Provisioning A Charter Boat


By Richard Hicks, from Cardiff, CA

Let’s say you’ve talked a half-dozen friends into joining you for a week-long charter in one of those tropical paradises that we’ve all dreamed about sailing in—the Caribbean, the South Pacific, the Sea of Cortez. Now you’re into planning the trip and you realize that at least three times a day, you’re also going to have to feed them. How are you going to do that? For most of us who have chartered sailboats, the meals on board are an important part of the experience. For some people, food may be right up there with cracking nine knots on a beam reach from St. Barts to St. Kitts, snorkeling with sea lions in the islands off La Paz, or skinny dipping off the boat on a full-moon night in the lagoon at Bora Bora (to name a few of my favorite things.)
Just as it takes careful planning to make the sailing experience safe and fun, you need to spend time in advance of your charter, planning your meals, preparing a shopping list, locating local markets , and assigning galley duties for your crew. I’ve been bareboat chartering in tropical waters for the last eighteen years, and with each trip the time spent in buying food and cooking decreased, the work was more evenly distributed among the crew, and the meals were better—tastier and healthier. The key is planning. But before you decide to provision your own boat, you should at least consider one alternative.

Letting The Charter Company Provision Your Boat

And why not? It’s certainly easier than doing it yourself. Most charter companies offer to provision your boat for a fee. Some offer a variety of plans: Full provisioning, where they will stock the boat with all the food you need for every meal on every day. Or “split” provisioning, where they will provide breakfasts and lunches, but only two or three dinners, so you can sample the local cuisine at restaurants along the way.

In my early days of chartering, you had to take whatever food the charter company provided. But as people have become more health conscious and demanding, the charter companies have become more flexible. Some now provide “healthy” alternative or “personalized” provisioning where you are given a list of food items from which to select the food you’d like on board. If the charter company provisions your boat, they will deliver all the food to your boat, and will often have the galley, including the refrigerator and freezer, fully stocked so that all you have to do is check over what they have provided, and sail away.

If this is your first bareboat charter, it may very well be a good idea to have the charter company provision your boat. The first day of your charter is going to be very busy. You’ll have to attend a chart briefing, and a boat briefing, which can take several hours. And, lest we forget, this is your first bareboat charter for a week or more on a boat you’ve never sailed in a location you may never have sailed in. You’re more than a little preoccupied—and, let’s admit it, you’re nervous. About navigation. About anchoring. About your ability to handle the boat. You need to give your crew a safety briefing and explain to the newcomers how to use a marine head without blocking it up, (because you are not going to unblock it, and it will cost $100 if the charter company fixes the problem.) Given all you have to do and think about, do you really want to provision your own boat?

Another factor to consider, whether this is your first charter or not, is the availability of provisions. If you’re sailing out of the U.S. or British Virgin Islands, you can fully provision your boat from markets near the marina that will remind you of the supermarkets you shop at in your home town (except for the prices, of course – island food is never as cheap as mainland food.)

On the other hand, if you’re sailing in a remote location (Belize, Tonga and Tahiti come to mind; but there are other islands in the Caribbean that have limited shopping opportunities), getting all the food you need (much less what you want), may prove challenging. In Tonga there was no “food” market. We purchased vegetables from an open farmers’ market, bread from a bakery, and wandered around town looking for fish (the fish store didn’t have any). Having your charter company provision your boat in these remote locations is a good idea, unless you really like the challenge and, have brought some food with you.

Provisioning Your Boat Yourself

There are basically two reasons to provision your own boat: (1) you can select exactly the food you want, and (2) it’s cheaper. Let’s take a look at costs first. Depending on your charter destination, a charter company will usually charge anywhere from $25 to $45 a day per person to provision your boat. From my experience in provisioning my own boats, I can usually bring down the cost to under $15.00 a day. This, of course, does not count the cost of alcohol. While saving $70.00 or more, per person, for a one-week charter may not seem that great a savings , it can make a big difference for those on a tight budget. Hey, it will buy a couple of dinners on shore, or a case or two of beer (in some places).

