Long-term provisioning

When we left Mexico for the south Pacific just about a year ago, we had Totem loaded down with our best guess at the provisions to sustain basic needs for half a year. How did we figure out what we needed? I made a basic spreadsheet in Excel (those who know me well will not be surprised by this), put in our estimated weekly consumption for staples in our diet, multiplied that volume over the time period, then broke it down by package size and determined how much of each item we needed to acquire. Additional columns on the spreadsheet helped track of storage location on the boat, and comments on usage.

Why leave with six months of provisions?

1. Availability.

When was the last time you went three weeks without a single grocery purchase? We had our initial passage to the Marquesas, ballparked at around three weeks, but for many months afterward there were limited options available for stocking up. In Tahiti, supermarkets resemble their American counterparts. Elsewhere, the average shop is smaller than a two-car garage. Goods which are available often came at a high cost. You may not find even basic items that you count on in your “normal” diet. In areas we visited, people often supplied their own needs through subsistence farming; in many other areas where we spent considerable time, markets weren’t always accessible. Also, although I’ve considered myself a big locavore fan, this doesn’t turn out to be very appealing in many parts of the Pacific. The Polynesian diet was very heavy on starches (cassava, breadfruit, yams, etc.), coconuts, and fish or meat. In general, there are few fresh vegetables and no grains outside of white rice. That’s fine upon occasion, but we like consume a diversity of grains and veggies. Fruit was either wildly abundant, or available only for purchase at high cost (in the freshwater-poor atolls). We love to forage as we go- and we’ve had lots of great fresh fish and fresh fruit for our efforts- but you can’t count on it all the time.

collecting mangoes
PJ and Andrew shaking mangoes out of a tree – Nuku Hiva

2. Simplicity.

Although it’s a lot of work upfront, it’s very convenient to have a deep stash of provisions on board. Usually, one of the first things I do in a new place is scope out the market and stores to see what’s available. Having deep stores on board means I can focus on what’s fresh, instead of worrying about staples. Poking around in the farmer’s markets is much more fun than trolling dusty, windowless stores. In Mexico, outside of our summer months in the Sea of Cortez, there was generally easy access to well-priced supplies. It made it easy to carry less on board, but that often translated into carrying heavy loads back to the boat- bags of flour, liters of juice and milk. Doing this too often meant I left Mexico with a shoulder injury that has taken the entire intervening year to heal.  It’s been kind of nice to be able to keep the shopping bags lighter, since all transport is human powered!

Anaho Bay
This awesome ridgetop view was brought to you by… the desire to find the nearest groceries, a 3 hour round-trip hike to a tiny shop on the *opposite* side of the ridge from the anchorage.

3. Economics.

The cost of food in Mexico was a fraction of the cost of food in most of the Pacific islands. Purchasing staples  before we left that we knew we’d consume kept our food costs down, even though we traveled through some very expensive islands. Had we relied on acquiring it weekly or even monthly while we traveled, our expenses would have increased significantly. In the Pacific islands, much of the food is imported, and carries a higher cost for transportation. In super expensive French Polynesia, even the subsidized staple foods (flour, sugar, rice, cooking oils, etc.) were generally twice as expensive as prices we paid in Mexico, and often more. It was a little painful to spend so much money on food last March, but it meant we ended up spending considerably less on food overall in 2010 than we did in 2009.

As a further incentive… imported goods in the islands also tend to sit around on shelves longer, and as a result, are more likely to come with… shall we call them… “little friends” incubating inside. Eww!

Foie gras
You can get foie gras in Tahiti for about $100/kilo. 

Next… hindsight is 20/20. If we didn’t eat it already, we probably won’t start.

12 Responses to Long-term provisioning

  1. Doug and Carla Scott March 5, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Very timely, Behan, and reinforces that all of this provisioning craziness is worth it. Looking forward to seeing all of the beautiful sites that Totem experienced last year!

