Life at Sea: The Pleasures and Perils of Nautical Cooking

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The sun slowly melts into the horizon in a riot of fluorescent streaks—pink and orange flame the sky, while the rippling water of the Bali Sea takes on a delicate lavender hue. The silhouette of a volcano rises gently from the water. And there we are, on a little sailboat from San Francisco called Saltbreaker, barely able to believe that this scene has become a nightly occurrence. We lean back against the mast and raise our drinks for a toast. "This," I say, "this is what sailing is all about."

Saltbreaker belongs to my boyfriend, Alex, and his brother, Nick. They purchased the 32-foot boat in 2011, with the aim of sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand, which they did via Mexico, Central America, French Polynesia, Tonga.* Last summer, Nick sailed her from New Zealand to Bali, where Alex and I got back on board to take our turn adventuring around Indonesian islands. Our destination: wherever the wind blows us (or something like that).

*You can read more about Saltbreaker's adventures here, and my take on dating a wandering sailor here.

When I tell people about our current travel plans and Saltbreaker's past adventures, I always get one of two reactions:

  1. "Oh wow, that is so magical and romantic and amazing!" or:
  2. "But...how do you eat?"

On the one hand, the first group is right, it can be pretty magical. The sunsets barely seem real, and that's not even getting into the occasional dolphin escorts and the pristine beaches hidden in remote coves. But it can also be exhausting, dirty, smelly, and cramped, depending on sailing conditions and where we happen to be anchored. Like almost any travel that takes you outside of your comfort zone, it's worth it about 95% of the time.

As for answering the second group, the truth is that we eat pretty damn well. Sailing as a form of travel is pretty much like taking your house from place to place, kitchen (or galley, in sailor-speak) included. Your house just happens to be the size of a walk-in closet, and more often than not, it's rocking back and forth or hanging out at a 25-degree angle. And the average temperature is 90 degrees.

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Still, while it's more difficult than your standard home-cooking experience, cooking on a boat is easier than you'd think. You're usually limited to the supplies you have onboard, with little or no ability to purchase more—that issue isn't much different from when you go camping. But you're generally better equipped and stocked than the average backpacker. And you're constantly inspired by the food cultures of the places you visit, as well as the crazy-fresh fish that, on good days, figures into your meal plan.

Stocking a boat for a multiple-month journey requires serious planning for the most culinarily apathetic of sailors. But for us, it's an even more involved process—we want to be excited about our meals as often as possible. We make eating well a priority, even if all we're doing is doctoring a packet of instant noodles or a jarred pasta sauce. And because we can't run to the grocery store to grab a missing ingredient or satisfy a craving, we do our best to anticipate what will enliven each meal.

Interested in plotting your own ocean-bound journey, or curious about how we fuel ours? Then check out how our boat is equipped for cooking, how we plot our provisions before a long trip, and the little luxuries that we can't live without (hint: Nutella is involved).

The Setup

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Like any respectable New York-style shoebox apartment that happens to be a sailboat, Saltbreaker has a small galley. We've got a three-burner stove and a oven that both run on propane and, generally speaking, work quite well.

This whole setup is gimbaled, meaning the stove and oven can rock counter to the boat's movement, helping to prevent hot pans and spoons from going flying as the boat leans and rocks. There's also a safety strap that wraps behind the chef-of-the-moment, just in case balance is a challenge.

We have a sink that has two faucets, one of which connects to two 40-gallon tanks filled with freshwater. Back in the States, this was filled with tap water pumped at a marina. Now, we purchase gallon jugs of filtered water and pour them in by hand. We save as much as possible for drinking water, but will also use it for cooking soups and, more importantly, making coffee. The faucet is operated by a foot pump—an excellent way to stay aware of exactly how much water you're using. The sink's second faucet pumps saltwater directly from the ocean, which we use for washing dishes (save our knives and cast iron skillet).

Though the boat is relatively small, it has incredible built-in storage capabilities. Every bit of counter space visible in our little galley opens up to become storage for food, cooking supplies, spices, bottles of whiskey, and more. Food can be stored beyond the galley, too, in a large space under the starboard settee (bench on the righthand side), or in baskets in a port cubby. I quickly became accustomed to the fact that, on a boat, it makes perfect sense to have your clothes stored next to a basket of onions and garlic.