Frankly, the cost factor, while important, is not the reason why I have gone exclusively to provisioning my own boats. In fact, the first time my sailing buddy suggested it, I was opposed to the idea—it just seemed like too much work. But after one trip, I was a convert. I found I really valued the ability to plan my menus ahead of time, with input from my crew as to their food preferences. As I said, the key to making it work is planning.

Research Local Restaurants and Markets

Before you can create a provisioning plan you’ll need to know what food markets are available near the marina and if there will be restaurants available along the way. In some remote locations you may not have many opportunities to eat ashore. On a recent week-long charter out of La Paz in Baja California there were no restaurants or markets available for the entire week; we ate what we had on board. In other locations, eating ashore is part of the experience, and in some you can eat at a different restaurant every night. They have great French food in Martinique, St. Martin, and Tahiti, and you’d certainly want to sample the roti or conch fritters in the Caribbean.

If you are the charter captain, you should have prepared a tentative sail plan long in advance of your charter. With the aid of a good cruising guide (or the help of your charter company) you can determine in advance the dining possibilities at each of your projected anchorages. Of course your sail plan may change based on weather, emergencies, a busted boat or the whim of the captain, but your food plan will be flexible enough to deal with these contingencies.

Let’s say you’ve decided to eat three dinners ashore, and the rest of your meals on board. Before you actually prepare your menu, you should investigate what food shopping possibilities exist near your charter base. Are there markets? Are there specialty stores, such as bakeries, fish markets, farmers’ markets, beverage stores, etc? And most importantly, how far are they from the marina?
Where can you find this information? Your cruising guide may contain a list of markets or even advertisements that have phone, fax and internet contact information. Or, you may be able to locate markets by an internet search. Sometimes you won’t find a food market, but you may find a local business. They have to eat, so contact them and find out where they do their shopping. In a small community, they’ll probably be able to put you in contact with the store manager or supply you with the local phone number.

I usually try and call a store manager in advance, tell him my plans, and ask if their market can supply the basic foods I’ll be purchasing: dairy, meat, fruits, vegetables and staples. He may tell you he needs a week lead-time to make sure he has those rib eye steaks you’re going to want. What are the markets hours of operation, and are they even open on the day you intend to do your shopping? (Don’t plan on doing any shopping on Sunday in Tonga!

There are some locations, like the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, where pleasure boating is so much a part of the economy, that the local markets will offer their own provisioning plans, or have designated one person to be in charge of provisioning yachts. You can download their lists of food (which include quantities and prices), make your selection, and email or fax a provisioning list to them. And, they may even offer you a discount— particularly if you’re organizing a flotilla of boats (i.e. more then one boat).

On a recent trip to the BVI I prepared a detailed shopping list (with some explicit instructions and comments on what I wanted in terms of quantities, brands, quality, etc.) and faxed it to a local market, with a request that they let me know if there were items they didn’t think they could supply. I got a prompt response back, and made arrangements for delivery to my boat at no extra charge. The food arrived on time, they took my credit card for payment, and after checking the inventory and storing the food aboard, I was ready to go.

You’re not going to have this experience in many locations. So you will have to actually visit the markets you’ve located and make your own selections, then arrange to have the food brought (sometimes by taxi, sometimes by truck, sometimes in a market basket) to your boat. Since the captain and first mate are usually busy on the morning of your first charter day, I usually delegate the actual shopping to crew members. To simplify their job I prepare a detailed shopping list organized by category (dairy, meat, etc.). I cut the list into manageable sections, so that crew members can divide the list among themselves, thus minimizing the shopping time in the market. This takes some trust on your part, and if you’re unwilling to let go of this responsibility, you’ll undoubtedly spend more time at the dock, when you should be out sailing. It’s an adventure, right? So be a little adventurous.

