Story and Photography by Lori Ross
Throughout our cruising lives, we often find ourselves celebrating holidays, anniversaries and birthdays aboard our boats. Sometimes we do so because we have no choice—when we are delivering the boat from one place to another over a holiday or when we live aboard—but more often, we choose to celebrate holidays aboard our boats!
As with land-bound holidays, most are delightful celebrations with family or friends and include traditions that provide meaning and continuity in our lives. However, it can be challenging to recapture and replicate land-bound holiday events and activities on a boat. Some of these challenges are physical—limited space, lack of equipment or absence of specific ingredients may curtail traditional “sit-down” dinners with all the fixings for 12 people or the 10-foot high Christmas tree—while others are emotional. Liveaboard cruisers may yearn to be surrounded by family and friends when they are far away. Vacationing cruisers may find themselves in circumstances or environments that differ greatly from their memories of childhood holiday celebrations—hot weather at Christmas or New Year’s in the islands, or bundling up for the Fourth of July in Alaska!
While we may long to recapture childhood memories and traditions, celebrating holidays aboard offers terrific opportunities to create unique and exciting celebrations of your own design. Blending cherished traditions or rituals with new, exotic experiences makes for good times and vivid memories. In other words, if you can adjust your expectations and adopt a new attitude about holidays aboard, it will pay off in spades!
Planning is critical to success in celebrating holidays aboard. One of the most disappointing holidays we ever spent aboard was simply the result of a lack of planning. Several years ago, we brought our boat to Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove for the winter. When we flew into Miami for Thanksgiving, our anniversary and my birthday (all the same day!), our flight was delayed, and by the time we got to the boat, most grocery stores and restaurants were closed. Since we didn’t have a backup plan and hadn’t bothered to shop on our way to the boat, the long-awaited celebration of my birthday and our anniversary turned into a meal of crackers and squeeze cheese, boxed macaroni and cheese, and Girl Scout cookies for dessert. Had we provisioned or brought treats along, we could have had a cozy celebration (that met my expectations) aboard. Happily, this story has a good ending—my wonderful and romantic husband ended the day by taking me up to the flybridge with a bottle of vintage Bordeaux from the year of our marriage, and we toasted our anniversary and my birthday under a canopy of stars and a gorgeous full moon in balmy Miami weather!
When celebrating holidays and milestones aboard your boat, planning, creativity and spontaneity are the keys to success. Consider local customs and traditions, and participate in celebrations and events. Experiment with seasonal and locally available foods when designing your menu, and plan to bring along “must have” ingredients (cranberries, for example, are not available in the Caribbean). Bring a few cherished decorations and your favorite music to make the celebration complete! What follows are some ideas for celebrations aboard your boat to get your creative juices flowing.
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day in the Chesapeake Bay is all about boats! In the Bay, the creeks rarely freeze, so boat clubs routinely hold small boat regattas on New Year’s Day. They serve chili, oysters, black-eyed peas (for good luck through the year) and hot drinks to keep the racers warm. For several years, Jim and several friends even sailed El Toros in an annual regatta at the Narrasketuck Yacht Club in Amityville, Long Island (yes, the home of The Amityville Horror). Sometimes, the club members had to break the ice in the creek to sail the boats….they stopped doing this race when their joints wouldn’t cooperate in the cold.
We like to do something active on New Year’s Day—if the weather cooperates, we like to play with boats or go for a short cruise, or even take a long walk or a bike ride to explore a new place. So, it was easy to adapt to celebrating New Year’s Day aboard our Grand Banks 42 docked in Miami. We invited several friends to join us to play with boats and watch the bowl games while we served substantial hors d’oeuvres and drinks. We picked a Mexican theme, using napkins and paper plates with chilis printed on them and some chili pepper hanging lights we had found in the Keys, and we laid out the table with a Mexican blanket we had aboard—casual, easy and fun! Here’s the menu we chose for the celebration:
Margaritas, Mexican beer and Chilean wine
Salsa, queso, guacamole and tortilla chips
Conch salad, from a local restaurant
Shrimp with Tex-Mex cocktail sauce
Spicy black bean salad
Chicken nachos (recipe follows)
Flan, from a local gourmet shop
1 whole poached chicken breast, skinned, boned and diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp chopped onion
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced (fresh or pickled)
12 oz. cream cheese at room temperature (low fat is good)
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp chili powder
Salt and pepper
1-1/2 cup grated cheddar or jack cheese
Mix first 7 ingredients and heat in microwave on high for 1–2 minutes until warm. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mixture over taco chips (lime flavored are terrific!), sprinkle with grated cheese and broil until bubbly. Alternatively, you may wish to thin out the nacho mixture and use it as a hot dip for taco chips.
