Voyage provisioning

What do eggs, cabbage, raw fish and an open jar of mayonnaise have in common? They are four things that absolutely must be refrigerated or eaten fresh, or they’re forever banned from the galley, right?

Myths like these can cause voyagers to lose sleep unnecessarily when it comes time to provisioning for an offshore voyage. Knowing what foods to take on board, and how to plan for purchases and storage long after you have left the security of your home port, will become one of your biggest challenges throughout your offshore voyaging career.

But not to worry: like other successful voyagers, you are destined to become a seasoned provisioner who knows where, when and how much food to purchase and stow during your sojourn.

Essential to the provisioning process is a list of every food item required for your next passage. Maintain an Excel spreadsheet on your laptop or print out a stack of forms you can write on to keep a running inventory of your food stores. This is the best way to manage food consumption and ensure proper daily nutrition.
One big mistake committed by nascent ocean voyagers is stocking up on too much food. My wife Marilu and I always plan to carry twice the amount of food we anticipate needing on a passage. At any given time, we always have enough for two to three months, but no more.

Limiting provisions keeps excess weight off the boat and encourages us to try locally prepared foods along the way. This also precludes our having to worry about tin cans rusting and leaking from long exposure to moisture in some dark corner of the vessel.

Canned goods
An assortment of canned goods, including tuna and luncheon meat, can be had in abundance at reasonable prices virtually anywhere in the world. Canned vegetables and beans are readily available wherever there is a modern supermarket.

What you will not find outside the U.S. are large cans of boiled chicken or beef. For example, the Bi-Lo supermarket chain in Queensland, Australia, carries canned beef stew with gravy, potatoes and carrots, but not plain beef to be used as a base for other recipes.

A real treat in stormy weather is curried canned tuna or tuna with vegetables, commonly found in Panama and India, less often elsewhere. A quick, inexpensive snack idea in Tahiti, where restaurants are obscenely expensive, is to mix a can of tuna with a can of corn, add curry and then stuff it into a fresh baguette. Wash it down with a cold bottle of Hinano beer — yum!

Because tin can labels fall off at the slightest hint of humidity, mark can lids with a permanent marker, indicating contents and purchase date. We typically toss out any can stored for more than a year in the tropics. Of course, this is a judgment call. If the can is still shiny and new-looking, it should be safe.

Fresh fruits and vegetables
All fruits and vegetables will supply you with vitamin C and soluble fiber, the two main nutrients we seek most in fresh produce. You will find the following in good supply in all tropical countries, and their longevity will more or less follow this order, from shortest shelf life to longest: lettuce, papaya, breadfruit, tomatoes, mangoes, cucumbers, long beans, cabbage, onions, cassava, taro and potatoes.

If you understand and respect cabbage, it will become one of your best friends on a long ocean crossing. First, never cut a head of cabbage. Cabbage rots and stinks only if you cut it. Tear it off leaf by leaf, and keep the remaining head stored in a hammock in the galley, not in a dank lazaret. You will have to throw away the dry outer leaves periodically, but you will be rewarded by the durability of the underlying leaves, which can sometimes keep for up to a month.

Add cabbage to chow mein noodles, stir-fries and salads, and fry or steam it with canned corned beef. Cabbage robs us of the necessary nutrient iodine, so make sure to use only iodized salt, a rule that always applies, unless you eat ocean fish regularly.  

The best bet for storing the majority of produce is in a hammock or a plastic crate where air current will keep fruits and vegetables from spoiling prematurely. The one exception is potatoes, which must be kept in a cool, dark, relatively dry place.

Potato skin produces a powerful neurotoxin called “solanine” when exposed to sunlight. A green chlorophyll haze under the brown surface indicates the presence of solanine, although the chlorophyll itself is harmless. Theoretically, a large dose of the toxin can be fatal, but more than likely it will just make you very sick. If your potatoes turn green, simply peel each one to reveal the safe inner white flesh.

Dry foods
Staple foods on any cruising yacht include rice and wheat flour, and may include grits and spud flakes. Seal all of these in plastic containers with air-tight lids. Rice, especially if purchased in Panama, will sometimes arrive on board with rice weevils, which are no doubt harmless, but not exactly tantalizing to the eye.

Exposing dry rice to sunlight will draw the weevils out, but then they crawl all over the deck and eventually wind up in other food stores. When it gets this bad, we boil the rice, weevils included, and make sure we have imbibed enough merlot to appreciate the extra protein we’re ingesting.

Remove dry beans from their thin plastic bags and store them in sealed plastic containers or zip-close bags, lest they be invaded by vermin. The delicate plastic packaging gradually develops small holes over thousands of miles of rough sailing, inviting small bugs to creep in.

Dry cereal will go stale no matter how tightly you fold its bag and clip the fold. To save space and preserve the flavor, remove cereal from its packaging and store it in a sealed container as soon as it arrives on board your vessel.

