It’s a question that comes up again and again, with a couple of variations, in cruiser groups I belong to.
Do I need to get a watermaker?
As with almost every single question to life on a boat, the answer is really “it depends.” (are you tired of this answer yet?) You’ll have to answer for yourself!
That said, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get to the answer that will work for you. Because, remember, you are the one who has to live with it. Take your time.
(Why am I remotely qualified to answer this? Simple. I spent 3 years cruising without a water maker. And another year, this time with kids aboard, cruising with one. Do I know everything about watermakers? Nope. But I speak from personal experience.)
Do I need a watermaker?
Remember: people were cruising for years before watermakers were even a remote possibility. Do you NEED one? No. You can definitely cruise without one. That said . . .
What is my budget?
Watermakers are expensive. You can spend upwards of $10,000 on a unit, though there are units that are half that – and you can certainly build your own if you are handy, bringing the cost down to just the parts (AND YOUR TIME!). You may be able to find a used one. Fact remains, though, if you are headed to the Bahamas for one winter you may realize quickly that the cost of buying water in the islands is far cheaper than buying, installing, using, and maintaining a watermaker.
The initial cost of the unit is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There’s installation. The cost of the energy used to power the thing. Maintenance. Make sure you are taking all of this into account when you’re considering what it costs.
(Yes, buying water places can also be expensive. Altering plans to be in a place to buy water can be expensive. Making some kind of water catchment system can be expensive. I think any of these options, especially for a short term cruise, doesn’t come close to costing what a watermaker does.)
How long is my cruise?
Hand in hand with the budget question is the “length of cruise” question. At least in the US, we tend to think of costs on larger items in terms of the monthly bite. While this helps us get over a mental block on the price of cars and homes (perhaps to our detriment), it can be eye-opening when thinking about the effect a watermaker can have on the bottom line. Going to the Bahamas for 6 months with no plans to keep the boat or cruise after that? A watermaker becomes a whole lot more expensive than if you have dreams of setting off forever. The upfront cost is the same, but for how much you’ll use it? Far different.
Put it this way. $10,000 for 6 months is really different than $10,000 for 10 years.
For some, it makes sense to look at the total amount of money available to them and start breaking it down. If you’ve got $50,000 total to buy a boat, outfit and provision her, and sail away – you may decide you can afford to be out for 6 months. If you already have the boat and have that $50,000, your timeline might be a lot longer. Take it all into account.
You may decide that you’d rather schlep water and be able to cruise for an extra 5 months than have that watermaker. You may decide you’d like to not schlep water for the time you’re cruising, even if you can’t stay out as long.
Where am I cruising?
Cruising the east coast of the US or even the Eastern Caribbean, where you’re close to population centers and even the possibility, maybe, of bringing the boat alongside the dock for fuel and water refills, is one thing. Planning to explore the Sea of Cortez, or setting off across the Pacific, is quite another. Think about even the availability of water in places you’re jonesing to cruise. Catching rain is a possibility in some places and not others – be realistic!
Alternatively, if you are planning to be in busy industrial harbors where the water is not really clean enough to run the watermaker, that would be good to consider ahead of time. That or be willing to replace expensive membranes quickly.
How many people/water tankage do I have? Is my water system pressurized?
Every boat carries some water on board. Check the size of the tank(s) – larger capacity means more time between filling up. If you carry 20 gallons, you’ll need to fill up more frequently than if you carry 200 gallons. This is just a fact. Note: it’s smart to keep a reserve of water in the tanks even if you’re running a watermaker every day. You never know when the thing will crap out on you.
On land, we’re used to using water with some kind of abandon. Even if we’re being cautious and mindful, we can easily go through 50 gallons of water in a typical day. On a boat? YIKES.
Pressure water makes it easy to use water in a similar way, though I don’t know any boater who comes close to that. Using 10 gallons per person per day feels wasteful and excessive. That said . . .
Got a baby in diapers that you’re washing by hand? You’ll use more water. Have a crew of 6 aboard? You’ll use more water.
If you’ve got the combination of a large crew with a small capacity, this might tip the scales more towards a watermaker than something the other way around.
Nope, I don’t have an answer for you. Sorry, the answer still is yours to give for yourself!
If we had not been gifted that watermaker the last time we went, we would not have bought one. We’re on a small boat with a lot of water tankage, with no pressure water system and a good water catchment rig. We are used to being careful with water, and our kids have grown up with that sensibility. Our experience in the Bahamas had been that we could find water a lot of places and collecting it added to the memories (ask me about the full day of 6 boats connecting hoses and starting a siphon from a cistern down the hill to waiting dinghies . . .) Add to that we were only planning on one winter in the islands, so our cruise was a short duration one by our standards.
Having cruised with a watermaker, we will not cruise again without one. Yes, we had maintenance issues (chief among them the need to replace a critical part that wound up being flown in to the Turks and Caicos). And once we got used to having the thing, we wanted it working. Still, being able to spend weeks in the far out islands of the Bahamas without worrying one single bit about water (that winter was dry as a bone – catching water would have been really hard) was a luxury we mentioned almost every day.
We still have the same unit we had in 2009 and will likely start out using the same one again, though we’re eyeballing a larger one that’s more efficient. It’s a matter of budget priority, energy, space, and time. Plus, honestly – will the old one still work? That leads to the next question, which is “Which watermaker?”