A READER IN OHIO is having wife trouble. “Old Salt” says his wife complains that cruising on their sailboat is hazardous to their health because Old Salt never washes, and he wears the same clothes day in and day out. “But I remember that you once wrote a column about sailing hygiene,” says Old Salt. “Would it be a good idea to repeat it, for my wife’s benefit?”
Oh my goodness yes, Old Salt. It would be a wonderful idea. It saves me having to think of a new idea.
So here it is, five years old now, but still pretty much up-to-date, I believe:
DO MEN CHANGE THEIR UNDERPANTS while cruising? A young woman reader in Dade County, Florida, wants to know. Geraldine says her new boyfriend has invited her on a six-week cruise to the Bahamas on his Cape Dory 25D sailboat. She has not sailed before, but she is fine with everything — except what she suspects might be a hygiene problem.
Do men on small boats change their socks? she asks.
Do they EVER wash ANY clothes?
Do they wash their hands after going to the head?
Do men brush their teeth morning and night?
Do they ever change the bed sheets?
Do they even HAVE bed sheets?
Well, Geraldine, you have poked your little stick into a big hornets’ nest here. Obviously I can’t answer for all cruising men, and as far as I know nobody has conducted research into this subject. But if it’s any comfort, as far as I know, not many cruising men die from bubonic plague or big bad germs in the gut.
I can only tell you of my own experience of long-term cruising and the answer to your first question is yes, men do change their underpants every day, one pair a day for seven days. Then, on the eighth day they start over. The theory is that the underpants have aired for a whole week, which is plenty of time for any germs to jump off and go somewhere else.
Socks? Mostly we don’t wear socks, but even if we do, we only have two pairs. They’re good for seven days before rotation. We don’t walk anywhere, you see, so there’s no sweat or anything objectionable. You’ll notice that no men ever complain about other men’s socks.
Washing clothes? Well that depends on the availability of fresh water (very rare) and a place to do the washing (also rare). It depends on the weather and the amount of rail space available for drying. It depends when you can find the time, when you have a whole lot of other things to do (such as steering around rocks and anchoring and reefing and navigation) that are a lot more important than washing clothes. So, in short, the answer is ... well I have known one or two men who have washed some cruising clothes, so it’s not completely unknown.
As for washing hands after using the head, I have to assure you that it’s a distinct possibility in a boat like yours that has a wash basin in the head. Of course, most men won’t use it for fear of running out of fresh water, but at least there is a definite possibility; and that surely must cut down on the odds of disease erupting.
Do men brush their teeth morning and night? Geraldine, I think it is a scientifically accepted fact that as long as you break up the plaque every 24 hours, one brushing a day is sufficient. And, by happy discovery, a large body of cruising men has found that swilling the mouth with gin just before bed is equally as efficient in the prevention of tooth decay as is brushing with toothpaste.
As for bed sheets, well that depends on the sissy factor. Real men don’t use bed sheets. They use rough, hairy, woolen blankets or sleeping bags designed for Mt. Everest. I confess that I have a sort of sheet for my sleeping bag, a removable cotton liner, but after you’ve slept in it for two months straight I’ve noticed that it seems to grow little lumps inside like a real woolen blanket, so it’s really quite macho and not as pooftah as you might think.
Geraldine, you can spend too much time worrying about hygiene. There are places in Europe where they only take a bath once a week. There are places in the Sahara where they never bathe. It’s true that their average lifespan is 23 years, but nobody has ever actually proved it’s because of lack of bathing.
On the whole, you will find that the cruising life is very healthy. Strong sunshine and salt water are very good at killing germs. And those few germs that don’t die immediately will surely succumb when they eventually drift down and get swallowed up by that seething, squirming mass of micro-wildlife in your bilge.
Go for it, Geraldine. Go for the beautiful beaches and the glorious crystal-clear water; go for the romantic tropical nights and the soft trade winds brushing the coconut palms in silver moonshine. And let hygiene take its chance, as Nature intended.
A man’s own observation, what he finds good of and what he finds hurt of, is the best physic to preserve health.
— Bacon, Essays: Of Regimen of Health
A yacht club barman I know has invented a drink called the Block and Tackle. It’s one third whiskey, one third brandy, and one third vodka. After two of those you’re ready to run around the block and tackle anything.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)