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My husband and I lived aboard our 50’ wooden ketch, Hunky-Dory, from June 1988 to August 1991. During that time, we sailed from Panama where we built the boat, through the Caribbean to the States, back through the Panama Canal to several island groups in the South Pacific, finally ending our sojourn in Guam, where we moved ashore and the next year our boat was wrecked in a typhoon. During our time aboard, I was “first mate, chief cook and bottle washer.” We sailed without the benefit of refrigeration, and with only a two-burner propane stove, so there were a lot of adjustments to be made. People usually ask how we managed. So, here goes:
We used mostly canned goods, dry goods, and other nonperishable foods. We usually had enough on board to last six months or more. Since there was no refrigeration, there could be no leftovers, so we selected foods in smaller containers rather than more economically larger sizes.
I packed the food in 20 “milk crates” by distributing the containers equally so that there was a variety of meat/chicken/fish, soups, vegetables, fruit and snacks in each crate. There was at least one special meal in each crate, such as a small ham, and at least one special treat, maybe a cake mix. The crates were stacked in lockers in our roomy galley. One crate was taken out at a time and the contents placed in spaces under the settee in the salon to keep them handy. When the foods under the settee were almost depleted, another crate was emptied in the space. Containers were filled with flour, sugar, shortening, salt, rice, pasta, and other staples and were stored on the shelves for easy access, with extra staples stowed in a locker under the bed. As crates were emptied, they were nested in the locker or used to store other items.
Vegetables: We used a lot of canned vegetables. Fresh vegetables don’t last very long without refrigeration, but I bought seeds for sprouting (mung and alfalfa), and grew them in jars so that we could have fresh vegetables. I found that onions and cabbages lasted a long time, so in a pinch I served fresh salads made up of cabbage, onions and bean sprouts.
Butter: Butter can be kept for a long time without going rancid if you put it in a sterilized jar, fill the jar to the top with water, add salt, and put on the lid. When you need butter, pour out the water, use a clean knife every time you scoop out the soft butter, fill the jar with water, add salt and screw on the lid.
Mayonnaise: Follow many of the same techniques for butter except for the water and salt. Use a clean knife or spoon every time you scoop out mayonnaise, screw the lid on tightly, and it will last for a long time without refrigeration.
Eggs: I didn’t have much luck with fresh eggs, so we used dry eggs. Many boaters prefer fresh, turning them every day or two and keeping them in a special place where they won’t break.
Milk: I had small half-pint boxes of milk that I used sparingly. One box plus one-half package of instant pudding mix and a wire whisk made enough dessert for the two of us. I also used dry milk for cooking and baking.
Cheese: New Zealand exports small cans of cheddar cheese, and we took full advance of it. We couldn’t keep it very long after the container was open, so I planned meals to use it up quickly.
Canning: Fiji had a wonderful selection of meats (lamb, pork, and beef) imported from New Zealand. I bought pint and quart size mason jars and canned the meats in my pressure cooker. The only one that didn’t work out very well was hot dogs.
Bisquick: At first, I used a lot of Bisquick but couldn’t find it in many foreign ports. However, one of my cookbooks had a recipe for “baking mix.” After I discovered that, I mixed enough to fill a 2 pound plastic container. When that emptied, I mixed up another batch.
We had a two-burner propane stove and a small gimbaled stove to use when it was too rough to cook on the main stove. I had several different size pots and pans, flat-bottomed so they could be “anchored” to the burner and not slip off when the boat rocked. I had a griddle that could fit over the two burners and a large pressure cooker. There were measuring spoons and cups, a cutting board, cooking utensils, a spice rack filled with just about every spice imaginable, cookbooks, and other miscellaneous items. In Micronesia, we found a small camping oven that fit on one of the burners. With it I could bake bread, muffins, etc., in the small pans I bought that could fit inside the oven. It worked pretty well.
No leftovers: Without refrigeration, we could not store perishable leftovers, so meals were planned to be eaten in one sitting. We ate a small breakfast in the morning, usually juice, coffee or tea, bread, instant oatmeal, or eggs. Our main meal was at noon. Because of where we sailed, noon was usually the hottest part of the day, so not a lot of time was spent in meal preparation over a hot stove. In the tropics, it gets dark around 6 p.m., so in the evening, we had our dessert of fruit, pudding, or cake, and snacks of popcorn, etc, as we watched the sunset on deck.
