Practical guide to life at sea for sailors

There’s more to skippering than navigation, and caring for your crew is at the top of the list, when it comes to life at sea. Pete Goss offers his guide

Navigation and boat handling are all well and good, but overlook the practicalities of keeping your crew fed, warm, safe and healthy and you risk putting a big hole in morale and standing yourself into danger.

Whether you are a skipper, mate or crew, the role of purser, responsible for victualling the ship is of vital importance on board. A good purser ensures that there are spare batteries, the toilet rolls never run out, and there is a spare wash bag for the crew member who forgets theirs.

Pencils, eraser and sharpener are in the chart table, there’s a spare set of thermals and hot water bottle handy in case of an emergency and the standard medical pack has extra seasick tablets and Sudocrem. And that’s before we’ve even thought about food.

It comes down to recognising the fact that thoughtful use of resources, space and meticulous planning can nurture crew morale and safety.

Games, books and toys for crew of all ages are essential when victualling any trip. Photo: Pete Goss

Food for thought

When it comes to food on board, everyone will have their own preferences, so I’m not about to give you any recipes. However, you do need to give it some thought.

Crew meetings – or family mealtimes – can be used to test menus. For longer trips, don’t forget special occasions. Candles and family gifts can be stored on board to celebrate birthdays.

During the British Steel Challenge we carried ‘This is your life’ books bursting with funny stories – great morale boosters that drew us together as we learned so much more about each other. There was a much anticipated weekly family newsletter that kept us in touch with home. Every leg introduced new board games and a replacement library.

It’s a full-time role that encompasses health, vitality, crew morale and logistics. A good purser will delegate. I discovered how powerful this can be whilst working with Land Rover where I used to run a day’s team-building exercise. On conclusion, I would break the news that in a few weeks they were off for a long weekend of sailing with an overnight to France.

The purser is also responsible for all the spares on board. Photo: Pete Goss

On the first course I was so busy that I didn’t have time to sort food. I dumped an envelope of cash on the table, explained the basics, and told the crews, ‘You’re doing the victualling!’ They were immediately invested and arrived with a trolley of food that embraced individuals’ likes and dislikes. This often expanded into team T-shirts, playlists and a commitment to ensure a positive experience no matter the weather.

Arriving as a ready- made team had such a profound effect that I made it part of future courses.

Tracey enjoys rustling up amazing meals from what’s available on board Photo: Pete Goss

The purser’s role calls for a logical mind that can give clear directions from the bunk or wheel as to where things are stowed. On the British Steel Challenge Pippa used to top up a day locker with food for the next 24 hours to save hushed menu discussions and ensure uninterrupted sleep for those not on domestic duty that day whose bunks were above the required stores.

When cruising two-handed with my wife Tracey, we play to our strengths, with Tracey doing most of the cooking, which she enjoys, concocting the most amazing meals out of nothing. This frees me up to focus on navigation and covering the lion’s share of night sailing.

For a larger crew I stipulate that cooking and cleaning is shared evenly. This offers an opportunity for crew to show their appreciation of fellow members by rustling up something imaginative. I also work a communal evening meal into the watch system to avoid watches becoming ships in the night, only rubbing shoulders during change-overs.

As a result, this keeps the crew unified, and the meal is a real highlight of every day. The off-going watch must leave an empty sink and hot drinks for the oncoming watch – the chef never washes up.

Create a strict routine

With a crew of six or more I often create three watches to enable a ‘mother watch’. Every third day then becomes dedicated to cooking, cleaning and providing extra manpower to the deck watch where required. This breaks the grinding treadmill of a basic watch system to allow time for personal admin and often a proper night’s sleep.

I hope the above doesn’t feel like a digression but I do feel it rather short- sighted to treat victualling in isolation. There is no doubt that victualling is the purser’s bread and butter and it’s probably easier to break it down into the following categories.

Boat preparation

Ask any survivalist and they will tell you that the last thing to run out of is water. The obvious answer for the long-distance cruiser is a water maker, particularly as it filters out bugs. If your budget precludes this then milk-quality tanks are even more essential – ours are from www.tek-tanks.com. If possible, have a couple of isolated tanks to contain leaks.

A fridge and a freezer or two fridges allows for a day fridge, and more efficient power usage. Photo: Pete Goss

I carry five days of emergency water in bottles, which can easily be thrown into the life raft. They need handles and enough air for them to float. I think it was the Robertson family that threw their jerry cans of water over the side only to watch them sink.

Flush the water system with Milton and let it sit overnight. Make sure you purge all pipes, pumps and taps before topping off. Flush through and top up from a marina with good water.

Water in the US can be very chemically so we carried a Brita Filter jug. Ensure you never run out of gas. It sounds a daft thing to say but having joined a boat only to suffer this, I can tell you it’s just awful.

Netting is the best way to keep fresh produce from going off. Some kinds last longer than others, and still taste good in a salad. Photo: Pete Goss

Choose a boat cooker whose jets can burn different gases and carry a variety of regulators. We had three on Pearl and were grateful that on arriving in the Bahamas we were able to swap regulators with a screwdriver and jubilee clip.