What about refrigeration? You might not be able to imagine cooking sans fridge, but we mostly do without. Saltbreaker does have a small mini-fridge, but we don't use it continuously. Many boats do have full-scale refrigeration systems; we've found that it takes more power than it's worth. (Saltbreaker's power runs off batteries, which are charged primarily by three solar panels.) We'll turn the fridge on for truly pressing concerns: say, if we catch a fish that we don't eat all at once, or if we want to drink a cold beer. Saltbreaker didn't have a fridge at all for close to two years; it made everyone get all the more creative with fish preparation (pickling, smoking, trading), and meant that cold beer on shore tasted even better.

The Provisions: Stocking Up and Strategizing

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Some evenings, as the sun is getting low, Alex can be seen duck-diving a few feet off our boat, outfitted in a snorkel mask and freediving fins, as he plunges into the turquoise depths with a speargun in hand. I peer anxiously over the side, crossing my fingers that he's successful. He emerges once, twice, three times, pacing his breath and slowing his heartrate so he can inhale and dive 20-40 meters down again. Moments later, he pops up, triumphant—a gleaming silver fish flecked with gold cleanly pierced with the tip of his spear. "Sweetlips!" he calls, heaving the gun and fish on board as I ready a knife and a bucket of water for cleaning. "Dinner!" I say in response, watching as the fish's body shudders and is still.

It may sound primitive, but this dive for dinner is one of the biggest highlights of our eating life these days. Fishing excursions from San Francisco across the Pacific yielded tasty prizes like dorado, skipjack, tuna, sierra, and even a six-foot sailfish. Here in Bali, we've been eating a good amount of those gold-spotted sweetlips, and have our eyes on some tasty-looking schools of mackerel.

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We'll eat a fish straight out of the water pan-fried whole; if it's a firm, meaty fish (like tuna), we might eat it raw as sashimi, on seasoned sushi rice, or as ceviche. We'll turn filets and heads into curry (making use of a solid store-bought green curry paste and boxes of coconut milk) or soup, laced with lemongrass, garlic, and peppercorns.

Fishing doesn't always pan out, though, despite Alex's prowess with a speargun. Sometimes, the surrounding reefs are packed with snorkelers, or the fish are too small. We'll often leave a fishing line behind our boat when we're underway (a practice known as trolling), only to stare at it wistfully for hours on end, resigning ourselves to eating canned tuna instead. Since we can't rely on catching fish every single day, we have to be well-stocked t o ensure that we remain well-fed.

Provisioning for a sailing trip requires that you anticipate what might taste good weeks or even months out, and to realistically consider what you'll be willing to cook when you're too tired to even think about food. On the other hand, it's also worth considering bigger cooking projects (say, making fresh bread or pasta) for when you find yourself with a lot of time to think about your daily meals, and can spend much of your day prepping for them.

Provisions can be divided into two major categories: long-lasting and fresh. The first category includes a whole mess of pantry staples—dried goods like rice, beans, lentils, pasta, and couscous; canned tomatoes, beans, vegetables, and condiments; and fun snack items that hit the spot when we're mid-sail, like chips, nuts, dried fruits, and chocolate (and at least three jars of Nutella). After a long, tiring sail, you'll crave the same sorts of foods you'd want as a tasty reward after a hike. Our quick-and-easy meals often draw heavily from this provisioning category: things like instant noodles and ready-made packs of curry sauce, which can be thrown together in minutes and eaten just as quickly.

Fresh food requires a little more strategy. I remember a strenuous, four-day journey down the coast of Nicaragua with no green vegetables and no trips to shore. When we finally made our way to land, I almost cried with happiness at the sight of a towering salad of freshly-grown leafy greens. These days, whenever we're on shore I'm eyeing the local stores and stands like a hawk—when I spy a pile of vegetables, it's all I can do not to start jumping up and down.

Part of the fun is experimenting with local goods that we don't necessarily recognize. Lately, we've had some great meals of kang kung, a type of earthy, spinach-like greens that are wonderful simply sautéed with garlic and coconut oil.

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Our meal planning is based around what we have that's fresh and what's likely to go bad first. We make a point to stock up on long-lasting vegetables—onions, garlic, potatoes, and cabbage (which we've seen last for five to six weeks!) all fall under that umbrella—but we don't hesitate to get more fleeting goods like dark leafy greens, local fruit, tomatoes, and eggplants. We keep the produce that is most likely to turn in a basket hanging right over the galley as a reminder to use it up in good time.

Produce isn't the only fresh provision near and dear to my heart and stomach. When stored and sold unrefrigerated (as they are in most places outside of the U.S.) eggs last a long, long time—even multiple weeks—without going bad. They're an easy source of protein with rice, on pasta, or in soup, and I've yet to get sick of eggs simply scrambled or fried with some salt and spice.

