Some might say I’m a bit strange, and I won’t argue the point. Some might say I live a minimalist lifestyle and I’m not so sure that’s entirely true but there are hints of it.

Almost all of us gringos grew up with hot water for bathing. Hardly any Panamanians did. In fact, there is a belief among many Panamanians that hot showers and baths are actually bad for one’s health. In fact, I had a neighbor lady tell me just that within the last week!

Over the years I’ve had situations where hot water wasn’t available at the turn of the tap. When I lived on my shanty boat in New Orleans I didn’t have hot water. When I wanted hot water to shave I had to put a pot on the stove and warm the water up. No big deal. I worked at a boat yard and did a lot of paint “prep” which consisted of spending eight hours a day with an electric sander in my hand making dust, much of which covered me by quitting time. Back at the boat I had a shower head rigged to a hose supported on a 2X4. New Orleans has a pretty hot climate most of the year, and the water in PVC piping that serviced my dock was rarely cold. Tepid to warm would be the best words to describe the water temperature so it was pleasant. In the three or four winter months I had a good friend who lived on my route home from the yard and he kindly allowed me to shower at his place. So things worked out pretty well.

The next time my living conditions didn’t have hot water on demand was when I bought my much-missed Nancy Dawson, a Kaiser 26 sailboat. I took off on her for nine months and single-handed to Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala It was always hot there so when I was in the salt water areas I’d dive off the side of the boat, climb up in the dinghy and lather up with Joy dishwashing soap (the only thing that produces lather in salt water) and then I’d rinse off with fresh water. That’s necessary because salt from the sea drying on your body will eventually give you a rash. When I returned to the States I lived for close to two years in a boat yard and then at a marina for another four years or so, and each place had shower rooms so hot water was not a problem.

In the first year and a half here in Panama I was house sitting at a place for two six-month stints and they had an on-demand hot water heater. The place here in Boqueron also has an on-demand water heater that doesn’t work simply because most of the time the water pressure isn’t high enough to trigger it. Now, I haven’t gotten used to cold water showers, though I have to say the water is never cold as it is in the States, but it’s still cold enough that I don’t find it comfortable most of the time. The exception is on really hot days in the middle of the afternoon then it feels good to get in the shower.

For shaving I do what I did on the shanty boat. Heat water in a pot and use that. I wash dishes in cold water and since most houses in the country don’t have hot water some brilliant people have created a soap that lathers up in cold water.

So, how do I deal with the cold water showers? Well, one way is what I would call a “modified sponge bath.” That is to say I stay out of the main stream of the water and use a soapy face cloth to wash myself. I don’t mind sticking my head in the cold water to wash my hair, though.

But I DO like warm water to shower with. For quite a while I used a “Sun Shower.” One of those four-gallon plastic bags that you lay in the sun for a couple of hours and it heats up the water.


Does a damned good job, too. You can scald yourself if you’re not careful. The problems I had with it was hanging it up in the shower compartment space. Fresh water weighs 8 lbs. a gallon, so hoisting the 32-pound bag was a bit of a pain in the ass. Also, since it’s gravity-fed and the shower head nozzle was only about three feet off the deck I had to squat down to get under the water stream. It wasn’t a lot of fun to use, but I did. The biggest problem  was keeping the inside of the bag clean. Green slime would build up and eventually, even bleach wouldn’t get rid of the crud.

The end result for getting a hot water shower comes in the form of this thing.


It’s designed to spray toxic chemicals on weeds. I’d tried a smaller version years ago on the sailboat. It only held a gallon of water, and the spray nozzle wasn’t worth a damn. I think I tried it two or three times and gave up. But I decided to try again. This one holds 2-1/2 gallons. I did cut the hose and nozzle off of the sun shower and rigged it up to the new setup. A little bit of black spray paint et voilà as we used to say over in Antibes, France.

This certainly does the job though it’s no where near as exhilarating as standing under a REAL hot shower. I set it outside in the sun for a few hours and the water heats up nicely. A few strokes of the pump handle and there’s a decent flow of water. There’s a thing-a-mah-jig by the squeezer on the spray handle that allows for a continuous stream. Since the capacity of the unit is only 2-1/2 gallons you can’t stand under the hot water stream for a long time, but it’s enough to actually provide TWO Navy showers.

A Navy shower is essential for shipboard life where fresh water is limited. What you do is get wet, shut off the water stream, lather up, rinse off. It works. Another feature of the new set up over the Sun Shower is that the neck of the bottle is pretty wide, so if it has been a cloudy day, or I want to take a shower early in the morning all I have to do it put on the big pot of water, heat it up and pour it in to the container with the cooler water and then I’m able to get a comfortable shower.

Like I said, I don’t recommend that people live as I do. Most wouldn’t want to, but I’m adaptable. You have to be, after all, to live for nearly six years on a 26-foot sailboat.


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2 responses to “Adapting

  1. This just cracks me up. The end result — the lawn sprayer — is exactly what I used at the cabin up in the hill country. In summer, the water didn’t need heating on a stove. As you say, it warmed quite nicely in the sun. In the winter, it was a different matter. Then water got heated on the propane stove, and that worked, too. It certain could be bracing, taking a nice, outdoor shower when it was in the 30s or so, but the run from the “shower” to the warmth of the cabin wasn’t all that far.

    One thing’s for sure. The more simple the technology, the more adaptable it is to a variety of situations.

    There are all kinds of simple technologies that people simply overlook. For example, I had a window-banger a/c unit on the shantyboat I lived on in New Orleans though I never used it. My electric feed was simply a single, orange, extension cord and I doubt that it could have handled the load of the a/c anyway.

    As you know it gets (to use an expression your friend in Chatham out on Cape Cod would recognize) wicked pissa hot in New Orleans in the summer time. When I’d come home after a day of working at the boat yard it would often be over 100 degrees inside the boat. What I would do would be to put up a box fan in the back door blowing out, and I’d leave the front door open to get ventilation flowing through the long, single room. I’d also gone out and bought a lawn sprinkler that I installed on the roof. I’d turn that on and you could see the steam rising off of the composition roofing. By the time I’d get through taking my shower to de-grime myself the temperature inside the boat would have dropped as much as 15 degrees or more. Convection cooling at its finest.

  2. When I went to Japan some 20 years ago we stayed with a friend who had no hot water. It was frigid taking an ice cold shower but I was so happy to be there I didn’t care. We used the sun showers camping when I was a kid and I do remember how hot they could get. As we sold half of our household but haven’t moved anywhere yet, it’s incredibly freeing not having so much stuff. And I only moved into where I’m living now four years ago with a carful. Literally. There’s nothing wrong with how you live. I find it refreshing and fun to see how innovative you are, and happy for you that you like Panama.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with how I live, either. If I did, I’d change what I’m doing. But I also know that how I live isn’t for everyone by a long shot.Stay tuned, more stuff coming up inspired by the need to move to a new house.