Keep your galley ship-shape

Make sure all galley furniture is properly sealed with silicone so that there are no bug breeding grounds. Dump that favourite knife with the manky wooden handle or dodgy-looking chopping board and use plastic boards differentiated by colour.

Have multiple cloths and tea towels, and wash them with a weekly boil. Get your fridge serviced and think about having a freezer. We have a small day fridge and a cold box with either a fridge or freezer setting. This enables us to change gear from coastal to ocean sailing.

Power useage for both can be reduced if you minimise the number of times you need to open them. Ensure they have proper ventilation so the fans can work efficiently.

A net system is a good idea for fruit – you would be amazed how long fresh produce can last if stored properly. Keep bananas separate as they accelerate ripening of other fruits.

Vegetables such as cabbages, sweet potatoes and harder fruit such as oranges can often last a surprising amount of time when softer produce has long got bruised and gone mouldy.

Gas bottles vary country by country, so take a selection of regulators, and exchange bottles with other cruisers. Photo: Pete Goss

Health and Safety

Have a clearly understood alcohol policy. I don’t mind one sundowner whilst underway but carry weak beer and small wine glasses! Staying alert and avoiding silly mistakes is so important at sea, and alcohol can cloud things.

To avoid making seasickness worse, abstain from alcohol the night before departure.

Whilst scurvy is unlikely these days, on longer trips where you are not resupplying regularly, reliance on tinned and dried food isn’t always the most nutritious. I like to issue daily vitamin tablets to keep everyone healthy, and note it in the log as they often get missed in the fog of a watch system.

Plan for seasickness

Ensure rations for the first couple of days are bland and easy to prepare, with at least the first lunch and dinner prepared in advance, such as sandwiches and a stew. Issue sea-sickness tablets and where possible anchor up the night before departure to acclimatise the crew to subtle motion, boat smells and their bunk.

A common trigger to illness is the smell of diesel, coffee and smoking, so clean that bilge to a shine, stick to tea initially and limit smoking to the transom, if at all.

Everyone shares domestic duties, as Pete washes up
on Spirit of Mystery. Photo: Pete Goss

If the weather allows, permit ill crew to sleep in the cockpit with crackers and flat fizzy drinks to hand. Don’t be tempted to start the trip with a big fried breakfast!

Should you be using dehydrated food, as is common on race boats, and can be useful on cruising boats where space is at a premium, it’s essential to properly rehydrate powdered food or it will continue to absorb fluid once ingested, which can have unpleasant consequences. I will often hydrate a meal for a few hours before heating which also saves gas.

Many ocean racers suffer long-term digestive issues. One was hospitalised due to a huge undigestible food ball that had built up in his stomach.

Minimise nasty accidents

An integral piezo cooker lighter is a fantastic addition to your cooking equipment as it ignites the gas at the push of a button.

If you don’t have one I prefer to use quartz lighters as they don’t have an open flame. I’m not a fan of matches for they suffer in the damp and are about the
most efficient bilge pump saboteurs you could hope to find!

In bumpy conditions insist the cook wears fouly bottoms with the leg outside boot tops. On one of the round-the-world races a crew member suffered horrendous injuries by accidentally topping up his sea boots with boiling water.

It’s important to have a crash bar across the front of the cooker to prevent falling onto it. A bum strap will hold you in place if your boat doesn’t have good bracing position, so that you can still use both hands while cooking in lumpy seas.

Make sure there is a powder or carbon dioxide fire extinguisher nearby and a fire blanket close to hand, although it must not be located directly above the oven, otherwise any fire would make it impossible to reach.

Cleanliness

Stock up on anti-bacterial cleaner and stipulate a weekly deep clean throughout the galley. There is nothing worse than catching a stomach bug on a boat and if it takes hold you can be certain the entire crew will go down with it.

A communal washing day helps everyone stay on top of their laundry for a fresher-smelling boat. Photo: Pete Goss

Hand washing is essential in the heads and in the galley, and part of your safety briefing should include a reminder about hand hygiene, before and after using the heads, and before and after cooking or eating.

Antibacterial wet wipes are great for a basic body wash when a shower on deck, or below if you have a water maker, are not possible. For longer passages, you’ll want to be able to wash clothes.

A builder’s tub, sea water and leg power make a good low-tech washing machine. Photo: Pete Goss

While the more luxurious vessel might have a washing machine onboard, as a more down-to-earth solution we carry a big builder’s tub for washing clothes in salt water – the helm can stump away in the tub.

A communal wash ensures that everyone stays on top of their clothing hygiene. Keep bugs and insects off the boat in warmer climes by leaving shoes in the dinghy as they can pick up cockroach eggs.

Cardboard packaging should be removed as it can get infested whilst sat in warehouses. Fresh fruit should be washed in the dinghy, or the builder’s bucket, using diluted vinegar or potassium tablets.

Fit netting screens on all hatches and endeavour to anchor beyond insect range.

Usually, a boat will sit head to wind at anchor, which encourages a healthy cool breeze through the boat. On our cruise in the Caribbean and USA, the boat only became unbearably hot when in a marina.

