopefully the watermaker will follow in the same footsteps.

Living aboard a sailboat…

…harnessing the wind’s energy to travel…

…harvesting power from the sun…

…drinking water from the ocean…

…on the move, off the grid…

…modern primitive…

…life is good.

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