Joshua Shankle is a liveaboard cruiser who has been learning the art of foraging and fishing in order to keep his food stocks up while onboard his yacht
Can you imagine not going to a supermarket or farmer’s market for a month or more? Could you make nourishing, appetising meals out of only what you have in stores? By the end of the first week, it would be a little challenging. What about after three weeks when all the fresh food has been exhausted, the bottom of the freezer is starting to show and all your go-to dishes are missing key ingredients? Could you sustain yourself for even longer? For two months, maybe three?
As long-distance cruisers, who prefer to spend time in the more remote islands and anchorages of the world, we have outfitted our Tayana 42 Agápe to be a comfortable off-grid home. We’ve utilised modern technologies like desalination, lithium, solar, and refrigeration to ensure we are as comfortable as possible, but when it comes to collecting and foraging for food it’s often better to look to the past for guidance.
For close to a thousand years, the Paumotu people have inhabited the isolated Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia. Life here is beautiful and simple in many ways, but complex and challenging in others.
They’ve had to carve out an existence among islands in which growing food on land, even with all of today’s technology, is still a challenge. They learned how to find and save water on islands that receive sparse rainfall and have little to no groundwater.
They discovered which fish are safe to eat and distinguished which plants are edible and have medicinal properties. By befriending those who live on the islands, and learning the age-old ways of the Paumotu, we’ve gained a small portion of their knowledge and are now able to extend our food stores and time spent in these hard-to-reach enclaves.
Four years ago, when Agápe first sailed in to a coral atoll, we could not have been more excited. The clear water teemed with variegated reef fish and the infinity pool-like seascape was broken only by a speckling of tiny palm tree-lined islands called motus. It felt like sailing into a postcard.
Initially, we thought nothing of paddling into the beach, grabbing a couple of coconuts, and hacking them open to quench our thirst and harvest the sweet meat inside. It was not until later we learned that, like the San Blas Islands of Panama, most of the palms and their fruit are owned by local families or are part of larger farms, sometimes enveloping entire motus.
By spending extended time in these atolls we’ve learned much from our Paumotu friends over the years – like which fish are safe to eat – a few traditional cooking techniques, some of the Paumotu language, and just how important the coconut palm is to their way of life. Now, with permission, we take from several farms and can respectfully harvest the fruit.
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On Agápe, we’re fortunate to have a very large refrigerator and a separate freezer, so our fresh food stores can last up to six weeks or more. By being able to both fish and forage, we can greatly extend our time in these more remote anchorages. We don’t forage to sustain, only to supplement our ever-dwindling food supply.
Food from the ocean
In past times, such as documented in the Kon-Tiki voyage, all you had to do was throw a baited hook into the water and the fish would practically jump into the boat. Now, catching fish seems to be a little harder.
We have dragged every make, model, and colour of lure at just about every time of day, and every speed – from languidly drifting at 2 knots, to over 8.5 knots, which in our Tayana feels like we are setting some kind of speed record.
We have caught big fish, small fish, keepers, and throwbacks. The one consistency we have found is that when the fridge and freezer are full is usually when you will catch a fish. If you are fishing because you need fresh protein, let’s just say bring some snacks because you’re going to be there a while.
In French Polynesia, like most tropical regions, the fish, especially the carnivorous fish, are usually plagued by a neurotoxin called ciguatera. Nearly every fish in French Polynesia contains some trace amount of ciguatera and this region has the dubious honour of posting the highest annual cases of ciguatera poisoning worldwide.
For this reason, we choose to spearfish. While this sport is not for everyone, it is one way we can ensure we catch fish that are safe to eat. It also allows us to observe the health of the reef and select the exact species we want to hunt.
To learn which fish are safe to eat and even ways to cook them, we always try and go fishing with a local first. In the Pacific, some fish that are safe to eat on one island may not be on the next. Being able to correctly identify fish in and out of the water, and knowing what size fish is safe to eat, is all gained by local knowledge. There’s also no better way to make friends than to catch and cook a meal together.
Being able to catch fish has freed up precious room in our freezer to store extra fruits and vegetables. It also helps take the bite out of our grocery bill as protein is usually the biggest expense, just behind my wife’s chocolate habit.
On land, it can be a little trickier. In the Marquesas, Leeward, Gambier, and Austral Archipelagos, these relatively young islands have healthy, nutrient-rich soil that can sustain all manner of plant life.
Food from the land
While in these areas, with permission, we can gather fruit by the dinghy-load as things seem to regrow overnight. Here, an afternoon hike through the hills can produce a backpack full of avocados, eggplant, ginger, pamplemousse (grapefruit), pumpkins, passion fruit, and more. But in the low-lying atolls of the Tuamotus it gets harder. These islands only have a dusting of topsoil and plants take much longer to mature here. Not only does this make foraging for fruits even harder but it also makes asking permission even more important.
Coconuts are one of the most versatile foodstuffs. Green ones are the youngest, about the size of a walnut. Over two months, they’ll grow to the size of a grapefruit. Once the nut is about the size of a volleyball or approximately six months old, it’s perfect for drinking.
The young fruit is full of sweet, refreshing water, loaded with electrolytes, including potassium, sodium, and magnesium. At this stage, it contains almost no meat and the water is nearly fat-free. It makes for a great hydrating drink in the heat of the day.
As the nut matures, it will develop yellow or brown striations on the husk. Inside, the amount of water lessens and the meat begins to congeal. At this stage, its fleshy, soft meat is perfect for making coconut ‘bacon’ (made by tossing coconut meat in oil, soy sauce, sriracha, maple syrup, liquid smoke salt and black pepper and baked at 160°C for 12 minutes) or ceviche.
When fully mature, usually around nine to 12 months, the husk turns brown and the nut will eventually fall. This is when it’s at its richest and fattiest. The meat, now fibrous and firm, has thickened and is ready to shred.
You can husk, then crack the nut with the blunt edge of a knife, hatchet or machete before shredding. We use a coconut grater that was gifted to us back in Panama, but you can also blend the meat in a food processor. Once shredded, we add a little warm water to loosen the fat and oil before straining. Wring out the meat in a cloth napkin as hard as you can to force the milk and cream out.
It doesn’t take much, but by adding a bit of foraged food into our diet every day we can stretch our stores for months. We add coconut cream to our coffee, and toasted shredded coconut meat to cereals and yoghurt in the morning.
We eat freshly caught fish for half of our lunches and dinners, use fruits for baking and smoothies, avocados for guacamole and chocolate pudding, and roast vegetables for soups and salads.
These foraged foods can make some of the tastiest meals around. Fresh caught Mahi Mahi with a mango salsa, served over a bed of coconut rice and a green papaya salad might be one of your more expensive meals out or it can be a nearly free meal that you were able to put together while trawling and going for a walk through a beautiful island valley.
Being able to supplement our stores has allowed us to not only stay in remote anchorages longer but has also introduced us to many of our friends we’ve made while travelling. By showing we are genuinely interested in and want to put into practice the historical knowledge of the Paumotu people we’ve made lasting connections with our teachers. Connections that both physically and metaphorically produce fruit.
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