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Lessons from the Galley

Provisioning correctly is one of the fundamental elements to a successfully spending time on board, and its importance grows exponentially for passages.
I’ve done a lot of provisioning over the years in many different situations—for single-handed and family cruising, for long and short deliveries, and for charter groups—with mostly happy results. So, after years of exposure to varying degrees of supply availability around the world, diverse tastes, and plenty of trial and error, this is a subject I have a thing or two to say about. But, don’t get too excited if it’s a detailed method you’re looking for. Plenty of books and articles on provisioning already have been researched and written by people much more together than I, and in the how-to world, I can’t even begin to compete with the advice from expert list makers, galley engineers, and professional organizers.

Although the effort might have saved me a lot of time and mistakes, I’ve never even read those books and articles. Instead, I’ve got an ever-evolving pile of lists and stories based on personal experience that reflect what most people like or need, and what we can or can’t live without in the galley. Of course, we can learn to live without many things, but the single most important item I know that will ease this flexibility along is a cookbook with a good list of equivalents and substitutions. From there, every other rule just follows, is made to be broken, and becomes individualized and subjective. This is the first of two things I can add to the provisioning discussion with any certainty. The second is a warning: if there is a choice, never save any radical dietary changes for a passage, whether it will take a day or a month. The middle of the ocean is no place to force oneself into new habits, especially with food. Trust me on this one.

My first major provisioning task took place in 1985 in New York City—Chinatown in particular—where every imaginable food was available, sometimes 24 hours a day. Here, I was charged with gathering the basics for a solo-circumnavigation that was to lead first to Bermuda, and beyond, a voyage not meant to end until I returned to New York two years later. I knew this trip would mean that I was embarking on a life-changing adventure in ways that had yet to be revealed. Unsettled by facing so much that was unknown, it was then that I very mistakenly decided to take control of something and use the time at sea to consciously effect a major change in my life. Out there, I was going to eat only healthy food and stop smoking. Where else, I asked myself, could I initiate these good new habits than in the environment of a boat at sea removed from all bad temptation?

In most localities sailors can find a wealth of provisions, but it only makes sense to bring aboard those items that you'll actually end up using.
So, I wandered the aisles of Chinese markets, health food stores and the local supermarket, picking out the fixings for a new me. I virtuously filled plastic containers with beans, grains, whole flours, brown rice, raw sugar, and sprout seeds, good-for-you stuff that I never ate other than out of curiosity. This would change soon, I told myself, while piling dehydrated bean curd, long-life UHT tofu and soy milk containers into the shopping carts. I found dried and salted shrimp, cans of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, lychees, and straw mushrooms to jazz up wholesome meals. As an afterthought, just in case of storms and other weak moments, I threw in cans of tuna, tomato sauce, vegetables, sauerkraut, and prepared soups and stews. Man, was I ever going to eat healthily. Boy was I clueless.

On that first passage to Bermuda, I first discovered how Dinty Moore stews and Progresso soups were to become the fare of choice, sometimes even in fair weather. When the meteorological conditions got sloppy, which they often did, I stopped cooking altogether. Instead, I ate crackers smeared with mustard, pumpkin seeds, and whatever else surfaced first when the lockers were opened, straight from packages and cans. The carob flavored soy milk was good enough, but, with grains and beans untouched, I stepped ashore in Bermuda after 12 days at sea and bummed a cigarette. I was pounds lighter, and ready for a cold Coke, a big fat steak, and a green salad.

Fast-forward through three more passages of crappy weather, lousy eating, and endless smoking, to the 3000-mile crossing of the South Pacific, from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. My 26-foot boat and I spent 24 days out there on our most beautiful passage, the first one where conditions allowed for regular meal preparation. A Force 3 wind from astern pushed us from one gorgeous sunset to the next, day after day, through herds of dolphins, pilot whales, and flying fish, and over gently rolling swells that made it possible to be creative over the relatively stable gimbaled stove. I spent the days reading and planning the prototypes of dinners that were to become future mainstays for when cooking was possible. I maintained a diet that ended up conforming to a predictable and simpler world marketplace more than to the unusual abundance of choice available in New York.

