You might spend months or years choosing a yacht and equipping it for an ocean crossing but when you’re actually out at sea the world shrinks and one of most important things to a crew will be what they eat.
Food can be almost an obsession on board a yacht at sea. The days revolve around mealtimes as much as watches and are usually the times when everyone wakes up and socialises. Mealtimes and morale go hand in hand.
So how best do you provision for a crew for three weeks or more at sea?
First, there is no black art to provisioning. It’s all commonsense and ought to be fairly straightforward to anyone who has run a house. It’s made easier at major Atlantic crossroads such as Las Palmas where there is a huge range of supermarkets and available goods.
But as provisioning is of necessity one of the last jobs on the list it’s often the last to be considered and first time crews can find themselves anxiously wondering if they’re getting it right. And if you run short of snacks or chocolate or toilet roll – heaven forbid – you, as head of victualling, will never hear the end of it.
Estimating how much you should take of everything is one of the hardest parts. Probably the most common method is for someone on the crew to make a general shopping list to stock the boat, then it’s left to the cook of the day (or watch) to make a meal by using what’s available.
The problem with this is that improvising from a random selection of what hasn’t yet been eaten or gone off is a rather more advanced skill than following a recipe and if there are any pampered men on board who aren’t regular cooks they start to worry as their turn approaches.
The less spontaneous – and less wasteful – approach is to plan menus for the entire crossing. That not only allows you to produce a shopping list of exactly what you need, but when you get the food on board you’ll be able to box it up or stow it in the order you’ll need it.
Julian Sincock has run and skippered a Swan 51 charter yacht in “13 or 14 ARCs; I don’t remember exactly”. He follows a plan that makes minimum fuss and waste and keeps everyone happy and well fed.
He always employs a cook and asks her to complete a menu plan for the time he estimates for the crossing, usually 16 days plus a few days’ worth of tinned food in reserve. “It’s frighteningly easy,” he says. “I’ve had a new cook every year, they’ve been young people, recent graduates, and not one of them has ever got it wrong.
“First, they work out a menu. I ask them to fill in a spreadsheet with a lunch and dinner idea and the quantities that will be needed for 12 crew and that generates totals on a master list. So, for example, we’ll know we need 48 onions and 13kg of minced beef frozen in 800g portions.”
For a majority of crews, meat forms the backbone of the provisioning list. This is fairly easy to estimate. Sincock says: “we work on 125g of meat per person per meal.” He has 12 on board so different appetites balance out, but smaller crews might prefer larger portions of 200-250g each.
Sincock’s cooks plan easy, wholesome dinners such as chilli con carne, lasagne, coq au vin or beef bourginon, and lunches progress through fresh produce such as salads, to hot dogs, tortilla, fajitas and pasta salad with tinned tuna and hard boiled eggs or croque monsieur with coleslaw in the latter stages of the passage when fresh stuff has long gone. “The key thing is variety,” Sincock says.
He puts a meat order in to a supermarket to be picked up a week or 10 days before leaving and vacuum sealed and deep frozen in the quantities required. This is a service many big supermarkets provide. Once picked up or delivered to the boat, the meat can be labelled to tally up with the meal plan and the freezer reverse stowed with days 14, 15 and 16, etc at the bottom.
Some people prefer to buy their meat fresh so they can see the cut and quality more easily, then freeze it themselves if their boat is in a marina on shore power. The disadvantage is that freezing completely on board can take a few days whereas supermarkets speed freeze their meats at temperatures as low as -40°C.
A lot of crews like to pre-cook meals for the first few days or even the first week at sea and freeze them beforehand. This is a great way of making sure everyone is easily and well fed during the three or four days that it takes to find your sealegs or get over seasickness.
It’s helpful to have a stowage map of where things are if you have a cooking rota and, if there’s no fixed meal plan, a list so items used can be crossed off every day. Most modern cruising yachts have enough stowage to allow tins and other food items to be put in easily accessible – and dry – lockers, leaving the bilges for heavy, durable stuff like water bottles and canned drinks.
Some say you should take labels off tins, but I’ve never done that. As long as they are in dry storage they should be fine. Many of the old cruising tricks such as varnishing tins, putting Vaseline on eggs simply aren’t needed on modern boats, and not for a short passage of a few weeks.
