YOU WOULDN’T KNOW IT by looking at me, but I am a recovering boat show junkie.
Years before we departed on a long family journey, I attended every cruising seminar on topics ranging from The Care and Feeding of the Sailing Crew to The Secrets of Making the Perfect Fish Jerky. I thought I knew everything about the art of provisioning. After all, I’d spent hours listening to experts on the subject.
While my husband Bruce lingered at booths displaying the latest electronic gizmos, I sat on a metal folding chair absorbing culinary details that seemed oddly reminiscent of life in the prairie days. Everything that wasn’t smoked, freeze-dried or vacuum-packed was brined, painted with a layer of grease or wrapped in aluminum foil. Why couldn’t I feed my family like I did at home — a jar of Prego spilled over pasta and a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies?
When we cast off from San Francisco with our five- and seven-year old daughters aboard our 33-foot sailboat, Chewbacca, I was keen to embrace the new experiences that cruising to foreign lands would bring. Going hungry wasn’t in the plan.
All I had to offer for a celebratory meal that marked the completion of our first three-weeks offshore as a family was a solitary can of black olives, a half-used squeeze bottle of mustard and a measly tin of corned beef. My crew looked crestfallen at the scant offerings, and I confessed, “This is it; the cupboards are bare.”
I had failed my first provisioning test as quartermaster.
The rebuff was short lived. Welcome to Mexico. The air was warm, and the water was a translucent turquoise, signaling our new cruising life was about to begin. First, we had to get pesos, then restock our empty lockers.
I prayed our debit card worked so I could put food on the table. I crossed my fingers. Inserting our only ATM card into a strange machine in a foreign country, I turned to Bruce, “You know, we are totally screwed if this doesn’t work.” I reluctantly let the plastic card be sucked from my sweaty fingers and into the machine. I waited … and seconds later heard a whirling sound. OK, this is good. The welcome screen stuttered then blinked alive. RETIRO, CUENTA DE CHEQUES, CUENTA DE AHORROS, EL SALDO. Damn, everything is in Spanish. I held my breath hopefully
selecting the correct buttons. Silence. The machine was thinking. Then more churning sounds and the machine spat out a mountain of colorful pesos. I exhaled. “We’re rich!” Well, $60 rich.
Time to go shopping. I was blindsided by the volume of supplies required to sustain a family of four for months at remote anchorages. How many rolls of T.P. could a family go through? A miscalculation would be catastrophic.
I had also never lugged around more than one shopping cart at a time at the grocery store, so the thought of ferrying a caravan of several carts with two kids in tow sounded like a nightmare. My solution was to break the provisioning trips up into several forays buying the long-lasting items first and saving the perishables for just before departure.
I had a rule; If the item wasn’t on the list, it didn’t go into the cart, but whenever I caught Bruce winking at the girls, I knew he was sneaking in a few extra Cadbury bars. I looked the other way, because these decadent squares of dark chocolate were rewards for surviving those few “OMG!” cruising moments.
Unlike my first provisioning effort, I now knew to stash little luxuries aboard. I squirreled away cans of mixed nuts, Greek olives, applesauce, dried fruit, popcorn and peanut butter. These delights cost a bit more, but they boosted morale when the cupboards thinned out.
For cruisers on a budget, provisioning to eat like a local is key. I became open to purchasing foreign labelled canned goods and counterfeit Oreo cookies, but for the cheapest and freshest produce and baked goods, a trip to a vibrant outdoor mercado was our favorite option.
As a landlubber, I had only mastered the microwave, but as a cruiser I taught myself to bake. What started out as a way of stretching our rations, fast became a beloved ritual. I stocked up on enough yeast, white flour, whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, and cornmeal to bake something special every day.
Sometimes we became so spellbound by a place, we lingered until the bitter end. This was the case at Isla Isabel. Known as the Galápagos of Mexico, this secluded volcanic island had everything a cruiser could dream of … except a store.
Whether restoring the Great Pyramid or reconstructing an ancient Mayan ruin, archeologists often have a pile of unidentified objects, leftovers called a GOK (God Only Knows) pile. I had my own GOK pile too; a stash of canned goods whose labels had been lost along the way, leaving the contents a total mystery.
“I think it’s time to go,” Bruce declared when our breakfast consisted of a three-can GOK meal pulled from my dwindling stash. I hefted the last prize that I guessed had the size and weight of a can of fruit cocktail. As the can opener pierced the tin, and I pulled up the lid, I grinned, “Peaches. Hey, I was pretty close … could have been refried beans.”
But life for the quartermaster isn’t without additional challenges.
Weevils! Who would have thought such a tiny critter could cause a panic? When I found them in my rice, I checked the pasta and flour inventory. Sure enough, those were infested too. While unheard of in the United States, this is a common occurrence in developing countries.
When no stores were nearby to replace our staples, the choices were simple; either go hungry or find a way to roll with it. Like a miner panning for gold, I sifted and picked the wiggly weevils from the flour and pasta by hand. Luckily, I developed a much easier technique for removing the vermin from my rice. Instead of sorting through the bag, I soaked the grains in a pot of water allowing the little guys to swim to the surface and then simply spooned them out.
No matter how careful I was, some inevitably ended up in the cooked meal. After a while I accepted the idea that they were just added protein, although our youngest daughter was led to believe I always seasoned our steamed rice with a little oregano.
As the years rolled by, we discovered other adventurous ways of provisioning beside spearing fish and digging for clams. To the girls’ great amusement, trading food was as acceptable as book swapping between cruising boats.
It worked something like this: Cruising Boat A was planning to store their boat for several months at the marina. “Did anyone need 15 pounds of flour and 10 pounds of sugar?” Or in another scenario, Cruising Boat B bought a case of chili and decided they didn’t like it. “Would anyone want to trade for something?” When I bought a lifetime supply of poppy seeds, I bagged up half and traded it for a jar of jumbo martini olives.
Hmm, now what do I have to trade for a bottle of gin?
The Winships’ book, Set Sail and Live Your Dreams, (Seaworthy Publications, 2019) about their family’s 10-year adventure cruising aboard a 33-foot catamaran Chewbacca is available in both paperback and e-book on Amazon.
Being a cruiser without a car used to be a nightmare. Not anymore. Merging technology and restrictions placed on us during the pandemic has given rise to a powerful online shopping and delivery phenomena. Boaters no longer have to wear out a pair of shoes to stock the lockers or find a meal.
Online shopping and delivery services offer an easy, convenient and safe way to bring everything from groceries to prescription refills right to the marina for provisioning. Large grocery store chains and retail outlets such as Target, CVS, BevMo!, PetSmart and Publix are just a click away on a smartphone or laptop. Note: Due to limited dock access or security gates at marinas, boaters typically decide on a meeting place with delivery drivers.
To master the art of provisioning, check out some of the companies offering contactless online shopping, meal kits, prepared foods and delivery services:
Choose from a list of local stores for groceries delivered in less than an hour.
Set the table on your boat and order meals from your favorite restaurants.
Bring chef-prepared dishes from the restaurant to your boat.
Take three minutes to heat up already cooked meals in your galley.
Receive all the fresh ingredients and easy recipes to prepare a feast.
Cook dishes quickly and easily with fixings from meal kits.