Savvy sailors know that the more remote ports require that they adjust their expectations for food, and adjust their diets accordingly.
In the Galapagos, I had provisioned with what was available in the small stores, which, as with many islands and countries, wasn’t much apart from the basics of rice, pasta, canned margarine, tomatoes, tuna, and sardines. The fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, were magnificent. Something about the volcanic soil of the islands, or locally gifted green thumbs, had produced basketball-sized cabbage and the tastiest beets, carrots, onions, tomatoes, oranges, limes, and grapefruit. My all-time favorite became a simple pressure cooker full of steamed vegetables with salt and butter. Variations on the vegetable and rice stews were conceived days in advance, distinguishing themselves from one another with certain spice arrangements, and more or less garlic. On this trip, I reached the apex of inventiveness, developing the relatively unvaried menu that was to sustain me for a long time. Without refrigeration aboard my little boat, my culinary creativity was effectively reined in, but within these boundaries, and despite the vividness of certain dreams of gastronomical feasts, I managed quite well. Food was food as long as I had garlic and didn’t have to go into the whole grains and beans locker.

"Variety in the menu came from the canned goods that were flavored relative to my geographical position."
Fast-forwarding through the next two years, from provisioning to provisioning, the dietary particulars aboard my boat changed very little. The nightly dreams never stopped and every day, storm or calm, rain or shine, there were always plenty of the fresh fruits and vegetables, along with the ubiquitous rice and pasta. Variety in the menu came from the canned goods that were flavored relative to my geographical position. Crossing the rest of the uncomfortably windy Pacific Ocean, after provisioning in French Polynesia, I could have been seen eating from cans of Alsatian sauerkraut, potage, and vichyssoise. Cans of delicious New Zealand corned beef became the basis for many excellent pasta sauces as I went from Australia on to Sri Lanka. Briefly, after Australia, there were some more Dinty Moore-type soups and stews, and canned asparagus to which my cat had taken a liking, to complement the cabbage salads.

From Sri Lanka to the Mediterranean, a part of the world unfamiliar with the prepared and packaged meal, simple rice stews with tuna and tomato paste became routine supplements to the steamed vegetable medley. For a brief moment after stopping in expensive and French-influenced Djibouti, there were some more interesting canned goods, which came in handy on the Red Sea where strong headwinds and searing heat often made cooking impossible. While in the Med, I reached my dietary nadir. I ate almost nothing but roasted pumpkin seeds and powdered Tang, by the spoonful. When I stopped in Gibraltar I bought canned shepherd’s pie and ate that while on the North Atlantic. It made for an absurdly funny contrast to the meager meals I ate in the Med.

Provisioning is particularly an important issue when it comes to stocking a galley for a large crew, particularly one with diverse dietary needs.
More recently in my life, I’ve provisioned for deliveries with other people, and groups of strangers who arrive for 10-day charters in different countries around the world. Allowances are always being made for particular diets as well as the local availability of ingredients. As they were for me alone, fresh vegetables, pasta, rice, and easy snacks are international foods and universally enjoyed. It’s the good intentions that still get in the way. What is always left over is the impractical impulse purchases, such as too many cans of stuffed grape leaves, or anchovies, or some smelly novelty fruit like a durian, or the unexpected common staple that just isn’t appreciated in that time and place. On my last trip, for instance, we returned to the charter base with several unopened boxes of cereal that wouldn’t have been enough for the last group. On one trip, we’ll go through dozens of deviled eggs and on the next, everyone will have cholesterol issues and we won’t even finish one carton. But, the vegetables, rice and pasta always get eaten. On a boat, sticking to and working with the familiar and easy-to-get is the most reliable and appreciated cuisine.

When I finally returned to New York on that lengthy sojourn, I knew that what I could and wanted to live with at sea wasn’t much different from what I enjoy on land, which makes for a more sane and relaxed approach to provisioning. Given the proper care and stowage, and enough garlic, fresh produce goes a long way. The same can be said for the economical standbys of rice and pasta, along with a decent assortment of spices. Canned margarine is OK, UHT and powdered milk are bearable, lukewarm water quenches any sized thirst, and good canned foods are unbeatable in moments of weather or mood-induced sloth. I found it was possible to live without steak, roast chicken, garden salads, icy drinks, and milkshakes, and especially, how much more delicious these concoctions all are after you haven’t had them for long periods of time. When I stepped back on the shores of lower Manhattan, two-and-a-half years after that first major provisioning job, my diet reflected nothing of all those naïve good intentions I had before leaving. With a cigarette between my fingers, I emptied the locker of plastic containers filled with every last one of those same whole grains and beans that had sailed out of New York Harbor with me. They were as untouched as the changes in my diet, because, once again, the middle of the ocean is no place for forcing new habits, especially those that involve food.

Suggested Reading:

Stowing the Provisions by Beth Leonard

Good Nutrition for Sailors by Carol Bareuther

Cooking on Board by Sue & Larry

SailNet Store Section: LPG Cooking Ranges


Tania Aebi is offline  
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