Dairy items
The best way to carry milk on a vessel for long periods is in powdered form. Fat-free powdered milk, slightly sweeter than fresh milk, may be reconstituted at a moment’s notice for a bowl of oatmeal or dry cereal, a delicacy in the midst of a raging gale when eggs Benedict with fresh hollandaise may be untenable.
You will find powdered milk almost everywhere you stop. In the developing world where fresh milk is scarce or where many people lack refrigeration, poor families depend on powdered milk for cooking and baking, and for use as a beverage.

If you are buying fresh butter, we recommend salted butter because it keeps longer, perhaps as long as a week, at room temperature in the tropics. Canned butter from Australia and New Zealand is available in French Polynesia, Samoa and Tonga and is quite tasty. After opening the can, it needs to be refrigerated just like the fresh stuff, but because it is salted and cooked extra long for canning, it will keep for perhaps as long as two weeks at room temperature. Check butter daily by smelling it; you’ll know when its bad.

We are often taken back by the variety of cheeses we encounter around the world. Some, like Edam, will keep for weeks at room temperature, while others, like Mexican queso casero or queso blanco should always be refrigerated, even before you break the seal. As a general rule, the harder or more crumbly a cheese, the longer it will last at room temperature.

Eggs are ubiquitous. Chicken eggs are a daily staple in virtually every diet on earth, and you will find them piled neatly next to the vegetables in open-air markets wherever there is human habitation. What’s better, they keep for up to three weeks without refrigeration as long as you keep them in a relatively cool corner of the vessel.

Meat and fish
Fresh meat and seafood vary greatly in quality, quantity and price from one country to the next.

Naturally, you need to have a deep-freeze to even consider storing fresh meat on a long passage. Cut meat into meal-size portions and place them in separate plastic freezer bags before freezing them.

Although you will find beef in good supply in most countries, including India, do not expect the quality you find at home when in developing countries, where cows essentially have to earn the right to die. Cows in poor countries generally are not slaughtered until they have stopped producing milk, so their meat can have the texture and flavor of an old combat boot.

Pork will be slightly better, but again, it will not be as tender or tasty as that purchased in your home port.  

A better choice for fresh red meat is lamb or goat. Goats are a major nuisance on many islands in the South Pacific, where they mow down vegetation wherever they are permitted to wander. By consuming goat, you are contributing to the “greening” of damaged island ecosystems.

A note on purchasing lobster: please follow U.S. Fish and Wildlife minimum size guidelines wherever you roam when you consider buying these precious crustaceans.

The big three traditional American condiments — mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard — are also readily available in most countries. In Mexico and Panama, stock up on bottles of chili sauce, and in Fiji and India, pick up a few jars of mango chutney from the grocer.  

You can take this for what it’s worth, but we have left unsealed glass jars of mayonnaise in a cool, dark place for months and it won’t spoil. As a matter of fact, we have never seen mayonnaise spoil anywhere or at anytime. The same goes for ketchup and mustard.

Our attorney advises us to recommend following the directions on these items and refrigerating them after they are opened. However, experience suggests this is unnecessary. Mayonnaise, invented by a French chef during the Napoleonic wars on the island of Majorca, consists of enough vinegar to keep it pickled indefinitely, and to this day, my boat Saltaire still does not have a refrigerator.

Beer, wine and spirits
Beer is so cheap and readily available outside the U.S. that it’s a waste to store more than you need to get to your first foreign port. Savor the suds of Bohemia in Mexico, Imperial in Costa Rica, Hinano in French Polynesia, Vailima in Samoa, Victoria Bitter in Australia, Efes in Turkey and many others. Even Egypt has a great beer: Sakara in pint cans.

As for wine, Mexico has a fair selection, but after that, try to hold out until you reach a French colony, such as Tahiti or Martinique, where you can buy good French and Spanish wines at very reasonable prices. You can also buy excellent local wines in New Zealand, Australia, and obviously Italy, France and Spain.

In Italy, take a clean five-gallon jerry can to the local wine cooperative and fill up your plastic cask with red wine the same way you would bunker diesel fuel.
Liquor is quite a different matter. After you have stocked up on whiskey at home and tequila in Mexico, plan to hoard plenty of rum in Central America and the Galápagos. The only cheap booze you will find after that will be in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and Gibraltar. If you’re brave, you can also try Eritrean gin or Egyptian cognac, but don’t come crying to me!

Become a locovore
No, a “locovore” is not someone who eats crazy people. A locovore eats locally-produced organic foods. The more you let go of your insistence on eating steak and potatoes, etc., the more you will enjoy experimenting with taro, breadfruit, cassava root, coconut milk, curries, goat and lamb, and exotic fish. This will offer a fulfilling dimension to your voyage, and that’s one of the reasons you’re leaving home in the first place.  

Circumnavigator Bill Morris and his wife Marilu sailed across the Pacific and up the Great Barrier Reef aboard their Cal 30 Saltaire, learning lessons about food storage and preparation. Bill is the author of The Windvane Self-Steering Handbook.

By Ocean Navigator