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Provisioning for the Caribbean

Fresh produce will be on the shopping list once out of the US. Local fruits and vegetables will vary from your supermarket at home and haggling might be part of the shopping experience.
Provisioning for a cruise to the Caribbean can be simple and fun, but only if you keep a few basics in mind. Whenever another cruiser asks for our list of provisions, I point out that our personal eating habits are likely to be quite different from theirs. One cruiser's list simply will not meet the needs of another. For example, some people are vegetarians while others don't eat vegetables at all. Cruisers offended by canned foods and boxed products often have a large freezer aboard to stock up on frozen foods, while those less blessed need to rely on tinned products. Analyze your own needs rather than relying on someone else's provisioning list.

Start by looking in your food lockers and refrigerator at home. If you drink lots of tea, then put tea on your list. If you use canned mushrooms in dishes, take canned mushrooms. If you have no intentions of baking bread, biscuits, or cakes, why take flour? Do you use sugar? Do you eat breakfast—if you don't now, will you while cruising? If not, don't spend the money to have items that will take precious locker space and be thrown away later.

Next, take a look at your eating habits and usage of paper and toiletry items. Make a list of everything that you use at home and fill in the quantities for a month or two. Later, when you are ready to make a provisioning list for your cruise, most of the work will be done and the answers to your needs will be contained in this list. Simply break down your home usage tally into weeks and then multiply each item by the number of weeks for which you plan to provision.

Most of what is consumed on a daily basis is available anywhere. People the world over, and certainly in the Caribbean, rely on the same rice, beans, meats, dairy, vegetables, fruits, breads, and beverages that we do Stateside. You may find that the brands are unfamiliar or that the packaging is different. You may also have to substitute fruits and vegetables of a different variety, such as papaya and mango instead of apples and pears, or dasheen and breadfruit for potatoes or squash—but this is part of the joy of discovery.

Keeping a fresh supply of staples on board will ensure the crew is fed and happy
Many cruisers enjoy the experience of trying new foods and don't provision beyond what is necessary for their initial passage. Rather than stocking up in the US on huge quantities of staples which are available everywhere, pack only items that you "can't live without." For instance, if you're a cereal, peanut butter, or pickle relish freak, stock up now, since many of these distinctly American items aren't readily available in the Caribbean—and when they are found, they are expensive.

Types of Provisions  There are three categories for provisions—perishable, semi-perishable, and non-perishable. When you are making your provision list, it is important that the amount of time the items will be stored be taken into consideration. It makes no sense to load up on three months worth of fresh bananas!

 Perishables include fresh meat, vegetables, fruit, and dairy.
 Semi-perishables are time-dated items like mayonnaise, salad dressings, UHT milk, boxed juices, spices, and items that will go stale, like crackers, breads, cereals.
 Non-perishables include paper products, canned products, staples like flour, sugar, salt, liquor, and powdered drink mixes.

When in Rome, or wherever, eat like they do—using new types of fruits and vegetables will enhance the experience abroad.
Availability  With the boom in the tourist trade, large resorts, cruise ships, charter boats, and numerous cruisers throughout the Caribbean, the availability of provisions is better now than in previous years. Larger towns, even in the Bahamas, now have at least the basics, and you can stock up enough essentials to get from one port to the next. Delivery to many of the more remote watering holes, however, is often by ship or small inter-island freighter, and bad weather or breakdown can sometimes cause gaps in delivery.

On most of the islands, meat is available in some form, either canned, or fresh, but rarely frozen. Mutton, lamb, chicken, and goat are easily found, but good cuts of beef are unusual outside of South America. The canned beef from Brazil, found in most grocery stores, is quite good. Paper products are expensive in the islands except Puerto Rico and Trinidad. Tampons are not readily available and are expensive when found.

Since most things in the islands are imported, it isn't unusual to come across a large quantity of one item at a very good price. Whether it is tea biscuits, sausages, or wheels of cheese, purchase a small quantity first and try it immediately—if it's good, go back and buy it in quantity before the crate is empty.