  2. Diane, Evan and Maia March 5, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    Get on with the next post already;) I’m starting to provision soon… Arjun arrives tommorow, I think, with the wayward pkg:)
    20 days to go! Then it will only be eight months until we get to see you;)

  3. Travis and Maggie March 6, 2011 at 12:17 am #

    Does the next post include how you stored your grains etc. and what exactly you chose to stock? I hope so!

  4. Joanne March 6, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    You are right Behan, none of us who know you are surprised by the fact you used excel. Did you drop-down menus too in order to able to easily sort? 🙂

    And keep the posts coming, I love hearing about your adventures and activities.

  5. Behan March 6, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Diane, I ended up writing so much about provisioning it’s broken out over like 3 or 4 more posts! T&M somehow I didn’t write about either of those things. OK, sounds like the “how” of storage and what worked is another post I should to write! I think the “what” varies so much, though, not sure it would be useful. Joanne, you know I love auto-sort drop downs… 🙂

  6. Toast March 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Two thoughts: 1) Carolyn of theboatgalley.com did a really helpful spreadsheet to get you started. Does all the multiplication… though you might want to watch out on the beer number since apparently they stock 2 cases per week. Wow.

    Which gets me to comment two since that beer would sink our boat. Pre-loading is all very well unless weight matters. 1000 pounds reduces our average speed by a half knot. We’re playing some interesting games sorting the balance between multihull efficiency/safety and the cost effectiveness of buying all our provisions in Mexico. The easy stuff is the items with a high bulk:weight ratio like toilet paper, cereal, and feminine hygiene or high cost:weight or availability:weight like tools, lubricants, and sesame oil.

    When we get to the canned goods and the liquids, however, we start to get twitchy. You’re inspiring me to write the counter/cross post on all the ways DQ is going to have to shift our diet for this passage including but not limited to switching to sun tea and powdered drink mix as well as largely giving up booze for the duration.

  7. The Ceol Mors March 6, 2011 at 11:43 pm #

    This is so timely for us! Mark has been pressing me to start “provisioning practice” ie- planning 2 weeks at a time, storing, keeping track etc. Looking forward to the next installment!

  8. Behan March 7, 2011 at 3:54 am #

    two words for ya Toast: RUM DRINKS! Okay… a few more. First, Hinano (beer) is not *too* stupidly expensive in FP (esp Tahiti, where you can get duty-free), but bring the rum/ tequila/ booze of choice from MX or you’ll probably regret it. OTOH asian food is easier to find in FP than in MX, so think of the weight you’ll save by not stocking up on soy sauce and sesame oil. 🙂 priorities…

  9. Toast March 7, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    *lol* One Mexican word for you Behan, aquadente! Actually, DrC is deep into plans to ferment fruit wine when we get to the first island willing to let us go on a mad harvesting spree. I have no idea what Customs is going to make of it. No sir, we didn’t bring in any liquor. Oui sir, we made vin out of your pamplemoose.

    Good to know re: sesame. Nori too? Can you believe I am unable to find a pepper grinder in La Paz?

  10. Carolyn on TheBoatGalley.com March 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    I saw Toast’s comment about the amount of beer listed and I just had to reply! The amount we stock at any given time depends on how much socializing we’re doing . . . and who our guests are! At times, we carried almost none; other times, yep, two cases a week.

    In my comments about my spreadsheet, I emphatically state that it’s NOT a recommendation about what to take, just a framework for figuring out what YOU want to take!

  11. Phil March 15, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    Hello Behan, really love your blog, and the wealth of helpful information. Any chance of obtaining a copy of your excell provisioning spreadsheet? Had built one years ago for an Atlantic crossing, but lost it when a floppy went “bad”. Sounds like you are having a great time in Sinee, my once upon a time home town.

    Cheers, Phil

  12. Behan March 16, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Glad you enjoy the blog- happy to share our spreadsheet, just send us an email to sail (at) sv-totem (dot) com, or the email link in my profile. There are a number of these available online- my friend Toast likes the Galley Swap spreadsheet- I haven’t seen it yet. There’s also a spreadsheet on the Pacific Puddle Jump Yahoo group website, in the files section. You’ll know exactly what works for you once you compare them all I’m sure!

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