Why I’m a lifelong landlubber who’s in awe of those who live – and eat – on boats

At sea, cooking requires creativity, foresight and inventive seasoning.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

For a lifelong landlubber, I know a lot of people who enjoy messing about on boats. I even, rather reluctantly, went on holiday with some last year and spent the whole week stationary with a gin and tonic, terrified of being asked to do anything more complicated than put the kettle on.

As a Londoner, I did at least feel at home in the tiny kitchen (sorry, “galley”), whose Tardis-like stores yielded everything from morning fry-ups to spag bol. The stove, on a gimbal, cleverly rotated to remain level in the swell, and due to limited supplies of power, the drinks fridge was given priority over food in the 35°C sunshine.

Not that a week in the Balearics represents a typical sailing experience. Di Murrell, author of Barges & Bread, spent much of her working life on boats, hauling everything from sand to barrels of lime pulp around the inland waterways of the UK with her young family. She says these years taught her “the value of slow food cooking”. A pot of something left “gently bubbling away” as she was busy steering or dealing with lock gates, “would act as a spur to keep us going through rain and snow and fog”.

Indeed, my friend Susan, who took voluntary redundancy to sail the coast of Britain in her Nicholson 26-foot sailboat, before turning left at Land’s End instead, scoffs at the idea of having any fridge at all, let alone two. She says the last three years have made her a more creative cook: with the nearest shop 20 nautical miles away, she has to think “very carefully” about what she buys. Her larder has changed with the landscape, from Portuguese salt cod (“lasted for literally months in the bow”) to Sardinian bottarga (cured fish roe) and “my favourite thing, ’nduja sausage from Calabria – it kept me going all the way to Greece”.

She’s eating less meat now and has a “complicated relationship” with fish: “too much time swimming with them”. Instead, she never lets herself run out of tomatoes or garlic, and fills a suitcase with Asian noodles and seasonings on trips home. Now in the Ionian Sea, her current staples are homemade yoghurt and feta with frying-pan bread: “I miss butter the most. I’m thinking about trailing a container of cream behind the boat to see if it churns.”

Another friend, Gemma, who’s sailed both the Atlantic and the Pacific (twice), says that stripped-out racing yachts have even less space for stuff such as Chinese chilli oil: “Seasoning was salt, pepper or ketchup.” Food, she says, is the main topic of conversation on board, but also the main source of disappointment as “cooking on a bucking bronco is actually bloody difficult”. During particularly rough weather, she resorted to freeze-dried meals – “basically a glorified Pot Noodle with some ground-up vitamin pills thrown in for good measure”.

They baked bread until the oven door shattered in a storm, but no vegetables lasted more than a week (“all boats leak,” she tells me darkly). The crew relied instead on the tinned kind, with all labels removed in case they harboured bugs, which made galley duty a game of chance. “Fairly often we’d open a tin and bung it in a pan, only to find that tinned pears had been added to the chilli instead of kidney beans or worse, baked beans in a fruit salad.” On the leg from China to San Francisco someone opened a tin and it was full of worms, “dead… I think”.

As I said, I’m more of a gin and tonic sailor. Oh – but we did have some cracking meals then. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con