You’ve crossed your first ocean. Time to refill your stores locker where you don’t know the language. Lin Pardey shares tips to make this task less daunting. And to be sure onboard meals are delicious.
The Care and Feeding of Sailing Crew (Amazon)
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Taken from her book, The Care and Feeding of Sailing Crew, Lin has recorded this podcast as she sails across the Coral Sea between Fiji and Vanuatu and includes updated information that is useful for any would be or experienced ocean voyager.
One of the most exciting, intriguing, unexpected, and frustrating events of your first cruise to a foreign country will happen after your anchor or mooring lines are fully secured, after you’ve cleared customs, and after you have enjoyed that long-anticipated hot shower. You’ll row ashore looking for those fresh foods for which you have been yearning. You’ll locate the shopping district. And you’ll find that almost all the people in the world shop for food completely differently than we North Americans do. They often use a different language. They usually use metrics, counting weight in kilos, liquids in liters. They use unfamiliar currencies. And few places along favorite cruising routes have giant supermarkets just around the corner. Rarely will you be able to buy everything you need for the coming week in one 90 minute stop. Eighty percent of the people in the world still shop daily in public marketplaces. They buy their food from small shops or stalls that specialize in meat, vegetables, dry goods, or fruit. To most of the world’s people, shopping is not a chore but an important part of daily social life. It is a time for gossip, ribald jokes, and news exchanges.
When you arrive fresh from an ocean passage, anxious to fill the gaps in your depleted store lockers, the vastness and confusion of your first public market can be overwhelming. The shopkeepers may be shy or even frightened because you don’t speak their language. They won’t understand your confusion since the marketplace is part of their way of life. Few foreign merchants will be prepared for the vast amounts of food you as a cruising person wish to buy. No shopkeeper will understand the impatience of the average North American who is used to checkout counters, bag carriers, and computerized cash registers.
If you are on a leisurely cruise and regard shopping as one of the adventures you’ve come for, you might learn to prefer the marketplace way. But if you are on a delivery or making a pit stop for three days to buy provisions, then pushing on because the seasons are pressing, shopping in foreign ports can make provisioning for your sailing life a drag. Either way, there are lots of steps you can take to make provisioning more pleasant.
I’ve learned from repeated and sometimes expensive mistakes not to buy anything on the first day in port except food for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. Even if you only have two days to buy your provisions, it pays to spend a day looking around first. By pricing food in several places, you’ll get an idea of what is available and what prices are standard. I often remember an experience we had when rushing through the Kiel Canal trying to leave the Baltic before a November snowstorm caught us. As soon as we docked in Cuxhaven, we rushed into the first butcher shop we saw, pointed at three lamb chops, and almost gasped when we realized we’d spent $30 for less than a pound of meat. We walked back toward the boat along a different route and saw other, slightly less elegant shops where nice-looking pork chops could have made us a meal for only $12 a pound.
By spending the first afternoon window shopping, you’ll get some idea of how to organize provisioning day, and you’ll probably see some items to add to your list. You’ll know what to carry with you when you are ready to shop and where the banks or money exchanges are.
If you are buying provisions for a long voyage from a foreign port, check out not only the public market and local shops but also the wholesalers and ship chandlers. It will pay to talk to any other cruising sailor who has been in the port longer than you have. If there is a yacht club nearby, try to meet some of the members and their wives. Pleasant conversations around many yacht club lounges have turned into wonderful outings after the local women have realized how little I knew about the shopping facilities of their hometown. In Port Said, Egypt, Marja, the wife of the port health officer, took me along as she did her daily shopping. Without her guidance, I never would have found the only shop in the city that sold cheese; it was tucked away on a side street in the basement of an office building four blocks from the main shopping street. Not only did I learn where to shop, but Marja told me what to bargain for. Her hints on her country and its customs couldn’t have been culled from a book.
