Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cloth Diapers Afloat

This blog will only apply to the rare (dare I say, mad) sailors who chose to take infants as crew. While I was pregnant with our first son, Elias, our very good friend Debra thankfully informed me how dreadful it is for nonparents to hear about diapers and baby poop. So you have my blessings to skip this blog.
So cute! Elias in 2008. Note the blue swivel lids on diaper buckets. 
That said, I know there must be a few crazy parents out there that can benefit from what I learned sailing with 10-month old Elias… Most families we met with children had kids age 4 and older. In three years we met only one family that sailed with infants, and by the time we met them their children were 4 and 6 – but I was reassured that they were still cruising.  Living at the dock or on a mooring with children is different from cruising with kids; although many issues are the same, there are a few that are specific to cruising families. Cloth diapers is one of these issues, because with a proper landfill or the ability to burn your own dirty diapers ashore with kerosene, you have the option to at least entertain the thought of disposable diapers. But when you find yourself on a 3 week passage from Mexico to the Marqueses, cloth is the only option.  Similarly, when you find that many of the 'landfills' across the Pacific Islands are only a beach on the far end of town, you cannot with clear conscious use anything except cloth.

Jessica (SV Yare) and Marls (SV Sea Dragon) have both asked me for tips about cloth diapers, so I will present what I learned sailing with Elias. The timing is very good, as I am about to repeat the experience with 9-month old Eric this season so I will surely have updates to these methods and I’m hopeful that Jessica and Marls and other sailing parents will share helpful comments and tips as they discover them.

In 1997, months before we left Kodiak , I tried in vain to find a guide for dealing with cloth diapers at sea. So many families have done this very thing, but I could only find one reference to help me (possibly there is one written in French?). Don Street, who I admire as a sailor, wrote something along the lines of 'all you need is 4 diapers, one dragging behind the boat, one hanging on the line to dry, one in waiting, and one on the baby's bottom."  Well, now, that's real helpful isn't it?

