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How to Install a Deck-Wash System

This DIY sailor devised a simple solution for a messy chore.

May 26, 2021
DIY sailboat deck-wash system
The bowsprit on my ­schooner, Britannia, made washing down the anchor to get underway a chore. The solution? An easy, handy DIY deck-wash system. Roger Hughes

Most boat owners would surely agree that an anchor/deck-wash system would be a useful addition to their boat’s equipment. If they anchored frequently anywhere in the murky waters of Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, they would consider it absolutely essential. The ICW runs up the Eastern Seaboard as far as Chesapeake Bay, and is a playground for boats of every shape and size. It is well-protected from the Atlantic Ocean by a string of sometimes quite large barrier islands, many hosting waterfront towns yet with outlets every so often to the ocean.

In many areas along the ICW, the bottom is mostly sedentary thick black mud that an anchor must penetrate to find better holding beneath. Once an anchor digs in, it usually holds well; the trouble is, upon weighing it, half the bottom usually comes up, glued to the chain and anchor, in the form of a smelly oozing sludge over a layer of hard clay.

Even when wet, this ­concrete-like substance is very difficult to clean off an anchor; if left to dry, it’s practically impossible to remove from the chain. I’ve seen people trying to poke it off their anchor with a boat hook, or dipping a deck brush in the water and then valiantly attempting to wash the black crud off their chain and foredeck. My schooner, Britannia, has a bowsprit, and the anchor comes up beneath it, so it’s impossible to wash with either method. To clean the anchor, I would dangle it in the bow wake as we motored away, but that’s not advisable if you have a short bow roller because the anchor will bump against the bow. I would often pile the dirty chain on deck, then swill it with buckets of water before stowing it.

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DIY sailboat deck-wash system
When it comes to deck-wash kits, you can go to a ­chandlery and buy one with the basics: hose, filter, nozzle, pipe ­fittings and so on (left). Or you can assemble your own ­customized version, as I did, with a garden hose, pressure pump and all the attendant fittings (right). Roger Hughes

All of this paraphernalia rather removed the pleasure of getting underway—or rather, it used to, until I built myself a great deck-wash system.

You can buy complete ­deck-wash kits from ­chandleries and online. They cost anywhere from about $200 to $500, depending on pump pressure and whatever ancillary equipment they include, such as hoses, a nozzle, a filter, pipe fittings, etc. They are primarily meant to be hard-mounted below deck, with pipes or hoses from a seacock or other seawater source to a pump, then to a deck outlet fitting, normally near the bow, to which is attached a water hose and nozzle. These kits don’t usually include connecting pipework or electrical wiring, which adds to the cost of installation.

A powerful deck-wash system is highly effective for cleaning a dirty anchor and chain rode, ensuring it passes into the chain locker in a reasonably unsoiled and unsmelly condition.

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Provided your hose is long enough, it can also double as an actual deck wash—but that is all it does. A fixed system cannot be used to pump rainwater out of a dinghy, or as an additional bilge pump, or to wash a bilge, or any other job for which a powerful water jet would be useful. To wash a deck—as opposed to simply cleaning ground tackle—a much longer hose is usually needed. In other words, a fixed system is not very versatile, with few other uses. The deck wash I built can be used for all these functions, and anything else you need to pump water onto or out of, including out of your boat or dinghy.

DIY sailboat deck-wash system
The key to success is, of course, the pump. I went with an Aqua-Jet WD 5.2 from Johnson Pump Company. Roger Hughes

Furthermore, the equipment and assembly is simplicity itself, consisting of only a pressure pump and filter, two lengths of regular garden hose—one with a weight on the end to keep it underwater—and a hand nozzle. Operation is equally simple. The inlet hose is just hung anywhere over the side into the water, and the pump connects to a battery. The pump then sucks up seawater and shoots a powerful jet of water through the hand nozzle.