Easter is the harbinger of Spring—for us, it means that boating season has begun in the Chesapeake Bay! In 1986, we spent Easter Sunday aboard our “new to us” Beneteau 35 sailboat on the final leg of her delivery from Ft. Lauderdale home to Annapolis. We had stopped in Norfolk on our way up, where I had picked up Easter cards and candy and the makings of a hot breakfast for Jim and myself and the crew. We had a very rough trip up the Chesapeake Bay, sustained 30-knot winds, with gusts exceeding 40 knots, against us for 2 days! We kept watches and worked through the night getting the boat up the Bay.
Easter morning, as I got up for the 4 a.m. watch, I hid candy eggs and marshmallow chicks plus the cards under everyone’s pillows, so they would get a little surprise as they went off watch. As dawn approached with fingers of gold and pink streaking the sky, I went below and made coffee and piping “hot cross buns” that I had found at a Norfolk bakery—a tradition from childhood on Easter Sunday morning. We played a CD of the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Once we arrived at our final destination, we celebrated our arrival with Easter brunch aboard before sending the crew home—good food, good friends and good cheer! Our “Welcome Home” Easter brunch menu included:
Champagne and Mimosas (champagne with orange juice)
Chopped Chicken Liver Spread
Egg Strata with Sausage
Hot Cross Buns
Chicken Liver Paté
1 lb. chicken livers, rinsed and dried
1 medium onion coarsely chopped
3 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped
French or Italian bread, sliced and toasted until crispy
Fresh sage, rosemary or thyme
Salt and pepper
Sauté onion in butter or oil until soft. Place livers on broiling pan, and salt and pepper generously. Broil until livers are no longer pink inside (about 5 minutes in preheated oven). Mash cooked livers, sautéed onion, and salt and pepper. Mix chopped eggs into liver mix. Serve warm or at room temperature with toasted bread.
6 slices of bread, preferably day-old
8 oz. breakfast sausage or bacon, cooked and chopped
5 large eggs
2-1/2 cups milk
2 cups grated Swiss, cheddar or other mild cheese
1 tsp salt and 1/4 t. pepper
Mix eggs, milk, salt and pepper. In a shallow baking dish (2-quart), arrange bread into a single layer. Spoon the sausage or bacon and half of the cheese over bread. Pour egg mixture evenly over bread and top with the rest of cheese. Let the uncooked strata sit covered in refrigerator for an hour, or, ideally, overnight, then bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes until puffy and brown. Cut and serve warm.
Fourth of July
On July 4th weekend, we usually plan a party aboard our boat to enjoy the fireworks along the Bay. One year, we managed to see three displays over the weekend in several towns! I shop at the farmers’ markets in summer and try to build a menu around the most beautiful produce I can find. Last year, I found the most fragrant locally grown peaches and apricots, and some huge blackberries, along with lots of salad vegetables. We were hosting a group of 12 friends for dinner on the boat, culminating in the annual Annapolis fireworks display. We featured a buffet table decorated in red, white and blue tableware (paper and plastic). We brought sparklers, flags and noisemakers for everyone and played patriotic music.
The menu was simple and included:
Wine, beer and mixed drinks
Mini Crab Cakes
Fresh Vegetables with Green Goddess and Aioli Dip
Fresh-Baked French Bread and Butter (thanks to one of the guests)
Iced Gazpacho and Cold Cucumber Soup
Chilled Seafood Salad Marinated in Oil, Herbs and Lemon Juice
Caesar Salad with Sliced Grilled Flank Steak
Port and Eiswein
Miniature Dove Bars, Frozen Snickers and Frozen Grapes
This raw fish is cured with a mixture of salt and sugar.
1–2 lb. very fresh boneless fillet of salmon, red snapper, sea bass, striped bass or tuna
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp aquavit, vodka, brandy or cognac
1 tbsp fresh-ground pepper
1 tbsp chopped fresh herbs of your choice (rosemary, thyme, dill, tarragon)
Cut the fillet into two pieces of approximately equal size and shape. Lay cut fillets skin side down. Mix salt, sugar and pepper, and rub evenly on fish. Strew herbs evenly over the surface of fish fillets and sprinkle aquavit, vodka, brandy or cognac over both fillets. Lay one fillet on top of the other, skin side out and flesh side in. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and place in a pan (to catch the liquid that will accumulate). Place a cutting board with 5-lb. weight (canned goods, a brick, other weights) on top of fish packet and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, turning package over once. Before serving, unwrap fillets, scrape off herbs and spices, rinse under cool water to remove seasonings, and pat dry. With a sharp knife, cut the salmon on a diagonal into thin slices. Grind peppercorns over salmon and sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serve with cocktail rye or pumpernickel bread, horseradish, capers, lemon and aioli on the side.