Caribbean Overview

The Bahamas  Leave your US base well stocked when headed for the Bahamas because food is expensive there. The best deals are in local produce and some liquors. Nassau is a good place to stock up on local fruits and vegetables because the docks there serve as a major trans-shipment point for the small inter-island freighters. Boxes are made up with a variety of produce and sold inexpensively. Potatoes and onions are available in 25 lb bags and green tomatoes can be bought by the case. To a lesser degree, Marsh Harbor, Abaco and George Town in the Exumas also have a good choice of staples and varying selection of more exotic fare. Delicious, fresh baked bread is available everywhere in the islands, so have enough butter on hand to enjoy all the bakery items you'll be eating. If you're not the "hunter" type, enjoy the fresh-caught lobster, crabs, fish, and conch the locals will bring through the anchorage for sale at the end of the day.
 The Turks and Caicos  Provisions are widely available, although expensive, and not close to the anchorage at Provodenciales, requiring a taxi or a hitched ride into town. Cockburn Harbor at South Caicos Island has a good anchorage, is a short walk to town, and has fresh bread available from the local baker, although you may have to place your order and pick it up the next day.
 The Dominican Republic  Luperon, Puerto Plata, and Samana are popular cruising stops for stocking up. Fresh produce, fresh meat (don't look for steak), limited dairy (fresh eggs, butter) are available in the local markets in Luperon. Most fresh produce and dairy require dickering with the stall owner over price before purchase—it's part of the fun. The bread (pan dulce) is delicious, and the rum and beer are of excellent quality and one of the best deals in the islands, so stock up. Puerto Plata has a large outdoor market (all fresh produce and fresh meats) and small grocery stores (expensive unless the product is made, canned, or bottled locally). Samana offers both outdoor markets and small grocery stores.
 Puerto Rico  There are numerous provisioning stops in Puerto Rico. Mayaguez has all the modern conveniences for loading the larder, with huge grocery stores, malls, and most of the chain stores from the US. Prices are close to the US, with some items costing a little more and some items less. Puerto Rico has many canning plants and as a result, canned tuna, tomato products, and other canned goods are inexpensive. If you miss Mayaguez, another good provisioning stop is Ponce. Take a transient berth at the yacht club or anchor in the small cove nearby. Good grocery stores and warehouses where you can buy canned goods in bulk are a short taxi ride away. Humacao also offers good provisioning opportunities and convenient shopping. Another provisioning stop is Fajardo, which is inconvenient at best. If you miss the last publico from the shopping area back to Fajardo, you'll have to rely on your thumb and the kindness of strangers, and hope you don't miss the ferry back to the anchorage. Puerto Rico is also a good place to get replacement marine parts, either from the local chandlery or by mail order from the US. San Juan is huge and has its charms, but most cruisers avoid it.
 US & British Virgin Islands  Generally, a wide variety of food and other products are available, but they are expensive. One exception to this is liquor, which is a good buy. Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas is a free port, so electronics, watches, Irish linens, and much of what the cruise ship crowd buys are exceptional values. Otherwise, prices throughout the Virgins range 10 to 15 percent more than in Puerto Rico and the US.
 Leeward Islands  All of these islands offer fresh local produce, fresh breads, and dairy products in outdoor markets. Modest selections of other goods are available in small grocery stores. The major provisioning stop is St. Martin where the best bargains are cheese on the Dutch side and wine on the French side. Large, modern grocery stores are available on both halves of St. Martin. Not to be missed is the large outdoor market at Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe—it's an interesting and scenic bus ride from Deshaies.
 Windward Islands  Martinique provides the best opportunity to stock up on good French wines at reasonable prices in Fort de France or Marin. Don't miss the French breads. As with the Leeward Islands, there is fresh produce available at outdoor markets and other goods available at small grocery stores in St. Lucia, Bequia, and Carriocou. Grenada offers a large variety of fresh foods at the outdoor market in St. George's.
 Trinidad & Tobago  This is a cruiser's paradise. Vast selections of products from all over the world, including the US, Europe, and South America are widely available and inexpensive. Beer and local soft drinks are an outstanding buy here. The fresh homemade ice cream is worth the entire passage.

