The Great Saltwater Washdown Saga

When we bought Cirila, a minor point on our marine survey was that the saltwater washdown valve on the foredeck had seized.


The valve that started it all

For you non-boaters, the saltwater washdown refers to a system by which seawater is routed via a “thru-hull” fitting and valve in the hull, to a high pressure pump, then via a high pressure hose snaking through the boat, to a valve and connection point up near the front of the boat. The point here is to provide a water supply (and not your precious fresh water) for washing off your anchor chain and anchor while you crank them back aboard when leaving an anchorage.



The windless is perched on the bowsprit and moves chain in and out of the locker

Since our bow is 9 feet above the water, if we anchor in 11 feet of water, we need to let out about 100 feet of chain, representing 5:1 “scope”.  [100: (9 + 11) = 5:1] Most of that chain lays on the bottom, augmenting the holding power of the anchor. If you’re picturing that nice white sand, Bahamian ocean floor, think again. In most anchorages, the bottom is a silty, muddy bog. Around Houston, the bottom is an archive of sludge that chronicles 100 years of oil drilling, chemical spills, and barge accidents. When you bring in that chain, it’s juicy, it glistens, and it smells like an oil change at a sewage treatment plant. That 100 feet of chain stows in your boat, in a place called the chain locker, so you kind of want to wash it off.  Note: Maybe this explains why we don’t anchor too much around here.


Chain falling thru the hawse pipe into the chain locker

Anyway, remember the seized valve from the survey? Replacing it was on our “Loop List” – a task I actually completed several months ago.  Sadly, replacing the seized valve didn’t fix the saltwater wash down system – something else was awry.   A few weeks ago, after anchoring in Offats Bayou in Galveston for the weekend, we returned to the marina and instead of enjoying a cold beer, we had to wash 170 feet of chain, the anchor, anchor locker, and the mess of slate colored sludge sliming much of the foredeck.

Note: Don’t want to do that again – priority elevated! 


At first, I thought the pump would deenergize if the discharge valve was closed, when the system was “shut-in” – protected perhaps by an over-pressure switch. Once I replaced the valve then opened it, the pump was still not energizing when I closed the two circuit breakers on the system.  My hunch was that a faulty relay in the electrical panel was


Relay worked but wiring was wrong

causing the problem, but I couldn’t figure out how to meter it to be sure.  Since electro-wizard Brent was coming in a week to install the inverter, I decided to wait and seek his expertise.

Forward one week…. Brent checked, and apparently the relay was OK, but a couple other wiring issues were causing the problem.  There was a neutral in the wrong place, and the wiring  itself was very undersized for the current requirement of the pump.  It was an obvious home install by the prior owner, who was not an electro-wizard.  Brent rewired the pump and time came to “energize”.  I closed the breaker in the pilothouse, and Brent quickly confirmed that the pump was on.  I then went to the foredeck, opened the valve – HOORAY – seawater.  Old nasty, stinky seawater that had been fermenting in the hose for at least the last 4 years.


Thru-hull and wash down pump in the engine room

I rushed in to share the great news with Brent, who was monitoring the pump in the engine room.  All was good until we checked for other system leaks.  That’s when I saw water streaming down the sides of Dawn’s shower – lots of it.  Old, nasty, stinking seawater.  I bounded up the steps, quickly turned off the pump, while Brent closed the thru-hull.  Damn.

When I say damn, its not because of the leak, but because I knew I had to take the shower apart to find the leak.  I’ve done that before to access the bolts which hold one of the deck stanchions in place.  It was no fun.  I fetched my tools and thirty minutes later, with the shower ceiling panel removed, you can imagine my surprise when I found no evidence of a leak.  Even more confounding, I couldn’t even find the water hose itself.  Huh?


Found the leak above this HVAC intake in the closet

Logic hinted that the only way we could be getting water at the top of Dawn’s shower was because of a leak between the discharge valve and the shower itself.  We found it above the hanging locker (closet for you non-boaters) in the master stateroom. A split in the hose jetted water through a small gap, where it hit a bulkhead and ran down the inside of the shower.  Amazingly, nothing in the closet directly below the leak got wet.  If you’re going to have leak of 4 year old, nasty, stinky seawater, only the bilge would have been a better place.

Running Hose

Obviously, we needed to replace the entire discharge hose on this system.  Before hose shopping, I started reassembling the shower.  I could do this because the hose doesn’t route above the shower, but rather runs above the hanging locker, before turning down through a wire chase in the corner of the locker.  Re-assembling the shower required my full catalogue of foul language, mainly because two tiny wires were not long enough make the new connections needed for the ceiling light in the shower.


My Nemesis, the shower light

It sounds simple enough, but it was one of those cases where the problem kept morphing – a bracket must be removed to extend a wire, a screw head stripped, another broke, then one fell down the drain….etc.  In the end, I was able to fix the shower light wiring so it doesn’t cause the same problem “next time”, but I spent half a day fixing a shower that didn’t need fixing in the first place.  Boats!

Since it was about $2/ft cheaper than our local supply store, I ordered 40′ of high pressure water hose from Defender, a common source for my project supplies.  It arrived just as the Inverter/Solar/Electronics project was winding down.  Routing and connecting, while removing the old hose would be my Saturday afternoon project.  How hard could it be?

Well, it was like conducting a colonoscopy on an elephant without the benefit of the camera to see where you’re going.  I initially connected the new hose to the old hose, thinking I’d just pull/push both down through the boat in manageable increments. This worked on the first 5′ increment – to that spot above the closet where the leak was.


Battle site #1 at bottom of wire chase. Had to chip out the urethane foam to make a path.

It stopped working there.  The turn down through the wire chase was tough, but manageable.  Each inch of progress got tougher, and finally I needed to call in Dawn to assist.

At the floor, in that wire chase in the corner of the hanging locker, where the hose turns twice before twisting through a bulkhead to the space under the bathroom sink – it is there that the fighting was fiercest.  Cuts and bruises were acquired, new problems were worked, and small battles were won – inch by inch, foot by foot.  Another memorable battle behind the washing machine and into the engine room was followed by a skirmish above the engine room electrical panel where the hose was fed like a blind threading of a needle.  The last bit, winding around all the plumbing for the fuel filtration and polishing systems, and finally to the pump was not difficult, but pulling the needed hose through all the prior battlefields the bigger challenge.



The old hose came out in 4 severed chunks, each dripping that nasty, stinky seawater, like blood from a fresh carcass.  With the pump connections finally made, it was time to go back and inspect, checking for kinks and pinch points where vibration could cause future leaks.  Satisfied, it was time for the magic moment.  Dawn closed the breaker, pump on… I opened the foredeck valve – a high pressure jet of not so stinky seawater shot from the nozzle on the short wash down hose … checking for inside leaks … none.  The war was won, victory ours.

Now I can’t wait to wash some anchor chain!  And now you know why we call it The Great Saltwater Washdown Saga!


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