Precious provisions: planning for scarcity and economy

1 dinner in the cockpit

_DSC5309“I miss salads already!” Mind you, we’ve just finished a delicious salad for lunch thanks to lettuce gifted from the crew of Mahi as they cleaned the fridge out before flying back to the US for a visit. But Niall’s reaction reflects that we’re unlikely to have lettuce again for a while. What we brought from Florida is long gone, and nothing in the small refrigerator case in Bullock Harbor was going to fill the gap. “Milk, lettuce, and bacon… I’m going to miss them.” Salad aside, today was the day I cracked into powdered milk as the last of four gallons we brought from Fort Lauderdale consumed.

We don’t provision as deeply as we used to. People everywhere have to eat, and you can almost always meet your needs wherever you are in the great wide cruising world–it just may not look like the grocery shelves at home. There are a few scenarios where it really makes sense to provision deeply:

  1. Weeks of passage making (or, remote destinations without supplies)
  2. High costs in the cruising destination ahead
  3. Low selection in the shops ahead

I’ve skewed to relying more on what we find locally, using pantry locker space for specialty items or things we don’t dare run out of (coffee!). Adapting your diet is part of the fun, if not occasionally an adventure! But in the Bahamas, we’d have both #2 and #3 on the list: fewer shops (and not as much on the shelves) coupled with higher costs. For the first time since leaving South Africa last year, it was time for major provisioning.

Preparation began weeks before we left, stocking up on household products like tissues, paper towels, and kitchen sponges, plus staples we’ll go through like coffee and tortillas. Grateful for friends with Costco memberships, thank you Patty!

When deep provisioning like this, I turn to old-school tricks for storing food without refrigeration: we have a shoebox-sized freezer, and the usual top-loading boat fridge that only holds so much. I started by canning a dozen pint jars of chicken for my omnivore family (see my canning how-to here). New friend Jim invited me on his weekly venture to a massive swap-meet-style open market early one morning in Fort Lauderdale.

3- FLL market
photo credit, and gratitude, to Jim Beran. Wow, it really was chilly enough for a foulie jacket!

4 canned red bell peppersBargains abounded for produce on my list like limes, potatoes, cabbage, and red bell peppers ($3/each at the store, $0.50 at the swapshop!). The peppers won’t keep but canned easily. Sweet corn relish is another easy-to-jar vegetable that brightens up sandwiches and salads. Jim later gifted us with papaya from his garden; that’s now jars of chutney, and all this goodness in in the pantry instead of the refrigerator, waiting for when we need it.

Three weeks later, the green tomatoes I bought in a Fort Lauderdale open market are still in stages of ripening. Limes, lemons, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots are stashed for long term storage. I had to refresh my knowledge on storage techniques, and read Carolyn Shearlock’s (of The Boat Galley) new book, Storing Food Without Refrigeration just in time. Which fruit has to be far from the potatoes? Which vegetables can be in close proximity? It’s all in this comprehensive reference of techniques to extend your pantry on board. Our fridge is full but the tips within help me make optimal use of our storage.

4 canning inspiration
Canning inspiration at the Jacksonville farmer’s market

Stocking up meant cleaning out and inventorying the contents of lockers. I’m a little embarrassed at the “finds” which emerged, but they’re a sweet little travelogue. A package of Knödel mix—a German potato dumpling, purchased in Namibia—had fallen behind boxes of pasta and carried up the Atlantic. Niall made a PBJ sandwich with preserves from South Africa and a jar of peanut butter that—reading the label—I’m pretty sure we bought in Maldives. Yes, that was about two years ago. Yes, it’s fine! The lockers are now packed up again, with a list of the contents taped to the inside for us to strike off as they’re consumed.

5 indian ocean pbj

Arriving in Bahama’s Berry islands was sweet. I’ve traded email with Carla (SV Mahi) for a few years and looked forward to meeting her and her family in person in Great Harbour Cay. With help from another cruiser (thank you Jay!) we were trundled into vehicles and got the full tour of the island.

_DSC5583 _DSC5381 _DSC5387 _DSC5710 _DSC5669 _DSC5554-2

Part of our introduction included a pass by the grocery stores, which validated everything we prepared for. The first market in Bullock Harbor charged about 4x the cost per roll of TP. Milk? The UHT boxes on the shelf added up to $15 per gallon. OUCH. This, Niall, is why I’ll be mixing up powdered milk we bought in Florida for your beloved Grape-Nuts cereal. Below is about half of the area of the grocery store : a pallet of flour, cases of bottled water, a couple of chest freezers, and the refrigerator section.

2 GHC grocery

…and this is the other side, with dry goods. Some items are subsidized and relatively affordable: butter, cheese, and grits. Hello, cheese grits!

2 GHC grocery again
Photo: Brittany from SV Gromit, @afamilyatsea

There will still be favorites from home you simply can’t buy, another reason to provision: specialties and treats. For the Mahi crew’s little boy, Ethan, that treat is chocolate flavored rice cakes…so we brought him some from Florida. His reaction was priceless!

15 ethans gift

The Mahi crew had recently stopped in the big town of Nassau to provision, where as Carla related, a grocery cart that might have run $150 at home was over $300 at the register. But proximity to the US and frequent flights meant the selection is similar to home, and thus the lettuce. “I miss salads,” said Niall. “And I’ll miss milk, and bacon.” Don’t worry…we have enough bacon for a few months.

Ending with a triptych of photos from Carla: because life is all about the people who fill it!

Carlas triptych

Provisioning posts are tagged: read more here.

22 Responses

  1. “I’ve skewed to relying more on what we find locally, using pantry locker space for specialty items or things we don’t dare run out of (coffee!)”