A well-stocked spice stash is essential for our cooking purposes, too. Saltbreaker left the US with a healthy supply of all of the essentials (cumin, coriander, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and many more), but traveling to delicious and exotic places has allowed us the opportunity to round out our pantry selection with additions like flaky chili powder and vanilla from Mexico, and cardamom, star anise, and tingly peppercorns here in Bali. The other week, I was delighted to find a hidden bottle of Lizano's hot sauce from Nicaragua buried under a mess of cans—the vinegary, spicy sauce was one of my favorite flavor discoveries in Central America, and tastes just as good here in Indonesia.

If there's one truly essential tool in our galley, it's the pressure cooker, where we regularly prepare things like stews and sauces, not to mention dried beans and brown rice. Our stove runs on precious propane, and the pressure cooker allows us to regularly plan on slow-cooked favorites without completely depleting our fuel supply (or causing the cabin temperature to spike to 100 degrees). I've whipped up some seriously good lentil stew in around 15 minutes, and Alex threw together a pasta sauce using a batch of must-use tomatoes and chili peppers in 20 that tasted like they'd spent all day simmering on the stovetop.

The Inevitabilities: Things Will Go Bad (No Matter How Well You Plan)

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When you're living on a boat, you may have food-supply surprises. A normally long-lasting cabbage may rot in two days, while a delicate-seeming eggplant will last for a week and a half. The only thing you can plan is that you need to check on your vegetables every day, and should probably be checking in on your canned and dried goods every couple of weeks, too. Our rule: if it smells okay, it probably is. If it's attracting bugs, get rid of it ASAP.

Because our living space is on the small end, it's usually quite evident when something has gone bad. The smell is inescapable; as are the fruit flies. Fortunately, our removal method is a lot more cathartic than your average refrigerator clean-out at home—we get to toss our bad veggies overboard.

One way to slow the rapid pace of vegetable rotting is to intentionally get underripe vegetables which will be ready to eat in a week or so. We expected the worst when we bought a bag of green tomatoes and two massive green avocados, but we kept them as wrapped up and protected as possible, and were rewarded with two magical days of guacamole.

Dried goods are much less likely to go bad, but it happens. Bugs will infest bags of rice and beans that have been opened and left for too long. Cans may rust, rendering their contents inedible. Keeping things as cool and dry as possible helps us avoid a lot, if not all spoilage.

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A silver lining to this much-accelerated pace of food rotting is that you're forced to think of ways to preserve what you've got. I dried a huge bunch of Balinese peppers by threading them with fishing line and hanging them in the sun, while a hefty head of cauliflower made a fine jar of lemony, peppery pickles.

So... What Do We Cook?

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We may be traveling with our home in tow, but that doesn't make us totally immune from homesickness. My favorite remedy: Recreating our favorite flavors from California. (Tacos, obviously.) Remember our massive, underripe Balinese avocados? The morning we discovered that they'd softened we had new plans for the day: a frenzy of fish taco preparations, which included making fresh flour tortillas, guacamole, and glaring at every and all snorkeler who came within twenty feet of our boat, delaying our ability to spearfish for taco fillings. Finally, we had an opening: Alex promptly speared a sweetlips, we slapped tortillas into shape, and we were gloriously rewarded in the form of two guacamole-laden fish tacos apiece.

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And then there are the foods we often cook at home. Alex and I make a lot of fresh pasta in our San Francisco kitchen, and, thanks to a crank-operated pasta maker onboard, can do the same here. Alex is a skilled bread baker, and while baking in the tropics is definitely different from the cooler climes of San Francisco, the fresh bread might taste even better (particularly topped with a healthy smear of Nutella).

But we're not traveling to live on tacos and pasta alone—we draw inspiration from the foods and flavors we're finding on land. I've been making batch after batch of Balinese-style sambal—coconut oil laced with chilies, shallots, and fresh lemongrass—it's the perfect accompaniment to a whole fried or grilled fish, and a killer cooking base for eggs, fried rice, and quick-sautéed vegetables. Our soups are inspired by cap cay (pronounced chap-chay), a garlic-heavy soup loaded with vegetables and a fried egg. It's hard to get too bored when we're constantly trying foods that are so delicious that we pretty much have to recreate them... though beef rendang might have to wait until we get home (unless we find a reliable butcher onshore, that is).

Still, you can't have it all. I miss cheese like crazy, not to mention good wine, strong beer, and kale salads (yep, I'm one of those). There are days that we're eating fresh fish curry when I'd kill for a good cheeseburger topped with bacon.

But we make do. More than that—because every meal takes a little more thought and effort, it tastes a little better, too. Or maybe that's just the salty air talking.