El Nino and the Watermaker

Every year meteorological experts around the globe weight in on how they think the upcoming storm season will play out. Analyzing data such as sea surface temperatures, weather patterns and past weather events they are able to predict how many cyclones or hurricanes will occur. (Cyclones and hurricanes are both tropical revolving storms one occurring in the southern hemisphere, cyclones, and the other, hurricanes in the northern hemisphere.)

With the South Pacific cyclone season officially underway (beware the magic date on the calendar) there has been lots of chatter about this year being an El Nino year.And a strong one at that.

What does that mean?

We are by no means experts on the topic but as far as we can understand El Nino is a trend for sea surface temperatures east of the dateline, and as far east as South America, to be higher than normal. In terms of weather it indicates that the nasty twirly storms will be drawn further east as well, but by no means does that mean the western Pacific will be spared. What is the most concerning of all the stats and forecasts that have been thrown around recently is the drought they are predicting to affect a large swath of the South Pacific.

The 2014-15 cyclone/wet season we spent in Fiji last year was a fairly dry one, at least on the western side. The wet weather gear that we brought home from Australia stayed dry until we were on passage in May and the water collection spigot that I installed in our bimini has yet to be finally fitted because it hasn’t rained hard enough to properly test it.

Compare that to the cyclone season we spent there in 2013/14 where the boatyard turned into a mud wrestling pool for days on end and violent electrical storms lit up the horizon on a regular basis. Or the 2012/13 season when we tried to paint the boat and had 6 weeks of rain delays.

In March 2015 cyclone Pam, a category 5 storm, spun her way across Vanuatu.

Destroying almost everything in her path with 300+ km/h winds, not only did she rip apart houses but precious water collection tanks as well. Like most places in the South Pacific outside major towns people in Vanuatu depend on rain collection as their main source of water. Couple the lack of collection tanks with the with the fact that over the last several months there has been almost no rain in Vanuatu and the Ni-Van people are already in a precarious position, and it is only November.

Everywhere we’ve visited, every island we’ve stopped at while in Vanuatu, water has been the main topic of conversation. And if you didn’t speak the language the dusty, burnt landscape would be enough to tip you off. The Vanuatu we’ve seen looks vastly different from the pictures in our guidebooks.


Using the cellphone network, which extends to almost every island in the archipelago, the government is now issuing almost daily text messages about water rationing, taking care of animals and how to try to sustain crops. Major towns with running water in every home are already talking about rationing. On the front page of the newspaper last week in Santo I read an article about cattle dying from starvation. Vanuatu is known for its world class, organic beef and without water there are major economic ramifications for this year’s exporters.

And even sadder is the reports on the radio of children dying in some of the more remote villages. Without rain there is no water collection. Without rain crops can’t grow. With a population that is mostly collection and subsistence that has deadly serious implications.

I mention all this because this morning we are making water.

We do this couple of mornings a week. Our engine-driven, reverse osmosis watermaker that Steve designed and installed before we left San Diego pumps out about 60ltrs of clean, clear water an hour. Reverse osmosis uses a semi-permeable membrane and high pressure to turn, in this case, salt water into fresh water. As long as we have relatively clear seawater we can make drinking water measuring anywhere from 150-250 parts per million of dissolved solids. Not bad when the WHO standard for potable water rings in at 500ppm.

I’ve read other sailors wax on poetically about us watermaker users missing the opportunity to meet islanders around the local watering hole, literally, and the romance of washing the laundry on a verdant tropical island. I’ve heard them sneer at us about ignoring what falls free from the sky and accusing us being slaves to our engines. (This last one I find particularly amusing as these are often the same people who are willing to motor for days on end while on passage when their SOG drops below 3 kts.)

The only thing I can say to them is that during times like these, where water is in desperate lack for the locals, I am happy that we don’t have to burden them.  Not only are we self-reliant but we have the means, if the situation should arise, to actually help people. We could do more than bring the tourist dollar or give away an old ragged t-shirt. We can make water, one of the essentials of life.

Love, H&S

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven Wolfe says:

    Hello Kate,
    I enjoy your blog.!
    As a land lubber, i’ve always wondered what protection you have from lightning strikes while out at sea. The mast must act as a huge lightning rod. Surely thunder storms can’t always be avoided.
    Does the mast go all they way through the hull to safely ground the lightning so that the fiberglass bits don’t get damaged, or worse yet punctured?
    Just some background about me:
    I’m a commercial pilot from Plattsville (near Kitchener, Ontario). I’ve just spent the night in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Your old home town i think). I fly out to Boston and back today, then spend tonight in St.Johns, NL tonight.
    Fair winds,
    S. Wolfe
    P.S. I’ve never been hit by lightning while flying, but it generally does very little damage since the lightning goes around the metal of the plane. The occupants are protected inside in the “Faraday cage” that is the fuselage.

    1. Heather Francis says:


      Funny you should ask, we were just talking about lightning the other night. You are right, sometimes it is impossible to avoid a lightning storm, but thankfully we have never suffered a direct hit. We did get “stung” once when lightning hit the water only a few hundred meters from us, knocked out all our electrical systems immediately, thankfully everything but the depth sounder came back online. However in the following 6 months we had several problems with various electronics on board, our chart plotter ended up having to be replaced. I have actually witnessed a boat suffering a direct lightning strike while on the hard, they ended up having to replace absolutely everything electrically. Most boats have a grounding plate that is mounted on the hull under the water, and all the electrical systems are then grounded to that plate, the theory being if you get struck the lightning will pass through the boat and into the water without causing damaged. Steve has actually seen a boat with holes burnt in the fibreglass where the electricity from a lightning strike travelled out to the metal cradle it was resting in! Yes, scary stuff.

      Have a Keith’s for me next time you’re in HFX!

      Safe Sailing,


      P.S. They often say you should put any portable electronic devices in the on board oven during a lightning storm, as it will act as a Faraday cage…mine has frying pans in it so never tried.

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