"Any method that removes and prevents entry of air as much as possible is the best method to use because air is what causes decay and bacterial growth."
Storage  It is important that once purchased, food be stored in a manner that prevents damage, insect intrusion, and deterioration. Tupperware® or Tupperware-like products, Zip-loc®bags, and vacuum sealing are popular because they work. Any method that removes and prevents entry of air as much as possible is the best method to use because air is what causes decay and bacterial growth. Always double bag when using Zip-locs®, and place vacuum-sealed bags inside a Zip-loc bag to prevent leakage due to puncture or abrasion. Store foods that are easily crushed or broken such as pastas, cereals, and crackers in Tupperware® or other hard plastic containers.

Stackable storage bins serve as our primary produce storage. Storing small quantities of produce in a net permits quick access on passages and serves as a visual reminder of what needs to be consumed quickly. Transfer produce to the nets from the bins as it ripens. Produce lasts longer if it's rotated in the bins occasionally and allowed to breathe.

Onions and potatoes should be kept in separate bins in well-ventilated spaces.

Tomatoes will ripen quickly if placed near citrus. When ripened, they should either be used quickly or refrigerated to delay over ripening. If loading up on fresh tomatoes in bulk, buy them green, wrap individually in newspaper, and check daily for ripening. Unless you must have fresh tomatoes, it is better to buy canned ones for use in cooked dishes.

Iceberg lettuce will keep up to three weeks or more when placed in a Zip-loc®bag with a slightly damp paper towel and refrigerated. Locate lettuce as far away from the refrigerator's cold plate or evaporator plate as possible.

Cheese, if not wax sealed when purchased, can be kept for several weeks by wrapping it in a paper towel or cheesecloth dampened with white vinegar, then placed in an airtight container.

Eggs also deteriorate with exposure to air, but if either "sealed" with a coating of petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) or placed in airtight containers, will usually last several weeks. Most eggs purchased in the Caribbean markets are fresh, and having never been refrigerated will keep longer if sealed.

Milk is best purchased powdered or boxed UHT.

Butter can be purchased fresh from a barrel, prepackaged US style, or tinned. If purchasing fresh, wrap in wax paper then seal in an airtight container and refrigerate.

When purchasing fresh vegetables and fruits, always rinse in a light Clorox solution to eliminate bugs and bacteria before bringing them on board. Remember that these countries do not have the same guidelines for growing produce as the US.

Critters  If the storage seal of your packaging is airtight, it's usually bug tight too, but bay leaves should be added to the containers of all flour-based products. These pungent leaves keep the weevil larvae already present in flour-based products from hatching for an extended period of time. Use bay leaves with all grain products, including pastas and rice.

After provisioning, remove all boxed products from their containers, re-store in airtight containers, and throw all boxes and paper bags away. Boxes and paper bags carry roach casings that will hatch later, causing a major infestation on board. Cardboard also retains moisture and makes a gooey mess if it gets wet.

Prior to leaving the US, stock up on ant and roach traps, bug spray if no pets are aboard, and at least one rat trap—you'll probably need them. It seems that no matter how careful you are with removing boxes and grocery sacks from the boat, critters will find their way on board, either by flying aboard, or crawling in on docklines or anchor rodes.

In the event you do find cockroaches aboard, boric acid mixed with honey and set on small "trays" of aluminum foil throughout the boat is an effective way to purge your vessel of these pests.

Overnight And Offshore Passages  The likelihood of cooking a hot meal during a short offshore or a longer passage is slim to none unless you've been cruising a long time and know what you're "cooking underway" limitations are. Until that happens, prepare meals ahead of time which can be served cold or require only heating.

A thermos of hot water for tea or instant coffee and a jug of drinking water in the cockpit for the person on watch go a long way toward their comfort. Carry plenty of high-energy (read high fat) snacks on board like cheese, crackers, nuts, peanut butter, chocolate, trail mix, hot chocolate, and cookies for the times it might be too rough to be in the galley heating up the meal that was pre-prepared, and have these handy for that lonely 2:00 a.m. watch.

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