Breads: At first, I baked bread in my pressure cooker, but it took too much time, used too much propane, and the result wasn’t always the greatest. I discovered that English muffins can be “baked” on the griddle, and I went for it. Because of this, we had fresh bread every day or so. I even used the muffins for pizza. I rolled and cut the dough into 6” circles and “baked” them on the griddle. When they were done, I split each one in two circles, spread a jar of pizza sauce on top and added shredded cheese, before reheating it on the griddle.
Drinks: For “cold” drinks, we had water, instant iced tea, and juices. Hot drinks were coffee, tea and hot chocolate mix. When we sailed into port, we craved iced cold drinks, but the first sip of a Pepsi usually took our breaths away.
Foods on our first passage: We left Panama for Jamaica and immediately experienced mal de mer, but I was ready for it. Before we moved aboard, I bought a large roast, sliced it into very thin strips, and made it into a big jar of beef jerky. It was the one thing we could keep down, along with dried apricots. From Jamaica, we sailed to Great Inagua in the Bahamas. It was also rough, so the jerky and apricots were literally lifesavers. After that, we had very little trouble with seasickness and could begin cooking and eating “real” food.
Fish: We didn’t have much luck catching fish in all the years we were aboard. Most of our lures and hooks just seemed to disappear when something too big to imagine bit them off one by one. However, on the passage between the Perles Islands off Panama and Nuku Hiva in the Marqueses, we were trailed by a mahi mahi. We dropped a line and caught a 3’ fish. We could only use it for one meal as it wouldn’t keep for very long. We tried to marinate and dry thin strips of the leftover fish on racks, but it rained soon after and the flesh got moldy and had to be tossed. While anchored in Suwarrow in the Cook Islands, we caught a parrot fish. It was small enough for a meal for the two of us. That was our entire “fish story.” Other cruisers had more luck.
Easy meals: We had some favorite meals that took almost no time at all. Just make some rice, heat a can of cream of shrimp soup (undiluted), pour the mixture over the rice, and TA-DA! Shrimp Newburg! Or, open a can of ham (or Spam), cut it into chunks, heat until hot, then add a jar of sweet-and-sour sauce, and pour over the rice, add a veggie and you’ve got a delicious meal.
One “quickie” meal: One day in the doldrums, it was so hot, and I just didn’t feel like cooking our main meal at noon. I opened a can of stewed tomatoes, drained a can of Great Northern beans, and mixed the two. TA-DA! We had gazpacho. Cool, tasty, filling, and healthy besides.
Before we moved aboard in Panama, we stocked up on food for our voyage to the States. That lasted us for our Panama-to-Jamaica-to-Great Inagua-to-Bermuda-to-US voyage. We were in the US for five months. Before we left, we filled two shopping carts at a local supermarket. That was enough food for the six months we were in Bermuda, the British Virgins, the US Virgins and back to Panama to visit old friends and do some refitting. Before transiting the canal, we shopped the Free Zone in Panama to restock and had enough food and other supplies to last six months, from Panama-to-the Marqueses-to-French Polynesia, until we arrived in American Samoa. Before leaving, Samoa, we restocked again. This was enough for our Samoa-to-Cook Islands-to-Tonga-to-Fiji-to Micronesia-to-Guam voyage.
In all of the places we restocked, as well as Guam, we found familiar products at reasonable prices. In other ports, we checked out the local markets at the different islands we visited. Most of the time, we found the food to be very expensive or in short supply and were glad we had a good stock on board. It was nice, however, to get fresh baguettes in Tahiti and fresh fruit and vegetables in the local markets, as well, as an occasional meal with the locals to taste foods that were new to us. When we finally sailed into Guam in April 1991, we still had plenty of food on board. And, when we moved into an apartment four months later, we bought all the rest of the food with us along with our gimbaled stove. Guam, located on “typhoon alley,” was hit by one storm after another and the power was out just about as often, so the gimbaled stove came in very handy.
When we became landlubbers, we didn’t need to follow the same routine as before. We also found that we didn’t want to eat the same foods we ate aboard. Now it was ice cream, fast food restaurants, microwavable meals, sodas, chocolate bars, and leftovers. Living aboard meant adapting to a new way of life. It was unusual, exciting, sometimes hair-raising, but an experience to remember.
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