Food provisioning: 7 regretful lessons

“Do we have to throw everything?” Ryan asks, as we pull cans upon cans of coconut milk, tomato paste, soup and more from the bowels of our galley storage on board Hideaway.

“Did I not tell you what happened when these guys returned to their boat in Tahiti after leaving it for six months?” I say insistently, holding up my copy of Torre DeRoche’s “Love with a Chance of Drowning,” my latest sailing adventure read.

“I glove up and attack the worst job: wiping up piles of maggoty mush. I hold my breath and scoop up the chunky stew, tossing it in garbage bags. All of our food gets flung into the dumpster; over a thousand dollars’ worth of canned goods, flour, sugar, grains, pastas, dried potatoes, cereals, olives, yeast, long-life dairy— all spoiled.”

Maggoty mush. That’s all I can think of now when I see a can of beans sitting on our galley shelf. “We have to throw it all. Just think maggots.”

I don’t know why Ryan’s complaining. He tried to throw most of our provisions overboard, along with my shoe collection, when we reached the Bahamas with an over-weighted stern, only to find that someone had written regulations against that sort of thing.

But now, looking at the massive pile of uneaten food we’ll be throwing out if we can’t find someone to give it to, I’m mostly annoyed that I fell into the over-provisioning trap. Even after I promised myself back in Fort Lauderdale that I wouldn’t get carried away.

over provisioning bahamas passage

All our leftover canned goods, not including other dried goods.

But the more sailing blogs I browsed and the more I saw how much provisioning other cruisers were doing for the Bahamas, the more nervous I got. And before we knew it, we’d nearly sunk our boat under the weight of everything we bought. Forty-eight bottles of wine? Check. Twenty-six cans of coconut milk? Check. Three thousand four hundred sixty-two tubes of tomato paste? Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. And could someone please tell me what the hell it is I’m supposed to do with tomato paste anyway?

And it wasn’t just fellow cruisers who were going overboard. Even Skipper Bob’s Bahamas Bound guide recommended provisioning as though we’d never see a grocery store after waving goodbye to the Florida coast.  Which in hindsight is just plain daft. So I’ll say it now for those of you who are wondering, “Yes, Virginia, they have food in the Bahamas.”

So now, looking back on our provisioning mistakes, I’m writing this reminder to myself to be a little more sensible in the future.

Lesson #1: Bahamians eat, too.

Contrary to Skipper Bob’s wisdom and the intrepid cruising bloggers before us, Bahamians eat food, just like you and me. And as the average inhabitant of these idyllic isles is not a hunter-gatherer, but a 21st-century citizen, they generally congregate in stores to buy their supplies.

Looking for something to cook while traveling around these islands? Try heading to a local grocery store or market, where you’ll find many a well-fed Bahamian shopping to their heart’s content.

nassau bahamas grocery store

“I’m sorry, but you must be mistaken. There is no fresh, affordable food in the Bahamas.” (Nassau)

nassau bahamas grocery

“Oh, I see. These $6/lb. peppers must be imaginary, then.” (Nassau)

highborne cay marina bahamas store

“What?!  That can’t be FOOD!” Ryan, in disbelief that we found food a day away from Nassau. (Highborne Cay)

george town bahamas grocery store

“Oh yeah, there’s food.” Ryan, looking ever smug at the grocery store in George Town.

Lesson #2: If we didn’t eat it before, we won’t eat it now.

Traveling on a boat has changed many things about our lives, but what it hasn’t done is turn us into someone else.

As such, my visions of transforming myself into a healthy morning oatmeal eater and Ryan into a quinoa and soup lover simply did not happen. It turns out I still like Ramen noodles and eggs for breakfast and Ryan likes anything that doesn’t involve quinoa or soup.

Lesson #3: We can never have too much wine.

48 bottles may sound like a ridiculous amount of wine for two people to get through in just three months, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish with a little focus and determination. Seeing as we ran out half way between Nassau and George Town, we must have been really determined.

Thankfully, though, the Bahamians seemed to know we were coming and duly stocked their stores with exotic imports. Sparkling California Champagne for $10? Yes, please.

And on those days when we felt compelled to reduce our carbon footprint and “go local,” we treated ourselves to a bottle of Fire in De Hole “Erotic Rum” for $8. Hells yeah.

Lesson #4: Food shopping in a foreign country is a cultural experience.

Roadside vegetable stands, hole-in-the-wall eateries, Saturday markets and fishermen’s docks are some of the most vibrant centers of life in any community, and some of the most sensory places to experience a new culture.