    This. So true for us too. And a selection of sauces-that-make-everything-we-will-find-tasty like curry paste, pesto, tapenade, etc.

    1. Yes!! Plus that special treat that makes sundowners more fun. We always seem to have more cheese than reasonable (and never waste a gram!).

  2. We like to scour small markets for healthy supplements to our diet. Imagine our surprise last Spring finding fresh tumeric in Winter Harbour (on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island). Wow, why there? Also found the best fresh green olives in Ucluelet we have found anywhere including Central market in Poulsbo.

  3. This was such an illuminating read. We are making our first ever international trip, heading to the Bahamas from the Keys just as soon as we get a decent weather window. As someone who loves to cook and eat, I’ve had the hardest time wrapping my brain around what to do with provisioning. I have no idea if I’m doing it “right” or “wrong” or even if there is such a thing since it’s all so person and budget dependent. Other boaters around here have been super helpful, and have warned about the high costs and limited supplies in the Bahamas, but it’s hard to know what those limitations really look like without seeing the grocery stores first hand, so thanks for the photos/info, that helped a ton! Plus I was able to breath a sigh of relief when I saw they had Ritz crackers on the shelves…whew! 😉

    1. Hi Brooke, hope you get that window soon! DOn’t worry too much about right/wrong. Bring what you like, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have to spend more money or eat things that aren’t your first choice. Sometimes having to ‘make do’ is part of the adventure. I’ll have pics of the markets we visit on our Facebook page so keep an eye out there too!

  4. Yay Bahamas! We loved the Berry Islands, especially Hoffmans Cay (may need to time tide to get in there). Our other favorites are Harbour Island (Eleuthera) and Ragged Islands. Too bad lobster season is over. Also we did find some locally raised multicolor eggs at the local store in Hatchet Bay for $2/dozen. But in general, the Bahamas is a food desert. Enjoy.

  5. Nice to hear about your use of relishes. Any possibility of some recepies that work for you? Do you use your canning jars and canning technique to extend their shelf life? Any tips greatly appreciated.

  6. Those are some of the most amazing pictures. Niall —-> love that!

    So, I believe Andrew flew back to San Diego yesterday, and is now done with the Navy. Thank God! seems like just in the nick of time.

    sunny day here in …New England.


    1. Fresh fish is great (although one of us aboard doesn’t eat any seafood as a personal protest against overfishing, so we fish a lot less than we used to). It’s not that we’re remotely close to going hungry and NEED food, it’s that the instant gratification for just about any fresh fruit or veggie you could fulfill at the Stop & Shop or Trader Joe’s or whatever at home is no longer an option. In islands where the options for growing are limited, it’s especially fresh produce– tender greens in particular–that we miss!

  7. A good read as I provision for our trip up into the British Columbia hinterlands this year. I do think we now have enough food for a year, with just the two of us aboard. But I look forward to reading Carolyn’s book, as, too, will miss salads!

  8. We’ve spent the last month making peace with an absence of maple syrup….we knew it would happen eventually! And we’re off to the San Blas in a few days, so the fridge is about 40% cheese.

  9. We just spent 3 months in just the Bahamas Exuma Islands and loved it. Were were there last year and vowed to return and take our time. We have since pushed on the the Turks and Caicos Islands.

    Provisioning in the Exumas can be a challenge. The isolated islands mean very few people. Very few people means no stores. We loaded up in the USA and only had to buy bread, milk and eggs 🙂

    Mark and Cindy
    sv Cream Puff

  10. For canned meats:

    And why would anyone use milk on your cereal when organic soy milk is no more expensive, tastes better, and will last all the way to the South Pacific? Even though I’m a dirt person now I never went back to drinking liquid growth hormones processed through a cow.

    Fair winds,

    1. To each their own! IMHO soy milk is pretty gross, EXCEPT for a preparation I learned to love for breakfast in Taiwan… hot and salted. Weird, right? Actually, my digestive system doesn’t tolerate anything soy except tempeh. Not an option. I don’t think it’s immune to hormone controversies and definitely not cheaper out here as it’s an “elite” / first world product outside of Asia. Glad it works for you though!

  11. Though we’ve now happily transitioned to Almond milk for all but coffee ( half & half is still irreplaceable there!) I’m curious if you’ve found a brand of powdered milk that actually tastes good?
    And have you experience with canning fish for long term storage?

    1. Carolyn Sherlock has a whole section on how to make the most (and get the best) powdered milk in her ebook mentioned above! I think the biggest flavor factor is to get whole milk powder instead of skim (in the US, it’s pretty much only skim on the shelves). European and New Zealand brands tend to be best, but in the USA, the only whole milk powder that’s easy to find is Nestle’s ‘Nido’, produced for the Latin market. That’s what we’re using now; it’s fine. Chilling helps. I love almond milk! I’d switch to it if it as cost effective.

    2. OH right and canning fish! I’ve canned fish, mostly just to see how it would come out. It was fine. But I’d rather eat it fresh! Pickling is another way to preserve fish if you catch more than you can eat (think, pickled herring… onions… sour cream… mmm!). We made fish jerky in Mexico (teriyaki flavor, great snack!), but you need dry temps for that to work– humidity hurts the process.

  12. Hi Behan and Totem! Now that we are home in CA on a short trip, I am hitting many stores to bring back some provisions to Mahi. Yesterday it was Trader Joe day- found tapinade, pesto, dried tortellini, chocolate, UHT cream, UHT soup, and more! Will dehydrate some more kale to use on board as well.

    Love this topic, when we fly back to the boat, I will be starting with an empty fridge and freezer again. No problem, have lots of practice provisioning out island in the Bahamas now.

    Until we meet again! Sure enjoyed our time together and look forward to the next time, Behan.

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