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Provisioning for offshore

2013 September 4

Planning ahead but remaining flexible is key to providing good meals at sea

On an offshore passage, food is more than just sustenance. It can mark the passage of hours, become a highlight of an otherwise unexciting trip or be a life-sustaining force shared with good crewmates. An offshore passage is not an excuse to eat bad food. With good planning, preparation and the right mindset, provisioning and cooking on an offshore passage can be easily done.

Unless you're already a gourmet chef, it's unlikely you'll become the next Jacques Pepin when at sea, but there's no reason to sacrifice the quality of your diet while at sea. Of course, you need to take conditions into account, so attempting to make osso buco on a rollicking passage might not be the best idea. Try to match the meal to the conditions, just like you would at home.

All passages have rhythms of their own, and the meals should support that. At the start of a passage everyone is getting into the groove, so try to keep the meals simple and possibly shore prepared. As the crew gets comfortable aboard, you can spend a little more time preparing meals and take advantage of fresh provisions. As the trip wanes, dig a little deeper in the icebox and break into the canned goods.

Even if you are dead set against cooking at sea, try to leave the chips at home and eat fruits, veggies, good quality meats, nuts and whole grains. You'll feel better if you avoid those over-processed foods. If even this seems like too much work, and your passage is short, consider a fitness shake, which deliver a balanced carbohydrate and protein profile to keep you alert and happy.

Beverages are a big topic, adult and otherwise. If you enjoy alcohol ashore you don't have to abstain onboard but keep things in control. Alcohol can impair judgment but, almost as importantly, it can cause dehydration which can both cause seasickness and make it worse if you are already sick. A drink or two at captain's hour is fine if the captain approves, but any more can get you in trouble.

More than anything, it is important to stay hydrated on a boat and it's harder to do than you think. Drinking 64 ounces of non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic liquid is good target, and even more if the weather is hot.

Assuming that you have good refrigeration, do your system a favor by chilling the fridge before you fill it with food and then make sure the food goes in as cold as possible. If you put warm food into a warm fridge it can take a day or to catch up. It is also wise to load a fridge with the things that need to be the coldest near the heat-exchanging plates and the rest farther away to avoid frozen lettuce or warm meat. To keep the refrigerator as cold as possible, limit the number of times it is opened each day. Keeping drinks in a separate cooler cuts down on opening up the fridge and makes more precious space for food, something you'll appreciate on a long passage.

Onboard storage is typically at a premium so food gets stuffed into strange locations, and it is important that a few people onboard know where everything is. Have a special area reserved for on-the-go snacks for the crew to grab at will. This makes sure no one gets hungry and also ensures that someone doesn't eat a crucial dinner ingredient during the midnight watch.

As important as it is to make sure there is enough food on board, it is equally important to avoid over provisioning to avoid storage issues and waste. When figuring out how much food to plan for, keep in mind the crews' appetites and remember that people are often more hungry at sea than they are on land.

It's a good idea to stash a few emergency food items for when a passage doesn't go as planned. Tuna in cans or pouches is easy to stash and offers a good dose of protein in a pinch, and can be extended into tuna salad, thrown into spaghetti sauce or just served on a cracker. No boat should head out on a passage without dried pasta and a few cans of spaghetti sauce, which will keep indefinitely and taste finer than something served at your favorite Italian restaurant when you're really hungry.

Plan out your meals in advance and make sure you have the cookware and utensils you will need to cook them onboard. Grilled cheese is very hard to make in a saucepan when the frying pan is onshore. And while it's good to plan ahead, a certain amount of flexibility is required when cooking on a boat. If the boat is pitching and pounding and the crew is mostly just hanging on, a few crackers, cheese and sausage might serve as dinner that night. When the weather abates, make the big breakfast feast that was planned for later in the trip.

Provisioning and meal planning for a typical passage might look something like this.

While everyone is getting into the rhythm of the passage, keep meals as simple as possible. Try to bring prepared food for the first dinner. Grocery store rotisserie chicken is a favorite-it's healthy, tasty and you don't have to cook it. I combine the chicken with fresh veggies and rice or pasta.

Breakfast varies from fruit, yogurt and granola to full scale country breakfasts. Eggs and bacon are pretty simple aboard, and pancake mix is very practical. Oatmeal is good, especially on a tough passage; I like mine made with almond milk. Keep fruit at room temperature in a little net hammock where most fruit will last about a week. Eggs can be tricky to store in the icebox because they are delicate, but the eggs vaults made for camping do a great job. Outside the United States, get eggs that have not been refrigerated so you can save room in the fridge on the boat. Similarly, ultra high-temperature pasteurized milk like Parmalat will keep for months unrefrigerated.

Lunch will typically be lighter, sandwiches, salad, maybe a cured meat and cheese platter. Traditional sandwiches can be difficult to make after the third day because bread is notoriously hard to keep fresh. Some hardcore cruisers will bake bread, but I have not gone quite that far, yet. Tortillas can easily tuck in the fridge for wrap sandwiches and bagged lettuce keeps longer than unpackaged heads.

Captain's hour typically includes a little food. Cheese, crackers and nuts are always popular.

Cooking hardy dinners like stews will win fans among the crew. I often make a quick stew from meat and tomato juice or canned broth and add canned veggies, potatoes, rice or pasta. Pasta with sauce and sausage is always a hit. Frozen veggies, chicken and stir fry sauce make a great Asian treat over rice, and those same ingredients made with canned coconut milk and curry paste is great on Indian night. The common denominator here is frozen meat, veggies and some starch-there are lots of combinations to keep meals interesting. On longer passages, canned meats and veggies replace fresh and frozen, but require the chef to get a little more creative in cooking with them. Canned corned beef in spaghetti sauce is surprisingly good.

Night watch snacks are important. Nuts, trail mix and granola bars are great energy sources. A cookie or two never hurts either.

Drinks can be the lifeblood of a passage, so make sure to stock everyone's favorites. Taking away someone's favorite soft drink can be as bad as depriving the crew of coffee. Speaking of coffee, a stainless steel French press makes great coffee quickly and is unbreakable.

Beer and wine are simple. Some people recommend box wine for ease of storage, but stashing wine bottles in the boat isn't hard. Cocktails are seeing a revival and they are great to enjoy onboard, but can be a handful to mix. You can easily mix up cocktails and stow them in swing top bottles.

A little dessert is welcome at sea, but try to keep this simple. Good quality dark chocolate is great, especially with a little red wine. If you want to work a little harder, refrigerated cookie dough makes fresh cookies pretty easy.

One final note, it is wise to plan and provision for passages, but if you are planning an extended cruise, assuming you are not going into remote areas, you do not need to lay in months of food. People eat everywhere in world and there are always places to provision. You may not find your particular brand of peanut butter, but you will find food, and likely make some new discoveries. Bon appetit!