Enough dancing around the subject - Here are the supplies you will need: 1) enough diapers for 4 days 2) hemp liners for diapers 3) a mesh bag with line attached for towing diapers 4) two 5-gallon buckets with turn lids 5) rubber gloves 6) bungie cord or shot of line and clothes pins 7) a winning attitude!  
I washed diapers every other day. I washed 2 days of diapers at once, so you need at least 3 days of diapers so the baby can wear something on the day you are washing and the extra day's worth of diapers are there in case the clean diapers take longer than a day to dry (not in the tropics but yes in Alaska), or if you lose a diaper out of the mesh bag (happened  mysteriously to us twice), or if a shark comes and eats the entire mesh bag with diaper (happened to us just outside the pass off Tahiti).  In the tropics your diapers will dry in a few hours of sun or wind or even on a calm day if you rinse them sufficiently.  But in foggy, rainy, coastal Alaska you will have to pray for wind and then after a few hours of wind you will have to move the diapers down below to hang near the diesel heater while you bake bread. I know they are bulky but if you can take 4 days-worth you will be glad you did. I should probably say that I used the old-fashion cloth diaper that is a Chinese prefold with a cloth insert (or 2 at night) and a plastic outer shell. Elias was using about 7-8 diapers a day when he was 10-months, so we had a duffle bag just for diapers that got moved about 20 times from one spot to another around the cabin. I took approximately 32 Chinese prefolds, 25-30 cotton inserts, 10-15 outer plastic shells, and two huge rolls of hemp liners.  Clean Chinese prefolds stack very compactly and they are probably easier to wash than the newer diapers that are on the market…plus, I got them all as hand-me-downs from friends in Kodiak.  I think Eric will be the sixth child to use these diapers, and they have no smell whatsoever and only stains from the zinc diaper-rash ointment that I had to occasionally use. Truly amazing!
             Hemp liners are disposable and will dissolve in seawater, so while they don't catch all the poop they are helpful and can be immediately tipped over the side as you are preparing to drag the diaper. Also, instead of using baby wipes which are not biodegradable, I used hypoallergenic lotion (a cheap brand – nothing fancy) with toilet paper. Get a lotion with a squeeze top and just squirt some right on baby's behind and wipe with toilet paper.  This can then be tossed over the side or flushed down your head, depending how close to shore you are. 
            Dragging diapers works – yes, I know, I was skeptical at first too. I had a great anxiety about getting the diapers exposed to salt water because I worried that it would be impossible to dry them – especially at high latitudes- if I didn't rinse every last salt crystal out of them. Also I was concerned about diaper rash.  When our commercial fishermen friends in Kodiak laughed and said I just had to drag diapers behind the boat to clean them, I would ask 'but have you done this?' and then they would go quiet (very rare reaction for any fisherman and only furthered my anxiety).  But I decided I had to try it to find out, and dragging the diaper for 10-20 minutes flushes out all the pee smell. At anchor it is MUCH harder to wash diapers as I had to use the deck hose and it isn't nearly as effective as dragging diapers at 5 kts.  A heavy duty laundry bag with large mesh or a mesh SCUBA collecting bag will work fine. A draw-string for easy and quick closure is helpful and can be tied to a towing line.
            Once sufficiently dragged, diapers were wrung out to get rid of as much seawater as possible.  Then they soaked in either the pee or poop 5-gallon bucket that adorned the stern of Pelagic. I found swivel lids to be very convenient. I put ½ tablespoon of nappy san detergent in the poop bucket and no detergent in the pee bucket.  Each bucket had 2-2.5 gallons of freshwater.  Cloth diapers that are not rinsed properly will smell, so I used little or no detergent in them.  Pee diapers get cleaned by the sea.  I am not sure, but I think hanging diapers to dry also lets the sun and wind disinfect them.  Initially I boiled water and used that for the poop diapers, but I soon decided I could skip that step. If they smell then they need to be dragged for longer. The poop diapers, after a 2-day soak, would get wrung out and then swooshed around in a bucket with as little water as possible to rinse them. After all the poop diapers were wrung again, they were put with the wrung out pee diapers and then all the diapers were swooshed around in a very small amount of constantly changed fresh water and wrung out.  It is important to really wring out all the water between steps.  We carried 75 gallons of water on Pelagic and while it was enough, there was none to spare. Aside from the water I had in the soaking buckets (which was changed 1-2 times a week), I only allowed myself 4 liters of freshwater to rinse diapers every other day.  Elias got mild diaper rash less than 5 times, and I think the hemp liners probably added a protective layer.
            Hanging the diapers to dry could be the hardest part of the entire process when the trade winds were booming, simply because it takes two hands to hang diapers and that leaves you with none for hanging on! I would harness up and hang a line high up out of the spray and once it was done I would always think that clean diapers hanging in the rigging was a happy sight.  Over time, make it easy on yourself and cut a bungie line to fit your rigging so you can stretch the clothes line fast and move it quickly while leaving all diapers still pegged on. You will be doing this every other day so each small step that makes it easier adds up to a lot of time saved. 

Drying diapers in Mexico.   This is not the best way to tie clothesline, because in order to move the line to a better spot I would first have to remove half the diapers and then untie the line.

Elias eventually started to 'help' me wash his diapers and I would let him play with a clean diaper and some water in the cockpit while I worked. I never once let myself complain about the work involved. It is good, honest work and it is much better than putting plastic in the ocean. And it is just part of what has to be done to reap the benefits of cruising with infants and toddlers as crew.
Happy sailing! 


  1. hell yeah! cloth diapers rule, we use them as well and we re not even floating... good luck with your preparations guys! love from holland, paul anne lali

  2. Wow! That is exactly the sort of information I was looking for. Thank you so much for so generously sharing all of the details of cloth diapering while cruising. Even though we use pocket cloth diapers now, we have a whole stash of hand-me-down prefolds that we will probably bring on our Alaska cruise this summer thanks to your advice. Thanks for taking the time to share this information with us, I know it can't be easy to find time with 2 kiddos and a new boat!!

    Where did you get the hemp liners? All I've been able to find with some google searching are liners made of viscose, or of paper fiber mixed with viscose.

    Thanks again, this is EXTREMELY helpful!

    s/v Yare

  3. Hi Jessica, Glad you liked the info about cloth diapers. You will have to let me know how it goes for you with two times the fun! I ordered liners from www.cottonbabies.com Best wishes, Alisa