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The Importance of Galleys

The nucleus of life aboard any vessel is its galley.
I have many sailing memories that resurface periodically, reminding me of another life that runs parallel to my current one here in Vermont with its own share of weather and engine-related problems, natural beauty, and a kitchen. Yes, my kitchen. No matter how intense the storm, how frustrating the breakdown, how lonely the days, or how stimulating the companionship, the galley and food always play a central part in my recollections.

As a kitchen is to a house, the galley is to a boat; it is the center of the sailing lifestyle. We need to eat, our lives revolve around feeding schedules, and whether we are harbor, island, or ocean-hopping, the kerosene, alcohol or gas stoves and ovens are essential to our happiness. When you compare the history of mankind to the history of cruising—a way of life that pretty much started with Joshua Slocum barely over 100 years ago—the modern sailor is still in an embryonic phase. While electronic and mechanical progress may advance at light speed, and sailing may become unrecognizably high-tech and automated, one thing I know for sure is that the galley will always rule the nautical roost.

"As a kitchen is to a house, the galley is to a boat."

Together, the galley and salon make up the universal hearth of the boating environment—a place that relies upon good stowage skills, cubby holes, sliding doors, drawers, lockers, shelving, and cabinetry that may also contain seacocks, pumps, plumbing, compressors, and wiring. Too many cooks in this area can spoil the broth while stepping on each other's toes and somebody has to be in charge of organizing this intricacy. For things to run smoothly, there usually is a head chef, the captain of the galley, the magician who can find things and make meals from a larder that hasn't been restocked in a month. It can be a challenging job and I say the boss of the galley is in no way inferior to the one in charge of the ship. I am capable of filling both positions, but I must admit my preference lives in the galley. I can figure out an engine or rigging repair, how to anchor to code and when to reef efficiently, dock, tack, or run, as well as how to muddle through all that can happen in the world beyond the kitchen to which I nevertheless keep returning because, on land or at sea, the kitchen is my second favorite place. (My favorite is a bed, or bunk, anywhere I can sleep off all the kitchen work.)

The keeper of the homefire, the galley mate, holds the unofficial rank of co-captain.
Except for single-handers (who are an ornery breed anyway), relationships of any type on boats, from charters, to daysailing, to cruising—depend on co-captaincies between the keeper of the boat and all its systems and the keeper of the home fire, a time-honored calling. Ever since Prometheus stole fire from Zeus for us mortals, we've been hanging out around the hearth. Ask any host or hostess. The main cluster of most gatherings always hovers close to the food and the cook, the fridge, the stove, the drinks, the good smells; all these together add up to comfort, and at all levels, comfort is king. The comfort that emanates from the galley is elemental and the feelings it produces are often the most memorable part of any experience, even when it concerns a knock-down, drag-out storm that I thought would be the end of me and everyone else on the boat.

I was 17. My father and I, along with three other friends, were sailing our boat from Bermuda to New York when the storm hit. We were at its mercy for the next 48 hours. During the bleakest hours, we bucked the biggest swells I have ever seen, heaving liquid mountains that lumbered and crashed relentlessly southward, kicked up by the northbound Gulf Stream current. Often, the distance between the bellies of the leaden clouds and the surface of the ocean was minimal. Twisters licked down randomly to strike more terror in us before getting sucked back into the low-hanging heavens.

When the going gets rough, the sustenance and solace found in the galley become all the more important for a successful passage.
The wind blasted, howling through the rigging, and under the smallest of storm sails, our 38-foot sailboat heeled over, crabbing her way up the sides of these walls of water. I could feel us lurch to each peak, then sail off the crest, momentarily airborne before 25,000 pounds of fiberglass would crash into the waiting troughs. The moody Gulf Stream was at its salty worst, and I was sure it was only a matter of time before we would become part of it. Wrapped in foul-weather gear, I lashed myself into a fetal position under the spray hood, keeping a vigil broken only every few hours when I would clamber into the cockpit to throw up overboard. There was nothing my father, or the three other crew members who were as sick as dogs below, could do. There was nothing tangible I could do, either. Staring down the wrath of the ocean, for two days, nothing could be done to make the predicament substantially better.

This was the closest I had ever come to death, an entirely new phenomenon for me. I remember white knuckles, a dry mouth, and a racing heart; yet I also recall a combination of pride and hope that prompted me to keep my fears silent, the desire to set myself apart from the one other adult crew member who, absurdly, was lashing out at my father, blaming him for the weather. Instead, I became a fixture under the dodger where I wandered between sleep and fantasies about my happy place while watching the heaving mountains pass over and under us, waiting for the big one.

The author takes a break from her refuge down below.
Toward the end of this awful storm, two of our crew were ferried away by a nearby Coast Guard cutter that was out rescuing a dismasted and engineless boat. Hours after they left, the storm began to die, and slowly my father, the remaining friend, and I reclaimed our lives in a much more positive and upbeat way. I crawled below to clean up the kitchen because, at the age of 17, I had already found my place in control central and knew the galley well. I knew where to locate extra sponges, soap, buckets and garbage, but first I made a cup of tea—a steaming hot cup of tea with a spoon of sugar and a cloud of milk. After days of heaving, forcing some water down only because you're supposed to, and popping the occasional Dramamine out of desperation, nothing ever had, or has since, tasted so good. A couple of hours later, we caught a beautiful bluefish and fried up a pile of fillets in butter. It was heaven.

A storm may be a period of intense suffering and misery, followed by sheer exultation where you survive to tell the tale, and tell it we do. This is my Big Storm story and in all the retellings, the tea and fish have never been omitted. The tale just wouldn't be complete without the memory of my reunion with my taste buds, of that one unforgettably delicious cup of tea and the meal it preceded. After having been to hell and back, surrounded by the comforting ambiance of food and drink, the three of us sat around the table in the salon, steps from the galley, thankful for being able to enjoy yet another meal. Between trips to the stove for extra helpings, we began to craft a life for the storm into a story we still tell 17 years later.

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