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Shop Til You Drop

Years ago, when we sailed a small Antigua sloop, we frequented the island of Dominica where bananas ruled the country and the Geest Company was king. Occasionally a ship would encounter a delay and the bananas, stacked sky high on shore, couldn’t wait because refrigeration wasn’t part of their journey. The workers, wanting to avoid rodents and insects, solved the problem by launching the cases into the sea. Those of us anchored in the bay had our pick of boxes, as literally hundreds floated by, providing the most convenient provisioning we’ve ever encountered.

Provisions, however, don’t always come to you.

If you’re making a passage, perhaps hooking up this fall with the Caribbean 1500 (from the U.S.) or Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (from Europe), you’ve probably  purchased a ton of gear, backed it up with a supply of spares and  filled lockers with beach gear, bikinis and books. The last layer to tank down your crisp waterline will be food (fresh and preserved), beer (expensive and cheap) and everything you know you just can’t live without.

Cruisers take provisioning so seriously that they’ve turned it into a science. Many believe they’ll never again find European cheese or American peanut butter, not to mention rice without weevils. They’ve heard that canned beer is currency for lobster and a bottle of scotch makes an indispensable bribe. How much is too much has yet to be determined.

As cruising sailors, we’re not immune to this overzealous shopping frenzy. On a recent stop in San Diego we rowed around swapping discoveries with new best friends who in turn reported news flashes of do-not-miss stores. On the final day we boarded six buses to hit seven stores in an effort to place the last stratum of food on a boat already laden low.

Some may view it as gluttony, but we call it safety insurance because, no doubt, tinned lychees swimming in heavy syrup would come in handy on a westward drift. When we finally hoisted anchor and waddled away we easily had over two hundred cans on board. After a month at sea, we’d opened maybe ten. Apparently during the provisioning runs, it looked appealing, but after years of high seas adventuring, we’ve burned almost every bridge that leads to a can of food.

Finding tinned meat has always been the greatest challenge. Man cannot live on Spam alone … and if he can, he shouldn’t. We’ve tried it all:  beef, poultry and an ocean of protein selections from the sea. Once we bought a large can labeled, “Whole Chicken in Natural Juices.”  My husband opened it on the 18th day of a miserable west to east crossing of the Caribbean Sea.  Our young son and I watched as a scrawny, white, naked bird plopped out along with the liquid it’d been swimming in. I couldn’t stand to look at it, let alone eat it, but Bruce reported, “It’s not too bad.”

Another time, we purchased two cans of a British meat substitute with a delectable description. Ceremoniously it was opened mid ocean but we didn’t get beyond the first bite. It was a bad combination of green dish scrubbers and mildewed cardboard. Oddly enough, no one remembers what happened to the second can.

Then there was the tedious trip from Panama to Washington State when Bruce, who loves a bit of surprise, purchased numerous cans of pulpo, aka octopus. Still intact after the voyage, they doubled as souvenirs when he snuck them into friend’s pantries. Those joke cans were around for years until they began to grow dangerously large.

Along with the losers, we’ve actually tasted some decent canned fare:  British pudding, French crab bisque, Cougar Gold cheese and Central American tamales. I swear, if someone could figure out a way to get Caribbean barbequed ribs in a can, more people would sail off shore.

A reoccurring food issue happened recently on our seventh day south of the US border when almost every fresh item was ready to be eaten yesterday. Most noticeably ripe were the bananas, which we smashed into faux milkshakes, pancake sauce and sandwich glue. It wasn’t a problem, however … we go way back with ripe bananas.

Whether you find yourself frenetically shopping for many days at sea or you’re simply trying to decide whether to buy a provisioning package for a seven-day charter, remember the wonderful surprises ahead. No, you might not find marinara sauce everywhere, but you can buy football-sized avocados, papayas that will serve eight and fish “caught today.” And if you hanker for a can…well, you can find them in the Caribbean, too.

Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.

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