Washing Machine Aboard: Essential or Optional?

We started out doing laundry in a 5-gallon bucket. We’re glad that we upgraded.
Society Islands
Laundry day on Totem, in the Sea of Cortez, 2020. Behan Gifford

The washing machine in our house on land seemed to run daily to keep up with the laundry for our family of five. I worried about how we’d cope after giving up our high-efficiency machines to move aboard our sailboat, Totem. Wasn’t everyday life going to be even messier? Or would we really benefit from more or less living in swimsuits?

For years, we did laundry in a 5-gallon bucket, and it was fine. But in 2019, we added a compact washer. We love the upgrade enough that in recent months, we considered an even better make. 

Here’s how we thought about the pros and cons of a washing machine on a cruising boat.


Compact automatic washing machines

I never imagined having a washer on board when we set out for our sabbatical cruise. (Oops! 14 years later…) The Giantex we purchased uses about the same amount of water as our 5-gallon bucket, but clothes get cleaner—and it’s so much easier, we tend to keep up better. It cost us around $200, and now runs around $250. 

Niall works on the laundry in Bora Bora, 2010. Behan Gifford

Other, more-expensive washing machines on sailboats that get good reviews include the Daewoo Mini, which mounts out of the way in a wall or bulkhead, but has a smaller capacity at more than $1,000; the Splendide, which, at around $1,000, has a capacity that mimics a conventional washing machine; and Miele’s compact front-loaders, which have nearly the same footprint as the Splendide, but with better reviews and a price tag around $1,400.

As often happens, the RV market offers an affordable alternative. The first washing machine I ever saw on a cruising boat came from the RV world. It was a small, single-tub affair that plugged into an outlet. You had to add water with a hose or bucket, but that may work better for boats that closely watch water use. This method is higher maintenance, maybe, but it costs less than $100.


What about a dryer?

The Daewoo Mini and Splendide have all-in-one washer/dryer or washer-only units. While we know several boats with the dual capability, not a single cruiser aboard them likes the dryer function. It takes a long time (literally hours), it uses a lot of power, and clothes are still damp enough to warrant hanging. 

Drying laundry on the lifelines remains the cruiser’s best option. After trying many types of clothespins over the years, I am sold on powder-coated stainless pins. We’ve used them for about four years now. They are highly durable with no staining or corrosion, and the orange color I picked makes me smile.

Don’t get plastic pins. Ultraviolet light kills them all eventually, and you will lose them in the ocean. Wood sounds nice, but the metal springs eventually rust and stain your clothes. Suck it up and spend the money on the schmancy set. Match your canvas color if that helps you feel better about the expense.


Non-electric machines

Your “washing machine” could be a sink. Or, in the case of some creative crews, a cooler. Behan Gifford

Somewhere between the automatic washing machine and a bucket are the manual clothes washers. When we were in Australia, one cruiser’s cast-off Wonder Wash portable machine became our laundry treasure. It really did get clothes cleaner. But it only lasted about a year; its awkward shape made it difficult to stow; and, ultimately, the base cracked. It was not quite up to the rigors of cruising.

A few other nonelectric washers are around, but none seem better than the 5-gallon bucket for folks who aren’t going with an installed, powered washing machine. 

Shoreside laundry first

stomping the laundry
Siobhan using the “stomping the laundry” method in 2015. These loads were washed with semi-brackish well water in Chagos, Indian Ocean. Behan Gifford

Of course, it’s also nice to turn over the effort to someone else, and get a pile of sweetly clean, folded clothes in return. Laundry on shore may still be the best first choice. The gray-water rinse from laundry is a pollutant. While your trickle overboard might seem like a drop in the ocean, it’s cumulatively harming the fragile environment around us. Laundromats and households typically drain to water treatment plants, but boats don’t.


You can pay for a lot of shoreside laundry before buying a schmancy washer, and in an upcoming article, I’ll talk about our first 11 years of doing just fine thankyouverymuch using a 5-gallon bucket. There are some corners of the world where shoreside laundry is costly and ineffective; in French Polynesia, our clothes washed on shore came back damp and smelling of mildew.

clothes pins
We found our fancy clothes pins to be a good investment. Wood clothes pins don’t last and the metal springs rust and stain your clothes. Behan Gifford

But mostly, taking laundry on shore opens the genuinely interesting option of discovering a new establishment, maybe practicing a new language, meeting a new person or making a new friend, and getting your laundry cleaned in the bargain.