Just as diesel auxiliaries and gensets need good fuel to do their work, so too, does the crew of a voyaging sailboat need nourishment, especially on ocean crossings. Your crew's preferences determine what you should serve, and the length of the voyage between re-provisioning ports decides how much food has to be squeezed into the boat.
Let's assume you plan to leave the U.S. East Coast for Europe. From Long Island Sound, the distance to the Canaries is about 3,200 miles, and to Cornwall, England, roughly 3,000 miles. From Savannah, Ga., to the Azores, an excellent waypoint on the way to the Med, is also about 3,000 miles. All these routes will most likely involve sailing through variable weather patterns, so the time necessary to cover the distances will vary enormously. Looking at the records of our six trans-Atlantic crossings, I see that the average mileage for our engineless 38-footer varied between 103 and 133 miles per day — big difference. A larger yacht will go faster but may still be delayed by calms, strong headwinds and engine failure. To be safe, double the number of days the trip should take — an established practice for habitual long-distance sailors. Engine problems often affect refrigeration systems, which are also prone to developing their own aches. This means the boat should carry an ample stock of dry foods.
Before you begin creating long shopping lists, get the crew to fill out preference sheets. If possible, bring the people together and discuss the food — adult men will need a bit of guidance here. Running charter yachts taught us that most patres familias say they will eat everything. They believe they do — their wives serve their favorite foods and in restaurants they order what they want. Serve broccoli on pasta and they will be surprised such a thing exists.
If you're the one who will be cooking, here's another tip for that crew meeting: Put to vote those dishes you like to cook.Measure the stove
Next step for the cook/provisioner is to check out the boat. Take a look at the stove and get the dimensions of the oven to make sure that it will fit a whole chicken or a rack of beef. Often the height is the obstacle but, to be safe, measure the depth and width, too. Look at the stovetop — can you use two frying pans at once? See which pots and pans will fit on the stove together. If you need to add new pots, find out where to stow them. The pot lockers on our boat will not allow anything more than 5 inches high. We once gave away a huge pot (for lobster and crabs), then missed it and bought another, which we now keep in the lazarette. Our pressure-cooker days come and go. At one point we even built an insulated hot box to put the pot in after the pressure came up. We used it for cooking everything. For some reason we are now happy without it. Do not buy one for a trans-Atlantic trip unless you are already familiar with this type of cooking. Pressure cooking does save some LPG, but you should carry at least two 20-lb bottles when planning extensive voyaging (to make sure we have enough, we carry three). How long such a bottle lasts depends on your cooking, baking and the size of the crew. The two of us can routinely make 20 lbs last six weeks.
The next step before buying the supplies is to check out the storage spaces for food. Due to the nature of storage on a sailboat, these spaces will probably be spread throughout the vessel. Make notes, measure or record the available volume in your head. If you include the bilge as a storage area, remember to remove all paper labels from cans and bottles. The pop-tops on soda and beer cans will quickly corrode in a damp bilge and then leak.
The galley provisioner also buys paper towels and toilet paper, which take a lot of space. Think of stashing them against the hull in the hanging lockers — on the northern route, they make a perfect defense against heavy condensation that mildews clothes. The old supplies already onboard may still be usable — take them out, store the new stuff first and then put the old provisions on top. Make sure you have enough food-grade plastic containers with tight lids. Decant legumes, flour, rice, other grains, pasta, in fact, everything sold in soft, weak packaging, into these. Square containers take less room than the round ones. A 1-gallon container will accept 8 lbs of rice, but smaller sizes are easier to fit into tight spaces. Also, if bugs come in with the food, the smaller sizes keep the infestation localized. Keep the freezer full
Look at the freezer and refrigerator. Most sailboats have efficient top-loading boxes — the deep ones need some pre-planning when stowing. When faced with side-opening spaces, buy telescoping shower-curtain rods to keep the stuff from falling out when the boat heels over. Make sure to defrost the system before stocking up. When ordering meats, have them cut the meat in convenient portions and wrap them individually. If you buy a large quantity, most butchers will be happy to deep-freeze them for you. Have most meats de-boned — it saves space. Keep some refrigerated space reserved for a few pre-cooked instant meals for times of bad weather. For example, mix spaghetti sauce with pasta before freezing it — you want to have the instant meals available in two steps — freezer to defrost to pot. Refrigerators and freezers work best when full, so as the food supplies dwindle, make filler pillows out of cloth and chunks of foam if possible — these will also immobilize loose stuff in the lockers when they get emptier.
Before buying fresh foods, stock up on the dry stuff. We always keep about 30 days of food aboard — easy since we enjoy dried legumes with grains. For the two of us to be ready to eat across the Atlantic, we need 15 pounds of rice and 15 of dry legumes with the addition of dry pastas, dry fruit, other grains and some canned foods. Of course, we do not use this base stock all the time, but we start with as much fresh food as we can find room for. Others build their dry food stocks with canned meats and vegetables. Before opening cans, inspect them for bulges — cans swell when the contents spoil and possibly become toxic. Unless the space on the boat is very tight, this initial basic stock does not have to be included in your grand scheme of cruise cuisine.
Now, in order to get ready for the big supply shopping, you will have to make menus for the trip. After considering all your information, fellow travelers' preferences, cooking utensils and storage space, write out a weekly menu — breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. If you hope to find ready menus here, forget it! Everybody likes different things and eats differently. Some yachtsmen race across the Atlantic in four days on power bars and caffeine. Others prefer to sail figures of eight in the Sargasso Sea, living on a boat-grown supply of sprouting beans. Measure home meals
For extended trips, we turn totally vegetarian and do not use refrigeration. Breakfast for us is oatmeal and fruit — others may want eggs and boxed cereals. Our lunches are like small dinners — others like sandwiches and so on. It is very important to stick to your eating routines when creating the menus for very long trips. Postpone any changeover to a different eating style until coastal sailing near re-supply points. To get the quantities right, you need to know the basics – e.g., it takes 1/2 cup of oatmeal for each person, 1/2 cup of rice, etc. Check how much of the ingredients you eat at home before leaving. Make a grocery list by looking at each meal plan and writing down the food necessary to prepare that meal. Multiply the ingredients for your weekly menu by four and you will have the basics for 28 days of food. Run over the lists with an eye to storage — will all that meat fit in the freezer or do you have to make adjustments with dry goods? Remember that fresh eggs will keep a long time without refrigeration. So do cheeses. In the North Atlantic, those open jam jars will keep just fine in the lockers.
Try to stay flexible with the menus. Think of what you will cook on rough days. We usually just revert to rice and beans. During the first few days at sea, the cook and crew may prefer lightly flavored meals.
Take advantage of the latest technologies of food preservation. You can buy whole meals ready to cook that have been dehydrated, freeze-dried or (hermo-stabilized. Dehydrated describes food that has been dried — it will require adding water, soaking and then cooking. Freeze-dried foods, on the other hand, have been cooked and then dried. To make them ready to eat, just add hot water. Finally, how about some thermo-stabilized ready to eat meals like the military uses? They make extremely long-lasting emergency meals for those hard times at sea.
You may feel this is a lot of work for something that is defined as pleasure boating. Some people cut this process down to its simple basics. One fall, a yacht arrived in Horta, Azores, from the Caribbean — the paying crew had made it the whole way on French bread and wine. A friend of ours, an experienced long-distance delivery skipper, always counted on the fish he would catch as one-third of the supplies. He is married to his third wife, but …
Nancy and Tom Zydler are freelance writers and photographers who voyage aboard their yawl Mollymawk.