Stay on top of rubbish

Minimise waste by ditching superfluous packaging to prevent them ending up in the bilges as sludge. Mark tins with a permanent marker in a clear manner. A friend developed an indecipherable code which made for interesting meals!

Use robust bin bags and dedicate a locker to rubbish. We use the gas locker as it’s devoid of materials that breed mould. Take all rubbish ashore for recycling and throwing things overboard is illegal in many areas. A can crusher can save space.

Tools of the trade

My preference is a gas two-burner with grill and oven. Induction stoves are becoming popular but that feels like too many eggs in the electrical basket – if you lose power, you’re not only potentially lost, but you can’t even make a cup of tea while you think about how to fix it.

Good cooker fiddles and pan holders are essential. Ideally, oven doors should have locks on to prevent hot contents sliding out. For long ocean trips I like a foot pump for both fresh and sea water.  There are too many stories of waking up to find that a faulty water pump has emptied the tanks.

Choose crockery carefully

When buying your plates make sure that the rim is below the table fiddles. I once sailed a yacht with fancy plates that converted fiddles into launch ramps.

Have steep-sided bowls with wide bases to promote stability, and same applies to mugs and glasses. We buy a roll of non-slip mesh and cut it to fit the table.

Dog bowls have proven to be perfect for very bad weather but you must find a manufacturer that uses milk-quality plastic by testing them with water overnight.

A solid crash bar in front of the stove, and a bum strap or solid bracing point are essential for cooking at sea. Photo: Pete Goss

Being old school, tea should be consumed from china and wine from a glass. For those that go a step further and like their tea from a pot, a tea-cosy is protective as well as insulating. Well- stowed mugs will last, and the best glasses we have found have a silicone guard by Life Factory.

We stow bottles encased in reusable silicone mesh sleeves. Insulated sealable mugs are great for rough weather when you might have to drop everything for a job. They are also excellent for powdered soups as they extend hydration through maintaining heat, although they can retain flavour and make your tea taste of chicken the next day.

A foot pump for fresh water means an electric tap can’t get left on when running out of water could spell disaster. Photo: Pete Goss

Our preferred pans are by Magma and we would never go to sea without our rectangular ‘boaty’ frying pans.

Round containers are a huge waste of space, so go for square ones that have a secure lid seal. Add bay leaves to dry goods to prevent weevils, and, if possible, pop dry goods into a freezer overnight to kill off bugs.

Tracey makes her own muesli and we discovered the remarkable New Zealand powdered yogurt maker by EasiYo (affiliate link), which brews overnight to provide fresh yoghurt. For bread, we carry a Lékué breadmaker – you can knead, raise and bake your bread all in the same vessel. Refill pouches for shampoo stow well, reduce waste and take up no room in the bin.

Enjoy the food you can buy locally when cruising, washed down with a glass of wine. Photo: Pete Goss

Victualling plan

I like to devise a six-day menu plan so that the same meal isn’t eaten every Sunday. That said I also like to introduce regular treat days. On Spirit of Mystery we had pancakes, ‘fat boy’ breakfasts and regular roast dinner days to look forward to.

We would also carry specific storm bags with extra snacks and easy-to-prepare high energy meals. We would use the weather forecast to prepare ahead and top up with a decent meal before a storm arrived.

Snacks available for the night watches and bad weather are essential. Ginger nut biscuits are a sweet treat and have the bonus of settling seasick stomachs.

Ingredients

Meals mean so much more at sea for they are markers in time; a social highlight that disseminates all sorts of information and settles harmony within the crew. It’s an opportunity to be creative in a repetitive world, making for some of my most memorable meals. I won’t labour this as meals and recipes are down to personal taste and there are endless books on cooking at sea.

Square plastic boxes keep things tidy and make good use of space. Photo: Pete Goss

Start with simple building blocks:

Breakfast:

  • Porridge
  • Muesli
  • Cereal
  • Yoghurt
  • Toast
  • Pancakes
  • Eggs

Lunch:

  • Cuppa Soup
  • Homemade quiche
  • Crackers
  • Cheese
  • Cured meats
  • Left-overs
  • Mini pizza

Evening Meal:

  • Rice
  • Pasta in its many forms
  • Potatoes, both fresh and powdered
  • Selection of tins to your taste
  • Freeze-dried meals are excellent these days and we have found powdered potatoes and eggs to be adequate
  • Long-life milk

Puddings:

  • Tinned fruit
  • Ambrosia custard
  • Baked goods

Extras:

  • Snacks to taste
  • Fresh popcorn
  • Extensive herb collection
  • Sauces and pickles
  • Cured meats
  • Dried fruits/nuts/seeds
  • Tubes of flavoured cheese
  • Olives/anchovies/pickles n Tuna and other embellishments in pouches

Drinks:

  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Hot chocolate
  • Squash
  • Sundowners

Take as much fresh produce as you can and extend perishables by good use of the fridge and freezer. Stone ground flour is great for baking bread, cakes and of course pancakes. Catch fish as you go.


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Source: Yachting Monthly

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