The crew onboard Mālama are currently dealing with a sticky watermaker, a small but crucial piece of equipment, not only for performance but also survival. 

Perhaps not something people give a lot of thought to – how offshore sailors eat and drink – but the watermaker is an essential part of the onboard equipment. Without it being fully operational, the physical and mental effect on the crew can be taxing, as you’ll hear below from sailor Jack Bouttell and Media Crew Member, Amory Ross. 

03 February 2023, Onboard 11th Hour Racing Team during Leg 2 from Sao Vicente, Cabo Verde, to Cape Town, South Africa.
A pressure gauge on the onboard watermaker.

A whole variety of problems can occur onboard a yacht during The Ocean Race, some expected, some totally unexpected. Some minor, some major and then of course there’s the minor ones, which, in time, can become major: such as a broken watermaker. 

The watermaker onboard Mālama has stopped functioning correctly as of yesterday and with ten days racing ahead and the boat hundreds (soon to be thousands) of miles offshore – this is not a problem the sailors want to be dealing with right now. 

“A few nights ago when I went to turn it on, it refused to prime,” explains Amory. “Usually this means there is air in the system, which requires just a simple bleed from a valve before you’re up and running and making water again. Only this time it wouldn’t bleed and it wouldn’t prime. I spent all night trying to get it to function and although it would work in sporadic bursts, it’s impossible to know what the problem area is – which makes me very uneasy about its ability to get us to Cape Town.” 

The watermaker should provide a reliable source of fresh water, which is essential for survival when sailing in remote areas far from shore. It allows the crew to have enough drinking water for extended periods of time, without having to rely on carrying large amounts of water onboard which adds weight and impacts performance. Not to mention the meals are also freeze dried, meaning they need water to become edible.

03 February 2023, Onboard 11th Hour Racing Team during Leg 2 from Sao Vicente, Cabo Verde, to Cape Town, South Africa.
The watermaker lazarette with watermaker (on the right) and freshwater tank (on the left).

“I ended up bringing Jack into the fold,” he continues. “I have zero confidence in it to create drinkable water for us reliably, and there seems to be no answer to its ailment except a little bit of luck and a lot of persistence. That’s no recipe for one of, if not the most, important commodities onboard. Our spare is always an option but it makes water at a much slower pace and would require a ton of work to install. Water is everything out here. Not just to drink, but we need it to hydrate our food, too. We need water.”

The crew do carry a spare onboard but managing it would almost be a full time job and its functionality is nowhere near the capacity of the original. There is also a manual watermaker for dire circumstances but to quote Jack ‘it would be really bad if we go to that point’.

“This broken watermaker is a real issue,” explains Jack. “When we realized it was broken we on;y had 10 liters of water left so time was of the essence. Between Amo and myself we have tried everything we can think of and it still keeps failing. 

“We had some big squalls this morning with the boat ripping around, good for speed, hard for fixing water makers! This is what I would describe as a tough day in the office. The watermaker is playing on everyone’s minds and to top that off it was by far the hottest day of the leg yesterday. It felt like 50 degrees onboard and no wind to offer a bit of relief. It was pretty horrendous. 

“Between the watermaker, all the maneuvers and the light conditions, no one slept. We managed to have a few small moments of chill time but even those were killed by the relentless heat. We also had minor breakages onboard to sort out. Nothing too major but they didn’t help with the fatigue or anyone’s mood. Mainly mine! Frankly speaking everyone was at the end of their tether at times and it was hard to not get frustrated.

“I have no doubt things will improve but for now it’s all hands on deck to resolve this issue.”

©Amory Ross / 11th Hour Racing / The Ocean Race

Speaking of all hands on deck, that includes the shore-based team as much as the sailing team. From the moment the issue was discovered our Boat Captain James ‘Irish’ O’Mahony and his team have been doing everything within their limited capabilities to help. Whether that’s phoning suppliers for guidance or advising the boat potential solutions – the next few days will be crucial for the team as they continue to try and repair the issue – watch this space.