Life onboard

The art of the cruiser’s shower

November 21, 2017

I live on a sailboat. It has many of the amenities that a home on land has – like a kitchen with a stove and oven, two beds, a bathroom with a toilet and running water, and plenty of storage, at least for my small number of belongings. It is home, and I don’t feel like I make many sacrifices to live in it. There are a few conveniences, however, of land-living that our boat-living lacks, such as unlimited electricity, a flat space large enough for a yoga mat, and, probably most notably, a shower.

It is the missing shower that causes friends and acquaintances to cock their heads with a slightly furrowed brow and a concerned “better you than me” look on their faces. But like so many irritations and challenges in our lives, not having a shower at home has offered unforgettable experiences and instilled a true appreciation for a good long free clean bath.

When we lived aboard in Seattle, our marina provided dependable hot showers on land. This was a simple solution, provided I could scrape up enough quarters on any given day. And of course it required occasionally stepping out of the shower and squinting through streams of shampoo to deposit another $0.25, then banging on the side of the coin machine at just the right angle to turn on another 2 minutes of water.

Leaving Seattle to go cruising, we had visions of lazy days spent splashing about in the warm clear ocean, complete with a sun-warmed fresh water rinse at the end of the day. In these visions, we managed to skim over the first five months of the adventure, in which we sailed through waters too cold for daily bathing, often anchored close to other boats but far from any shore facilities.

Showering soon became part of the adventure. Sometimes desperation led to bowls of teakettle water and a few wet wipes. Other times nature provided in the most dramatic fashion. Here are a few of the most memorable bathing stories of the adventure so far.

When we stopped on Compton Island to visit Orca Dreams, a safari-style whale watching “glamping” operation owned by an old friend, JD, we were in desperate need of a good scrub. We had been bashing north through the inside passage for a few weeks, not yet experts in the art of “baby wipe baths”, exploring islands and acclimatizing to life on the move. When JD offered a shower, we took him up on it at once (for the benefit of his paying guests, we declared).

And what a shower it was. A 3-sided structure made of driftwood and ingenuity perched on the edge of a hill overlooking Blackfish sound. The camp’s location in a rainforest ensured unlimited gravity-fed spring water and a small propane system heated that sweet fresh water on the spot. The fourth side of the shower, open to the expanse of the Broughton’s, offered magnificent views of whales frolicking in the waters below, as the salt and dirt and stress of the previous weeks washed away. We returned to camp for homemade local berry crisp feeling rejuvenated and much less smelly.

Tucked in the lee of Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island, we hiked over the bluff and onto an endless Pacific beach covered in mangled driftwood with huge weather-beaten boulders scattered across it like a giant’s abandoned game of marbles. The forested cliffs offered a dramatic backdrop and a seemingly endless fresh water supply that collected in divots and recessed pools created by retreating waves or giants’ footprints. I tentatively slid my cold toes into the fresh water, braced for numbness, but the tannins that tumbled down the cliffs with the rain settled into the pools to soak up any heat the sun would spare. It was no Jacuzzi, but it was warm enough for a refreshing dip on a cold day. How liberating to bathe on a beach at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, without sign of human presence as far as the eye could see.

The long shallow anchorage of Sausalito in San Francisco Bay was crowded. The transients huddled near the front and waited for the first winter storms to blow through. The permanents filled up the back, a derelict crowd of misfits exploiting the last free anchorage in the bay. Summer had ended as the storms blew in, and the water was uninvitingly cold. Without privacy to shower on deck, accessible shore amenities or the cajones to jump over the side, we spent the better part of a month surviving on baby wipe baths and the generosity (or maybe it was the pity) of a few friends. Each shower was hard-fought, well earned and much appreciated. I have rarely been so grateful for something as simple as hot running water.

The guidebooks promised calm seas, a quaint town, strong wifi and clean facilities in San Blas, which sounded perfectly glorious after a week spent bucking and yawing at Isla Isabella in the most uncomfortable anchorage we’d experienced. The marina manager reinforced our excitement with cheap nightly rates and news of their hot tub, located just upstairs. He chuckled at our exaggerated excitement as we chattered about a good long soak that evening. While we had arrived in Mexico, the nights still cooled off enough to require an extra layer or two, which made the hot tub even more enticing.

After dinner, we gathered towels and beers and headed upstairs. It only took one toe entering the water for the receptors in my brain to register the shock. Cold! There was nothing hot about that hot tub. In fact, the swimming pool next to it had warmer water, heated from sunlight throughout the day. The “hot” tub, on the other hand, was tucked under an awning. OK, I thought, perhaps the marina requires advance notice so they can turn on the heat, a logical condition if they were looking to keep costs down. Somewhat disappointed, we headed downstairs to shower instead. It too was frigidly cold. On second thought, perhaps their water heater was broken. But a short conversation the following morning with our friendly marina manager confirmed that the facility didn’t have – and had never had – hot water. I politely encouraged him to leave out the promise of a hot tub to future cruising guests in an effort to curb disgruntled customers. Then I took a cold shower.

Cruising is all about embracing the excitement and adversity of traveling, of living aboard, and of navigating the unknown. Our bathing experiences have certainly embodied the adventure, from short cold rinses in dirty moldy boatyard buildings to glorious steaming showers with impressive views. And, if all else fails, I always have a stash of baby wipes.


This article appeared in the October 2017 publication of 48 North. The artwork at the top is theirs – and I just love it!

  1. Reply

    Deck Hankins

    November 21, 2017

    Always love your adventures!

    • Reply


      November 22, 2017

      Thanks Deck!

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John and Becca Guillote

John is the photographer. He portrays the layers of history, emotion, spirit and culture in each moment through his application of light, perspective, and detail. He also takes pictures.

Becca is the writer. She tells vivid stories of authentic moments, highlighting the beautiful, dangerous, dramatic and hilarious with grammatically correct sentences and her tongue held firmly by her cheek.


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