By stocking our boat so well with food that we’d never have to step ashore to buy anything more than a pint of milk or a jug of distilled water, I feel we robbed ourselves of the need to go exploring for unusual ingredients or something new to cook with.

For some this may be a plus (I mean, can you even trust food you’ve never heard of?) but for us, it’s crucial that we get off the boat and spend a significant amount of time on shore, lest I start ranting about things I hate about living on a boat. So why not spend some of that time ashore searching for the ingredients to try out a local recipe? If nothing else, it could lead to a story-worthy experience.

fish beans rice stanley cay bahamas

Meals like this are cheap and delicious in the Bahamas, if you get off the tourist track.

Lesson #5: Our favorite foods bring more joy when they’re hard to come by.

Ryan’s face, when he picked up a packet of chocolate Hob-Nobs in a George Town Bahamas grocery store, was that of a kid whose Christmas dreams had just been fulfilled.

We didn’t bring any chocolate on board with us when we left Florida because, well, we thought we’d be transformed into oatmeal and quinoa-eating health nuts by the time we reached the Caribbean. But, apparently we lacked the dedication we had when we drank ALL THE WINE. So finding Ryan’s favorite British treats after months of chocolate deprivation was truly a delicious moment.

Lesson #6: Trying to save money up front costs more in the end.

Before arriving to the Bahamas, we were told that things would be five or six times more expensive than in the US. In hindsight, having traveled my fair share of both cheap and expensive countries, I should have known better than to believe this. As it was, things were only 20-50% more expensive in the Bahamas.

But by buying a truck-load of provisions before we left the US, we actually spent more money than we would have if we’d provisioned as we went along because over half the food we bought never got eaten. I mean, who would choose canned soup and tinned meat over the 50%-more-expensive frozen steaks and fresh vegetables found on any inhabited island?

With the price of food we’re now throwing out, I’m guessing we just increased the cost of what we actually paid by about 50%. Some savings, eh? Not to mention, that money could have gone elsewhere…

bahamas provisioning turf to surf

“What was I thinking?!”

Lesson #7: Who are we supporting?

You hear time and again how important tourists are to a country’s economy. Especially in the Bahamas, where an estimated 60% of its GDP comes from tourism alone.

And if the Bahamas were anything like New York City, you could just imagine tourists getting taxis, paying exorbitant hotel prices, buying hot dogs, seeing Broadway shows and having dinner at TGI Fridays before rushing off to the Apple Store to buy half a dozen iThingamawhatits they don’t actually need. Who cares if they don’t need it; it’s great for the economy, right?

Now think of cruisers in the Bahamas. How much do we spend on hotels? Nothing. We bring our own “house.” How much do we spend on transportation? Nothing. I mean, we may not travel quickly, but our boat will get us anywhere…eventually. What about buying iThingamawhatsits and bad t-shirts? There’s not much to buy, but there are plenty of free shells to bring back as souvenirs. Fuel? Not so much; it’s a sailboat. Water? Nada. I’m holding out for a free water tap. Shows and entertainment? The night sky is free, and the marine life doesn’t charge admission.

Hideaway sails down luperon harbor

Hideaway, stripped free of canned goods and ready to rest in Luperon for the hurricane season.

So what do cruisers in the Bahamas spend their money on? Not much, really, unless they eat out a lot or stay at marinas. Which doesn’t often happen with cruisers who’ve provisioned like they’re going to the moon in an effort to keep costs down.

But as I sit here, staring at the gluttonous pile of food I’m now burdened with getting rid of, it pains me to think that the 50% I saved on groceries in Florida — which isn’t really savings when I’m throwing most of it out — could have been spent on groceries in the Bahamas as we traveled through. We could have sailed with a lighter load and uncluttered back berth and just spent money on what we needed, when we needed it. We could have contributed that 50% to the economy of the very country that welcomed us in to enjoy its picturesque islands. And we could have avoided wasting space and money on supplies we wouldn’t use.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. These are the words that accompany any important lesson, I suppose. So what did we learn from this experience? The next time we provision for island hopping, we will only buy enough to get us to the next inhabited island. And when we get there, we’ll be damned sure to head down to the nearest mom-and-pop store and buy us some over-priced foreign food. Because that’s the sane thing to do.

courtesy flags hideaway turf to surf

Taking down our courtesy American, British and Cocktail-Time Flags for hurricane season.