The main item, of course, is the pump, and there are many on the market to suit different budgets and pressure needs. The only communal requirements are: The pump should be self-activating (also called an on-demand pump); that is, it starts and stops when pressure changes in the line as the hand nozzle is opened and closed. This makes the operation semiautomatic and saves the need for an on/off switch. The pump must also be self-priming and with adequate lifting capacity from below the waterline, because if it is not powerful enough to suck up water, it obviously won’t work. Diaphragm pumps are preferable to impeller pumps because they are able to run dry, enabling the lines to be pumped empty after use for stowage. Also, unlike an impeller pump, a diaphragm pump has no “kick” as it starts up, which means it won’t fall over or roll off wherever you place it. On-demand deck-wash pumps are similar to those used for pressurizing freshwater systems, sink faucets and showers.

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After looking at many pump specifications, I decided on the Aqua-Jet WD 5.2 washdown pump, from Johnson Pump. This is one of the more powerful pumps available, with 70 psi (about the same as a house), and it easily sucks water up my boat’s 4-foot freeboard. The pump has a detachable, easy-to-clean filter, which saves having to buy a separate in-line one. The filter also swivels, allowing the outlet hose to point forward or back, making it easier to use.

DIY sailboat deck-wash system
The assembly was simplicity itself, with a couple of lengths of garden hose, clamp-type hose fittings, and brass ­fittings from the hardware store. Roger Hughes

Included with the pump is a hand nozzle, which can be locked in the open position. The nozzle fits on the hose with a push fitting, which is useful because you don’t have to unscrew anything when you need to remove it for a continuous flow, as when emptying a dinghy, or as an extra bilge pump. There are four large rubber feet under the base plate, so this pump can be placed anywhere on deck with little fear of it damaging anything. The pump comes with fittings for 1⁄2-inch and 5⁄8-inch water hoses, but it is best to use the larger size (which has some 60 percent greater volume) to produce the maximum water jet. This pump is available from most marine suppliers, and found online for about $140 (part No. 10-13407-07 for 12 volts).

DIY sailboat deck-wash system
The finished ­product delivers a powerful 15-foot-long jet. Roger Hughes

I bought an inexpensive 5⁄8-inch garden hose, which I cut into 6-foot and 9-foot lengths, and attached them to the pump fitting with clamp-type hose fittings. Six feet is long enough to easily hang over the side of my boat. To keep the end underwater, I weighted it with two brass fittings from my local hardware store. One has a 5⁄8-inch barb for the hose, and a 3⁄4-inch NPT thread, onto which I screwed another brass nut for added weight.

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For power, I found a couple of crocodile clips, like those used on car jumper cables, at my local auto-parts store; I then soldered them to a long-enough 14 AWG wire to reach any of my 12-volt batteries. Do not be tempted to use a cigarette-lighter receptacle that you might have in your cockpit. They can get quite warm and shouldn’t be used for the ­continuous current draw of these powerful pumps, which for the Johnson 12-volt unit is 15 amps on startup. An in-line fuse, with amperage as rated by the pump-motor ­manufacturer, should be installed within a few feet of the battery hookup, just to be safe.

After hanging the inlet hose over the side and clipping on the power cord, the pump hums, but nothing else happens—until the hand nozzle is squeezed, whereupon the pump starts sucking water through the hoses and delivers an incredibly powerful 15-foot-long jet, which will knock the muck off any anchor and chain. The long-reaching jet enables you to hit the chain immediately as it comes out of the water, and if you have an electric windlass, you can bring up the chain as quickly as you like. If the system becomes clogged with sucked-up debris, the filter is easily unscrewed and cleaned. The hoses can also be unclipped from the pump by hand with the quick-release connectors to empty them for storage.

With the nozzle fitted, the pump empties a 5-gallon ­bucket in just under three minutes; without the nozzle, it takes about 90 seconds.

When I want to wash any part of the actual deck, I just drop the hose over either side, connect the power, and fire away. Whenever my dinghy gets full of rainwater, I simply drop the end of the intake hose into the boat and pump it dry in just a few minutes, all from on deck, which beats climbing into the waterlogged dinghy with a hand bailer any day. I found another use as well: to empty an ornamental fountain in my backyard, which I could never get completely empty with a small bailer.

This is a deceptively simple setup that works amazingly well. Its versatility adapts to many purposes, yet it’s cheaper than a kit with a pump of comparable power. That’s something of a rarity in the marine-equipment business nowadays, don’t you think?

DIY warrior Roger Hughes frequently writes for CW about his upgrade projects aboard his schooner, Britannia.

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