Other cruising people can be good guides, but most have one drawback: Because they don’t own cars and have not lived in the area for very long, their knowledge of the shopping places beyond walking distance is definitely limited. If you are buying food to last for the next four or five days, take your new cruising friends’ advice. But when you are buying for a long passage, check every possibility for yourself. Doing so will save you money and get you food of the best quality, greatest longevity, and widest variety.
The public marketplace is almost always the best place to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and eggs. Meat bought in the market is usually fresher than that found in small shops because it is brought in daily. Prices are usually lower because of the direct competition among the stall keepers. But canned food often stays on the shelves longer in public markets, so cans may already be rusty when you buy them. We’ve been in public markets in at least 65 countries—they can range from delightful to depressing. The most primitive ones—in Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Tunisia—had muddy floors, beggars, crowing chickens, and animals being slaughtered on the spot. But this is not the norm. Most governments provide clean, well-ventilated buildings where the local farmers and vendors set up their stalls.
Because of the lack of laws governing packaging and meat vending, it is normal for animals to be sold with their heads on so that the local people can tell what they are getting. Cows that have been freshly slaughtered have bright, shiny eyes, just like freshly caught fish. Rabbit heads are left on so cats can’t be mistaken for rabbits. After the plastic packages of the American-style supermarket, all of this might seem strange and possibly repulsive to the cruising sailor. But it pays to get used to patronizing the public market because that is where you will do most of your outfitting for offshore passages once you go foreign.
Local small shops and minimarkets have one distinct advantage over the public market: Here you are most likely to find people who speak a little English. They also appear to be more organized, and their canned goods are usually fresher. Be sure to ask for anything you don’t see on the shelves—a small shop often has a back room full of treasures. If the shopkeeper doesn’t have what you want, he’ll probably direct you to the shop that has it. If you buy more than $150 worth of goods in most shops in southern Latin America, Africa, or the Far East, you’ll probably be able to ask for a 10 percent discount. Such a quantity is considered a wholesale lot when you are shopping where the average income is less than $150 a week.
Throughout the Pacific and the Far East, you’ll find Indian and Chinese shops in competition with each other. Though the Chinese shops will often appear cleaner and more tasteful to the Western eye, I’ve found that Indian shops tend to have lower prices. On the other hand, the Chinese shops usually carry a larger variety of packaged goods, so it pays to check out both.
Wholesalers can offer you savings of up to 35 percent on some brands of canned and packaged goods. I try to find those who supply the goods for the corner stores, as they will have the largest variety available. Supermarket chains in some large ports (such as Singapore, Auckland, and Yokohama) have wholesale outlets that supply big ships. Their prices tend to be lower than those of general wholesalers. Look for the office numbers of these suppliers in the telephone directory for the port, or ask the local shopkeepers.
Ship chandlers will supply yachtsmen who are going foreign. Often they are the only good source of those imported (American, English) brands you miss so much, even though you want to use local foods. The chandler is also the source of the cruising man’s delight—duty-free liquor—and, for the smoker, duty-free cigarettes. If not, ask the port captain, customs officer, or any ship agent. Before you start any large shopping expedition, ask several chandlers for a printed price list. If you don’t see an item you need, ask the chandler to find a price for you. All chandlers have someone in their office who speaks English; all their lists are available in English. Check the different price lists and use them as a guide to your survey of the local markets and wholesalers.
When it is time to order from the chandler, don’t be shy about placing orders with two or three different ones. One chandler in Yokohama listed only hard liquor, with Black & White whiskey costing $2.25 a fifth. He also had Skippy peanut butter at wholesale American prices. The other chandler had both wine and hard liquor plus a wonderful selection of canned and processed cheeses at rock-bottom prices, but his Black & White whiskey cost $2.85 a fifth, and he had no peanut butter at all.
But all is not roses with chandlers. They are only found in big ports that have extensive international shipping traffic. They can only put duty-free stores on board vessels that are bound overseas, and a customs officer has to come and seal these stores, so you can’t get them put on board until the day you are leaving. The stores most chandlers carry are planned for large ships; usually, only case lots or huge containers are available. Some chandlers will split cases if you ask, but they can’t give you five pounds of instant mashed potatoes out of a 25 pound can. And, finally, the prices chandlers charge for canned goods may not be as low as those you’ll find in the local shops or wholesalers.
