During the month of April, we're participating in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge where every day (excluding Sundays) we'll be posting to the blog . . . alphabetically. The overall theme we've chosen to tie all the entries together is living aboard a boat and cruising – things we've learned along the way: our thoughts, reflections, and tips for those just starting out or who are interested in this lifestyle.
There seem to be two types of people when it comes to provisioning: Those who hate it. And those who don’t. I’m the latter. I love provisioning the boat because it’s an opportunity for me 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 out there – from books to blogs. But, over the past fifteen 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.
When we’re on the hook we don’t like to stop whatever we’re doing only to sail off to the closest populated area buy groceries, so I 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 that’s me.
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 but I like the one from The Boat Galley best). Throughout each season, I take notes on which items we run out of and adjust the list. 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 because I use the same locations for the same items year after year.
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 more expensive, 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. When we’re out for the season, 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. The only things we
have to buy when we’re in Canada are fresh vegetables and meats (but only after our
freezer, which holds four months worth, is empty). Oh! And, of
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.
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 we've received over the years and our personal experience to help get you started:
- If you’ll be crossing a border, know what the custom restrictions are.
- Know your prices. They vary from place to place. While
it’s more expensive to provision in
Canadathan 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 or they may be expensive. In 2003, I saw a
can of refried beans on a shelf in
Tongafor NZ$11 (US$6 at the time).
- If the item isn’t marked, don’t assume parity. I spent CA$40 (US$38) one 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 has a longer shelf life than iceberg or romaine lettuce and takes less space in the fridge making it 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).