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Plan ahead for food flexibility

Apr 27, 2018

Provisioning has become easier but still requires both forethought and in-the-moment adaptability

Flying fish set out for sale on Vanuatu.

Flying fish set out for sale on Vanuatu.

Tom Bailey

For anyone preparing to take the plunge of becoming an ocean voyager, you should seek out as much practical help as you can. You can always learn some great tip, recipe or new technique for storing hard-to-get items, and talking to other experienced cruising boaters yields sage advice and ideas. Through the years, I have learned a lot from fellow cruisers and by experimenting — and am still learning! Who would have known that storing well-dried limes in aluminum foil can make them last for as long as six weeks?

Times have changed and each new decade brings more ease in finding, acquiring and storing the goods you want aboard your cruising boat. Newer cruising boats are getting bigger and have more efficient and larger cold storage capabilities. The advances in solar, wind, batteries and power generation along with better insulation and refrigeration technology have improved freezers and refrigeration. This alone has offered the opportunity to improve food choices while cruising.

Thanks to better shipping and the desires of local populations to have more options, there are more and varied supplies available in many countries. In the main city of most of the island chains we have visited, there is now a major grocery store with a large selection of goods and brands. It may not be your favorite brand of mayonnaise — but it is mayonnaise.

People eat everywhere!
Part of the thrill of cruising is trying the foods and cuisine of the countries you visit. It may not be haute cuisine or what you are used to, but it will sustain you. If you are willing to try new foods and new ways to prepare things, you’ll be better equipped to keep your lockers filled. Local markets are a must-see, filled with colorful fruits, vegetables, roots, fish and unknown goods. The sellers are always willing to help you with how to clean and cook their wares. You’ll end up with some new favorites, or at the very least, a new experience. No matter how small a village we’ve visited, we’ve always been able to buy or trade for the items these folks are regularly growing and consuming.

It is handy to have a good old-fashioned cookbook aboard. Specifically, one that gives you recipes that don’t use lots of prepared foods or specialty items, and won’t call for using various cooking gadgets like processors or blenders, which you may not have aboard. Find one that has things in it like cuts of meat. That was the hardest thing to adjust to — knowing what you are buying when it comes to meat. A good picture of the animal and being able to describe what cut you want can be helpful at a local butcher. We have also found it best in many countries to have our ground beef made rather than buying the ground beef (or mince) at the butcher’s counter. Select a better cut of beef and watch them grind it for you. It costs a tad more, but it’s worth it. The cookbook I have also tells me how to pluck a chicken, which luckily I have never had to do because the person I bought my fresh bird from was willing to do it for me!

Buy when it’s available
Even with more availability and more choices in many countries, many places still depend on the delivery ship, a produce truck or even the generator to be working to have the goods on hand when you want them. More than once, I’ve waited to purchase something because I didn’t want to have to carry it around all day, only to find out when I went back that the product was gone. It’s happened to me with eggs and bread on numerous occasions; you’d think I would learn! Now I buy the items and often can convince the seller to hold them for me until I return. Not every store has every item so if you really want something, don’t hesitate with making your purchase. If you see something you haven’t seen in a while and really like it, buy a good supply.

Things will break, that’s one of the facts aboard. Be prepared in your food choices with things you don’t need to refrigerate. Have enough to get you through your passage should the cooling option you are depending upon give up the will to chill. Also, have enough choices aboard that do not need to be cooked should your stove or cooking gas system fail. Eating uncooked rice, pasta or oatmeal (which are part of your basic staples) is not an option. We have a barbecue grill with an independent cooking gas bottle as our backup, but in big seas this option becomes untenable. We do not have a microwave. If you have redundant systems for chilling or cooking, this is a less critical need.

Be sure to also carry a few simple cooking tools in case your electric gadgets stop working or power issues ensue. Find a way to make coffee besides the espresso machine, keep a hand mixer aboard should the food processor crack, etc. And have a spare can opener. We have very few electric gadgets aboard and have survived.

An open- air market with plenty of vegetables.

Michael Hawkins

Budget buying
We were told that in the Pacific Islands, personal products like soap and shampoo are quite expensive. In Panama, they were much cheaper, so we stocked up. It ended up saving us some considerable dollars over the next few years. Ask around and you’ll quickly learn where things are less expensive and which island chains are costly. For example, many French islands have great deals on wine, cheese and bread, but most other items carry a hefty price tag.

Buy whatever is fresh and plentiful in the markets. See if you can buy direct from the producers of the goods in villages or on farms. Buy fish from the fishermen, bread from the local baker and produce from the farmer. Look for sales — even in smaller island groups, merchandising is alive and well and there are items on sale for the local population. Buy local brands rather than the imported ones when you can (though buy one jar or can first before stocking up and make sure it is to your taste). Look carefully at the “use by” date in all places.

Bargaining is also something most of us aren’t used to in our daily lives, especially for food products. In some countries, this is expected. It doesn’t hurt to ask if you can get a better deal or a few extra passion fruit thrown in the bag. In some places, being a foreigner you may get charged a higher price for the same goods. I always stand back and watch a few transactions between locals to see what the going price is for the items. More than once I’ve been able to say in as friendly a way as possible, “Gee, that person just paid $1 for the watermelon, why is mine $2?” You can also negotiate in some places to get meat vacuum-sealed and frozen, or simply have your goods kept in the store until a later time. Always ask.

Research
Find out what is available and what is hard to find or very expensive. We travel a lot between New Zealand and Fiji or Vanuatu, and there are some items it is best to stock up on in New Zealand before leaving. The same goes for heading out to the Bahamas from the U.S. Some things are available and other items will be harder to get. Cruisers or cruising forums are good places to get this info. We learned about bringing lots of items like nuts, which are hard to find or quite expensive.

You also need to know what is allowed into the country where you are headed. Many have new biosecurity rules and you’ll be disappointed if you get to a country and your freezer of meat is taken or all your coveted honey is confiscated. Don’t try to sneak things in; the risk is far greater than having the item. Check right before you leave, as these rules seem to change daily.

If you are lactose free, gluten free or peanut free, you need to plan ahead and stock up sufficiently to meet your needs. My husband thinks chocolate is a major food group and “must” have it — and in Fiji the chocolate is often kept behind cages with the liquor because it is so costly, so I stock up in New Zealand. In the major city stores, you may not have any problems finding your special dietary goods, but buy them whenever you can just to be on the safe side. These are the things you won’t easily find on smaller islands, in villages or in remote countries.

Each year, it gets easier and easier to provision the boat. More things become available with improved shipping. There are more shops and stores as smaller island groups have access to more goods and the local populations become more diverse.

Barbara Sobocinski and Michael Hawkins are on year nine of cruising full time aboard their 1987 Moody 422 Astarte. Prior to that they both worked in television.

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