Laundry … a Necessary Evil

Laundry aboard can be done in various ways depending on where you’re cruising.  Our favorite was cruising in the south central Belize area where we simply dropped the laundry off at Ther’s Laundry Service, reprovisioned & topped off with gas, took a walk, treated ourselves to the best italian gelato in the world at  Tutti Frutti (don’t be fooled by all the imitations, be SURE to get yourself to Tutti Frutti!)  and then returned to pick up our great smelling freshly folded laundry!

Ther's Laundry, Placencia, Belize

Ther's Laundry, Placencia, Belize

The Bay Islands, Providencia & San Andreas all had their own laundry ladies – usually several vying for your business.  Be sure to ask other cruisers to find one that will do the best job and not bleach spots in your favorite tank top (not kidding!).  Some of the locals seem to get carried away with the concept that bleach will clean anything!

Laundry at Catamaran Island Marina in the Rio Dulce was probably the easiest of anywhere we’ve been, we simply gave it to the staff at the front desk of the hotel and it was returned later (sometimes the next morning depending on how busy the hotel was) smelling fresh and clean and folded neatly.     Boaters would come in with mountains of laundry after being out for several months and sometimes clog up the system, but overall, Catamaran had to be the easiest place ever for laundry.

Torrential Downpour Caught in the Dinghy Can Provide Fresh Water for Laundry

Torrential Downpour Caught in the Dinghy Can Provide Fresh Water for Laundry

After two seasons leaving the boat at Catamaran where laundry was simply not an issue, imagine my surprise and horror to discover at Shelter Bay Marina in Ft Sherman/Colon Panama, I was expected to do my OWN laundry, at US style prices in an always full laundry room.  The biggest problem with the laundry room was that because the marina was so far from town, most of the employees would stay during the week.  Needless to say, they were doing laundry, the hotel was doing laundry and all the cruisers were trying to do laundry.  With 4 washers and 4 dryers, which seems like an adequate number until you realize that most all the time at least one was down for repair.  So the routine was to either get up before dawn to get your laundry started before anyone else dared arrive, or check and recheck to sneak in a load here and there between everyone else … which BTW, can take forever, I know from experience!!!

Bocas Del Toro had a nice laundry room, with an even nicer laundry lady which was a nice amenity.   The prices were lower than Shelter Bay but higher than Catamaran in the Rio Dulce, as you would expect.  The Bocas laundry room came staffed with a complete array of chameleon’s to help keep the no-see-ums off your laundry.  Ocassionally one might sneak into your bag of clean laundry and make it’s way home with you.  We never minded the chameleon’s on the boat because they dined on extra bugs.

After being more and more spoiled for years, imagine my complete surprise to learn that in the San Blas Islands, Panama, there were no laundry facilites — in fact there was no running water or electricity except for an occasional generator.     Oh dear.    We learned lots of new things about doing laundry the old fashioned way in the San Blas!   My motto for this type of laundry?  “It may not be clean, but it’s cleaner!”

BTW, when we left the US we had one of those hand crank laundry things that are sold at marine store – don’t bother.  It was far less time consuming to simply wash the laundry by hand!  It looked and sounded like a good idea to a newbie who was used to doing laundry with the washer and dryer at home, but it turned out I couldn’t even give it away at a Rio Dulce swap meet – everyone already knew what we found out!


Hand Laundry & Drying Tips

1.  It will likely come as no surprise that hand laundry is a PITA!!!   No fun, no way, only yuck!!!  If you keep it manageable by doing a few shirts/shorts every few days, it won’t be such an all consuming chore.

2.  When you’re doing hand laundry, be SURE not to use too much detergent!  Otherwise you’ll never get it rinsed out!  If you don’t want to use detergent, try using a splash of ammonia – believe it or not, it will clean your clothes!

3.  While cruising the San Blas, we switched from cotton t-shirts and shorts to the quick dry variety – the switch made laundry SO much easier than trying to clean David’s 50 cotton sweaty stinky t-shirts!

Laundry Drying After Being Washed in the Fresh Water Well in the Holendes, San Blas Islands

Laundry Drying After Being Washed in the Fresh Water Well in the Holendes, San Blas Islands

4.  Anytime there’s a heavy downpour – and it happens frequently in the tropics – friends always used the free fresh water supply to do a couple loads of hand laundry.  Aboard Winterlude we don’t have a good rain catchment system, so we just damned up our side decks, waited until the rain rinsed the salt off, then dammed up the deck with a rolled up towel covered with a trash bag.  When the water puddled to 2 or 3 inches deep, I could do a quick load of laundry in the rain!  The bonus was that rinsing was easy … as long as the rain held out.  I always hated it when the rain slacked off right at rinse time!

5.  When it rained heavy enough, the dinghy would be literally full of water, so we would scoop buckets off the top and do laundry in a 5 gallon bucket.

6.  Some tiny Kuna islands have fresh water wells … just a hole in the ground that’s filled with fresh water.  We took advantage of the fresh water wells to do laundry several times, then lounged on the island while it dried – be sure to take your own clothesline to string between palm trees!

6.  Laundry up a fresh water river can be an adventure in itself.  This is the Kuna indigenous style laundry, and it’s a good way to do laundry when you have sheets and towels – in other words, a large load.   First pile it all in a clean container in your dinghy — we used a large cooler.  Then dinghy up a river until you reach fresh water.  Then dump the laundry in the bottom of the dinghy and fill the cooler with fresh river water.  Keep in mind, the rivers in these areas are not like what you think of as a river in the eastern US, the water is clear and cool and you can see rounded stones or sand on the bottom a foot or two down.  They run swiftly and there’s no contamination … what a concept!  🙂  Use a bit of detergent — never use too much or you’ll never get the soap out!   Swish the detergent around in the cooler for a bit of suds and then put in a couple pieces of laundry.  Swish them around like a washing machine and end by scrubbing.  Wring them out and lay on a trash bag or some other clean platform in the dinghy until you get all the washing done.  Then dump the water, get fresh water in the cooler and rinse.  We usually had to do at least two rinse cycles – same concept, a couple of pieces at a time.  A final wring and you’re ready to dump the cooler and rinse it out to make sure it’s clean before you put your cleaner laundry, all wrung out and ready to dry in the cooler to keep it clean for the trip back to the boat.

7.  Drying laundry can be tricky.  You don’t want a really windy day because your laundry will end up full of salt and never dry.

8.  Watch where you anchor … downwind from a Kuna village with all the smoke from cooking fires is not optimal.  We found out from experience that your nice clean laundry may end up smelling like a Kuna cook fire!

Drying Laundry in the San Blas Islands

Drying Laundry in the San Blas Islands

If you really really don’t want to do the laundry, you can take it in to a Kuna village and ask if there’s anyone willing to do laundry.  But be careful, remember in a lot of villages, they have to haul their own water, so you’re still getting river water to clean the laundry.   And you may want to request that they return it to you while still wet – you can hang it to dry aboard your own boat!  The typical way they will dry your laundry is to place it on the roof of their wooden huts … with the cook fire smoke going inside, of course!  Guess what your “clean” laundry will smell like!

If you have better tips for laundry while cruising, please post a comment!   THANKS!  Jan



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