However, you should try to keep as much packaging off your boat as possible. Keep cardboard boxes on the dock and empty them there to ensure no cockroach eggs get on your boat. Strip away any excess packaging around cereal bags and the like and put the contents in airtight containers. That will also reduce the amount of rubbish you’ll have on board.
Fruit and vegetable shopping is one of the last jobs and should be saved until a day or two before the off, as should buying bread and packets of part-baked loaves. Shop at a fruit and veg market if you can, because the produce won’t have been refrigerated; produce from supermarket chillers goes bad very quickly.
An old trick to decontaminate vegetables and fruit of bugs is to wash them in a solution of potassium permanganate. Nowadays you don’t need to do that in most places, but it’s a good idea to hose off each piece thoroughly and let it dry completely before taking it on board to stow.
No matter how well chosen, fresh fruit and produce has a very limited life and anything soft, such as salad ingredients, will need to be used up in the first few days. Harder vegetables like white cabbage, onions and carrots last longer and can be turned into salads or coleslaw in week two. Fruit such as limes and oranges or the more tart green apples last better.
One thing you learn from experience is not to overcater with fresh produce and end up throwing it away. Beware of buying too many bananas unless you normally like to eat ten a day on land. If you buy a whole hand they will all ripen on the same day and you’ll be sick of banana smoothies, banana bread, banana split…
If you buy a range of green and red tomatoes you can use them as they ripen in stages. Separate potatoes from citrus fruit so the potatoes won’t be encouraged to sprout and, as a general rule, separate or layer different produce to help them keep longer.
If you have room, store vegetables and fruit in netting so they are well ventilated. If not, put them in stackable plastic boxes lashed down in the lazarette or sail room.
Drinking water is, of course, the most important provision of all. A rule of thumb is to allow 1.5-2 litres per person per day.
One thing I hear a lot that seems to have become accepted cruising wisdom is that desalinated watermaker water is bad to drink long term. This is not true. A whole industry has been built on marketing claims about the benefits of bottled water containing minerals but there is no scientific evidence that these are a health benefit or that water without minerals has adverse health effects. You can get everything all the nutrients you need to survive healthily from food.
Watermaker water is pure H2O and perfect for drinking. An amount of bottled water is essential for emergency reserves, for your grab bag and in case your tank(s) become contaminated, and there are those who prefer the taste. But don’t feel you need to carry bottled water – and consider that most developing countries including St Lucia have no recycling plants, so any rubbish you bring will probably end up as landfill.
You should keep all your rubbish on board except for edible food scraps. Even orange peelings and banana skins can take six months to decompose. You can keep everything board for a few weeks without too much of a stink if you wash all used tins and containers before trashing them and double bag in a bin bag.
You can also reduce the volume of rubbish by crushing tins and drinks cans by hand or with a special can crusher sold online or in some hardware shops. Plastic bottles are easy to compress if you unscrew the top, concertina them and then screw the cap back on.
Lastly, it’s wise to have a plan for the possibility of your fridge or freezer breaking down. Sallyanne Turner has done several ARCs and gives a lecture on provisioning in Las Palmas.
“The main things that is different on board than on land is the ‘what ifs’,” she says. “What if your freezer fails? What if one of your tanks is contaminated? What if your watermaker packs up? Those are things that people need to think about.”
If that happened, most of your meat could still be used. “Even if the freezer broke down on day two, 50-60 per cent would still be usable,” says Julian Sincock. “Meat would stay semi-frozen for a few days, then you’d have to get inventive. You could cook it and keep it in the fridge for two or three more days and every day you’d be that bit closer to St Lucia and having to go to your reserve cans of meatballs or confit de canard.”
Finally, should you stock up certain things in certain ports? Only by choice; it’s not necessary any more, at least not in the Atlantic. Spirits are cheaper in the Canary Islands and the wine selection better, but nowadays supermarkets in Caribbean islands are plentiful and large, with lots of choice.
If you’re fussy about home brands or deli goods, you can always hop up to Martinique and shop in the French supermarkets. And any island that caters to superyachts – most these days – has a source of almost any luxury.