Transformational Technologies 7: From Fried Eel to Haute Cuisine

‘Wallop’, the old wooden boat on which I first sailed offshore, had a primus stove. Not much to cook on.

The most memorable meal for me was in Brightlingsea. My elder brother, Chris, was attempting to romance a girl he really fancied and I was somewhat in the way. I took myself off to the cockpit to fish, using a line with multiple hooks. I caught a good sized eel, creating a terrible tangle. To subdue the eel, I cut off its head, squirting blood over Chris’ girlfriend. Finally, the eel stopped wriggling and I disentangled it from all those hooks. We decided to fry it. When we dropped it in the hot pan, it came back to life, wriggling violently. I don’t believe that romance went anywhere.

When it came to building my first cruising boat, I read all the available books (not many, in those days) and was persuaded by Hal Roth (After 50,000 Miles) to buy an expensive diesel stove similar to a mini Aga. It took a while to warm up, but eventually the entire top rose to cooking temperatures. What a disaster that was! Hal was from the (chilly) Pacific Northwest, where the fishermen love these stoves, while we were headed to the tropics, where the stove top radiated heat into an already overheated atmosphere.

We set sail from New Orleans across the Gulf of Mexico to Key West with a one year old who was already walking. Whenever the stove was lit, we had to watch Pippin like a hawk to make sure she didn’t touch the top and burn herself. The stove rarely got used.

The stove came out in Key West, and went to a second hand consignment store (Sailorman) in Fort Lauderdale. This was 1987. Last time I checked, about 10 years ago, it was still there. The obvious choice with which to replace it was propane, already widely in use on cruising boats, but having been badly burned in a natural gas explosion on an oil rig a few years earlier (I bear the scars to this day, and was lucky to escape with my life) I was determined not to have any form of gas on board. I bought a second hand, two-burner, Taylor’s paraffin stove with oven, also from Sailorman (I bet the previous owner had had the sense to trade it in for a propane stove).

You had to prime the burners with alcohol to get them going. Within weeks, Pippin had stuck her fingers in the priming cup and badly burned two of them.

Paraffin stoves work well so long as they are supplied with spotlessly clean, low-carbon-content, fuel. We got as far as Venezuela before our paraffin supply ran out. We had no trouble replenishing it, but clearly this was a low grade of paraffin. Our burners began to carbon up and fail. I was having to dismantle them and clean them every week, and then every day, and then just to boil enough water for a cup of tea, and finally there was no tea. We headed north to Florida and removed the paraffin stove.

I had had 10 years to get over my fear of gas. In addition to which, I now knew enough to realize that a properly-installed gas stove creates a minimal fire or explosion risk. We installed a Canadian-built Force 10 propane stove. It was wonderful! It burned cleanly, ignited at the press of a button, had a high heat output, was cheap to run, and was no trouble to refuel (a simple matter of re-charging, or exchanging, the cylinders, depending on what part of the world you are in).

It had been a long and frustrating voyage around the onboard culinary options. In our wake I had left a trail of broken and discarded stoves and stove parts, thrown away a great deal of money, and wasted countless hours on modifying our boat for the different systems.

We have commissioned two more boats since then, and are now working on the next. Each has had a propane stove, with evolutionary improvements from one model to the next. The last had four burners and an oven and grill. What an extravagance! Given the more leisurely pace of life on board, we now frequently eat better when cruising than when at home.

By Ocean Navigator