Once you’ve looked around but before you’re ready for the first major assault on the marketplace, consider several ways to make the experience more pleasant.
Before you go cruising, start learning about metric weights and measures. Many of today’s cans and packages list their metric equivalents. If you start noticing the difference between metric measurements and pounds now, it will be one less problem to overcome. Since a kilo equals 1,000 grams, you’ll find it easier to figure prices using metrics. Cabbage that costs 30 cents for 100 grams costs $3 for a kilo, $1.20 for 400 grams. Try figuring that for something that costs 30 cents an ounce. Since I was brought up with pounds, I convert by thinking, “400 grams equals nearly a pound, 100 grams a quarter of a pound.” It’s close enough.
Before you go shopping, figure out the conversion rate for the local currency. Make a small chart and choose one of the local coins or bills that has a similar value to a coin from your own country. Then use that coin as your rough standard for figuring prices. In the United Kingdom, 50 pence was equal to 93 U.S. cents, so I equated a 50pence coin to a dollar. Something that cost me £5 would, therefore, be 10 times a dollar.
Once you are familiar with the local currency, glance through your translation dictionary. If you need specific items, make a list in both English and the local language. Print this list clearly and in big letters, so that when all else fails—after you’ve tried pronouncing the words with your finest Spanish accent and still can’t make your request understood—you can pull out the piece of paper and find someone who can read it. In developing countries, don’t be surprised if you need to stop five or six people before you can find someone who reads. Language is a problem, but you’ll find that most of your shopping can be done by the point-and-picture method, plus a bit of dictionary writeout. If you keep your sense of humor and are patient, this language barrier can add a lot of fun to your day.
I remember my very first encounter with a big Mexican public market. It took five or 10 minutes of strolling around before I was brave enough to approach an uncrowded produce stall. I pointed to the oranges, held up two fingers, and said, “Dos, por favor.”
The woman behind the stall laughed and said, “Na-ran-ha.”
I obviously didn’t understand her, so she picked up an orange, pointed at it, and repeated, “Naranja.”
I then realized she was telling me the word for orange. I repeated, “Naranja.”
She applauded, picked up a lettuce, and carefully said, “Lechuga.” By the time my basket was full, several other Mexicans had gathered around to encourage and assist me. I left with a basket of lovely produce, my head swimming with new Spanish words and my fears of shopping in a public market where I didn’t understand the language laid to rest.
You do need special equipment to shop overseas, even if you aren’t provisioning for a voyage. Few shops in foreign countries provide any kind of bags, so it is usually a good idea to buy stretchy woven nylon bags, such as the kind sold in import shops at home or in marketplaces abroad. These bags are easy to carry in your purse or daypack. They expand to carry more than you’ll be able to lift, and they are incredibly strong. On the boat, they’ll store in any corner; six of them won’t even fill half a shoebox. They can be washed with the laundry and dried just by shaking. We use them for dozens of things besides shopping.
Woven baskets may look prettier than nylon mesh bags, but they are bulky to store and unsafe to use because they can harbor insects or their eggs. In Sri Lanka, a friend lent us a rattan shopping bag to carry some eggs, tomatoes, and fruit back to the boat. Back on board Seraffyn, I grabbed for a tomato and a 3-inch wide tarantula ran out of the bag, over my arm, across the bunk, and down between the frames. Hearing my screams, Larry came running. He tore out the cushions and bunk boards, found the hairy monster, and killed it with a wooden mixing spoon. It’s not common to find tarantulas in woven shopping baskets; usually, cockroach eggs or ants make their homes between the rattan pieces. Washing destroys the shape and beauty of a natural basket so any leaky packages, squashed fruit, or dirt will create a smell that is difficult to remove.Some links above (including all Amazon links) are affiliate links, meaning that I earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more.