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