Preparing a Menu

After you’ve scoped out markets and restaurants, you will need to prepare a menu — breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks—and indicate which meals on each day of your charter (based on your sail plan) you think you’ll be eating ashore. In preparing a menu the food should be good tasting and plentiful, reasonably healthy, available and easy to find, easy to keep fresh in the boat’s refrigeration system, and—most importantly—simple and easy to prepare. If you should be so lucky as to have a gourmet cook on board who wants to slave over fancy meals in a tight cooking environment, with limited utensils, well, let them go for the Beef Wellington or coq a vin. Personally, I’m happy to have a good steak or piece of fish grilled on the barbecue, with potatoes or rice, green salad, and frozen strawberry cheesecake.

It’s important to send the proposed menu to your crew and get their input. In most cases you’ll get back a cryptic response: "Sounds great. Can’t wait to go sailing?" But there may be people who have dietary restrictions, (diabetics or lactose intolerant, for example), and you want to know that so you can accommodate their special needs. I encourage my crew to let me know their preferences. Would they prefer light breakfasts—cereal or yogurt—rather then pancakes, French toast, or egg burritos? The bottom line is that food is one of those very personal and subjective choices, and you’ll need to take that into account in arriving at a menu that will serve your boat and the people on it. And that, of course, is a principal advantage of doing your own provisioning.

Bringing Food From Home

The key to keeping down the cost of your food and having what you want, is to bring some of the non-perishable items from home. We typically fill two large boxes. (I use the heavy-duty Rubbermaid boxes that can be locked, available in many sporting good stores.) Of course, you have to meet the airline size and weight allowances, and may have to distribute the boxes among crew members for your flight. So don’t buy heavy items that you can probably find in a local market, like bottles of pasta sauce or canned vegetables. On the other hand, you may want to bring that bottle of Greek olives, or “real maple syrup,” that you’re not going to find in a fishing village in Belize.

If you do bring food from home it’s important to prepare an inventory of each box you’ll be checking in at the airport. I usually put one list inside the box, to assist the airport inspectors. And I keep one with me so I can show it to customs officers, if requested, or even, more importantly, use to repurchase food if the box is permanently lost by the airlines. (It happens, right?)

Storage Suggestions

Depending on what boat you’ve chartered—catamarans offer more space than monohulls — you won’t have a lot of cupboards in which to store your food. Find a place on board — in a lazarette or under a seat—to store bottled water, drinks and the canned and packaged items you’ll only need to get to occasionally. And keep the items you use frequently—coffee, sugar, spices, condiments—in one of the small cupboards in the galley.

Perishables will present the biggest challenge. You’re going to find that your freezer and refrigerator are probably too small for all the items you might store in them at home. So look for ways to minimize what you have to refrigerate. For example, buy milk that doesn’t have to be refrigerated until it’s opened. Buy canned (not frozen or refrigerated) fruit juices, and only refrigerate what you need each day. If you can buy eggs that haven’t already been refrigerated, they will keep without refrigeration for at least a week—just turn the cartons over each day. Many hard fruits (apples and oranges) and vegetables (potatoes and onions) don’t need to be refrigerated.

Another problem is that once you load your perishable food into the black hole of your freezer or refrigerator, you’ll have difficulty finding anything. To solve this problem, I buy white net bags used for washing lingerie in washing machines, which have zippers. I put all my deli meats in one, all my cheese and butter, or yogurt in another, all my tomatoes, lettuce, etc. in their own bags. It’s a lot easier to pull two or three bags out of the refrigerator until you find the right one, and you’ll keep down the frustration level of your galley workers.

Supervising the Galley

Before each trip I prepare a list of galley assignments for each day: Cook, cooks helper and two people for cleanup. I send it to my crew and tell them they can swap jobs if they are not comfortable, for example, in acting as the dinner cook. Even though the galley jobs may be spread around, either you or someone on your boat needs to supervise and oversee the galley at all times. This means offering help to inexperienced cooks or, in some cases, taking on the preparation of the more difficult meals, and monitoring the refrigerator and freezer to make sure that they are doing the job.

If all of this sounds like too much work, and money is no object, you can always take the easy way out and hire a cook! Yes, for a fee ($150 to $200 a day), your charter company will put a cook on board your boat. You can focus on the important stuff: navigation, anchoring, snorkeling, kayaking, and mixing the perfect rum punch at the end of the day.