Living Aboard a Boat Provisioning

Let the Provisioning Begin!

Monday, April 01, 2013S.V. CAMBRIA

There are two types of people when it comes to provisioning – those who hate it and those who don’t.  I’m the latter.  I absolutely love provisioning the boat because it’s an opportunity to flaunt my anal-retentive side in an environment that normally restricts it.  But more than that, it’s concrete evidence that a passage is about to take place:  Every trip to the grocery store brings us one step closer to dropping our lines and getting back to life on the hook.  

I’ve had my fair share of hits and misses along the way and, believe me when I say, there’s plenty of advice on the subject.  But, over the past twelve years, I’ve come to realize that provisioning is a personal experience and varies from boat to boat and from passage to passage.  What works for me in this time and in this place may not necessarily work for somebody else and vice versa. 

What works for me?  When we’re on the hook, we don’t like to stop what we’re doing to buy groceries, so I like to fill every available space with whatever non-perishables we may need over the course of our cruise – whether it’s for two weeks or six months.  It doesn’t worry me if we don’t use everything I bought; because we live aboard, we will eventually.  Besides, I’d rather have too much than not enough – it’s a much less frustrating situation.

But, even with a more casual approach to provisioning, it’s necessary to keep track of what we have and what we need.  Several years ago I started a list of things we use on the boat – everything from toilet paper to tuna fish – and estimated how much we’d use over the course of our cruise (spreadsheets work really well for this and there are several examples available online).  Throughout each season, I take notes on which items we run out of and adjust the list (we always seem to use MORE of something when we’re tied to a dock).  I used to go to the trouble of adding locations (i.e. starboard side salon settee), but soon realized that I didn’t need the extra information.

What’s on the list?  Everything and anything that doesn’t spoil and then some.  We’re currently based in the Pacific Northwest and spend close to six months of the year in Canadian waters.  Canada can be expensive, especially with such a weak US dollar in your back pocket, so I buy everything I can before we leave.  But it’s not just a matter of saving money.  It’s a matter of saving time . .. and energy.  I do all of the provisioning by foot, and it doesn’t make sense to lug a five pound bag of flour around when I can easily buy it before we leave.  So when it comes down to it, all we have to buy when we’re in Canada is fresh meats and vegetables.  Oh!  And, of course, chocolate. 

But just as important as what’s on the list is what isn’t: things we don’t normally eat.  When we sailed to Tonga years ago, I underestimated our ability to find fresh produce and ended up with more rusted cans of green beans lying around (which we NEVER eat) than I care to remember.

Now what?  Once I have my list of things to buy, what do I do with it?  Some people like to attack it in one fell swoop.  Not me.  Over the years, I’ve found it easier to provision over the course of several days, breaking down my list to one store, filling a cart, lugging the contents home, unloading them, repacking the items that need it, and stowing them.  Even this abbreviated process can take four to six hours and uses up most of my work day. 

There can be some anxiety associated with provisioning but, honestly, it’s not rocket science.  Unless you’re cruising around the world non-stop, you’ll eventually have opportunities to buy more food, albeit at significantly higher prices in some cases. You may not always find what you’re looking for on the shelves, but that’s half the fun of cruising – experiencing different places and cultures.  It’s only provisioning, after all.  And, as long as nobody starves, it’s all good!

Here are a few tips compiled from advice and ourpersonal experience to help get you started:

Provisioning Tips
  • Custom restrictions!  Know what’s allowed and what’s not if you’ll be crossing a border.  
  • Buy big when you can.  It can be very expensive to buy otherwise.  In 2003, I saw a can of refried beans on a shelf in Tonga for NZ$11 (US$6 at the time).
  • Know where you’re going.  Prices vary from place to place.  While it’s more expensive to provision in Canada than the US, it may not be elsewhere.  
  • Try not to provision any differently than you normally eat and stock up on any specialty items that you like . . . you may not be able to find them where you’re going.
  • If the item isn’t marked, don’t assume parity.  I spent CA$40 (US$38 last year on 12 cans of Coke and 2 pounds of hamburger before I knew it – about twice the cost in an average Canadian shop.
  • Buy fruits and vegetables at various stages of ripeness.
  • Spinach leaves have a longer shelf life than iceberg or romaine lettuce (they also take up less space in the frig and are easier to store).
  • In many larger ports, grocery stores will deliver to the marina or harbor.  You can ask around or check your cruising guides for local information. 
  • If you can’t find what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to ask locals for help.  One of our friends was in need of alcohol for his marine stove and couldn’t find any at the local hardware store.  As luck would have it, another customer in the store had two gallons sitting in her garage that she wanted to get rid of.  She drove our friend to her home, gave him the alcohol (free of charge), and drove him back to the marina.  It was a win-win situation for them both.

  • I remove everything from its box and all dry goods go into airtight containers or Ziplock bags.  Insects like to lay their eggs in boxes, which also hold moisture, and bags take up less space and are easier to stow.  They’re also more compact and take up less space in the trash bin!
  • Place similar items in the same area for easier access.
  • Fruits and vegetables last longer if you allow air flow – hammocks are great for this and the Green Bags really work!
  • Bay leaves in powdered goods like sugar and flour can help prevent weevils.
  • Keep heavy items low and aft in the boat, if possible.
  • Bilges are great for storing things that do better in a cooler environment but don’t need refrigeration like cheese and butter.  We have a hydronic heating system aboard which carries piped hot water throughout our bilges when it’s running so, unfortunately, we can’t use them for storing any temperature sensitive items.  
  • If your bilges are deep and allow for a lot of movement, storage bins are a great way to keep your provisions together and dry.
  • Some people remove the labels off their cans.  I don’t.  I’m able to store canned goods in “dry” areas rather than the bilges, so there’s no need.
  • Some people date their cans.  Once again, I don’t.  We live aboard and will be using them within a year (as long as they’re not green beans).

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