Hint: If you are worried about safety or if you make too much gravlax, freeze fish for 48 hours with spices and defrost in refrigerator before serving. This does not seem to affect flavor or texture, and freezing makes it easier to slice thin.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. My birthday and our wedding anniversary are on the same day, which usually falls during Thanksgiving week, and Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s all about food…there are no distractions such as opening gifts at Christmas or making resolutions on New Year’s Eve.
I asked our good friends, Bernadette and Douglas Bernon, who have cruised their 39-foot Shearwater sailboat through the western Caribbean for several years, how they celebrated this classic American holiday in foreign ports. The description they provided sounded like a delightful way to celebrate. Their holidays aboard have usually involved getting together with other cruisers and creating a gourmet potluck. One person has to coordinate this so that the menu all comes together and the parts complement each other. Each cruiser makes very special dishes and goes all out, presenting their dishes beautifully. The menu for the Bernon’s first Thanksgiving aboard was fairly traditional, as many ingredients were available. However, when you’re cruising outside the country, cranberries are not available, so Bernadette buried a couple bags in her freezer and made a delightful Cranberry Tart.
Crustless Cranberry Pie (sweet and cakey, but not as pretty as the alternate recipe below)
3 cups cranberries
1-1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup butter
1-1/2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
Grease a 10-inch pie pan. Spread berries on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with half the sugar and nuts. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, then add sugar, flour and butter until mixed well. Pour this mixture evenly over the berries. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
Cranberry Tart (Sweet crust and tart cranberry topping)
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature (or Crisco or the shortening of your choice)
3/4 cup sugar
3 whole large eggs at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1-1/3 cups flour
3 cups cranberries, washed and drained
3/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 tbsp cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees while preparing dough. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition. Add vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix well, but do not overbeat. Spread into 9- or 10-inch pan. Top with whole cranberries. Sprinkle sugar-cinnamon mixture liberally on fruit and dough. Bake for 50 minutes or until knife comes out clean. Allow to cool on rack.
Bernadette and Douglas have also celebrated Christmas aboard, though they prefer being home with family. The Bernons advise that you bring a special selection of favorite decorations and lights aboard to decorate the boat. Bring favorite classical and fun Christmas carols to create a festive atmosphere, and invite friends to join you aboard throughout the day. To cheer themselves up, Bernadette and Douglas carry on a tradition begun during their first Christmas aboard. They were both feeling a little blue, missing their families and all the excitement of opening presents, when a nearby cruising boat delivered freshly made hot cinnamon buns tied with a Christmas ribbon. This generous little gesture really got the day off on the right foot. If you plan ahead, there are lots of fun gifts you can make aboard. Fruit or herb vinegars; flavored oils; candy; cookies, breads and cakes are always welcome.
My favorite gift to make is, believe it or not, a fruitcake that my mother made every single year at holiday time! This is not the dry, dense, flavorless cake that people dread receiving—it is a sweet, light, fruity, boozy-tasting confection that, when aged and sliced very thin, looks beautiful and tastes wonderful! Trust me….
Marie Ross’ Fruitcake Recipe
1 lb. shelled Brazil nuts (about 3 cups)
1 lb. pitted whole dates
1 cup drained maraschino cherries
1/2 cup candied pineapple or dried pineapple chunks
3/4 cup sifted flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
Put whole dates, nuts and cherries in large bowl. Sift dry ingredients over fruit and nuts and mix until well coated. In a separate bowl, beat eggs until foamy and stir into nut mixture. Grease a loaf pan, a ring mold or several smaller pans (to make gift size fruitcakes) and pour in batter. Bake in slow oven (300 degrees) for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Optional: After cake is cooled, wrap it in a linen towel soaked in your favorite rum, brandy, whiskey or liquor and then place in aluminum foil and a zipper-seal bag. Place in refrigerator or another cool place for at least a week. If the alcohol dries out, add more. The cake keeps in the freezer for 6 months or more.
Hot Buttered Rum (for 10)
5 cups water
2-1/2 cups Gosling’s or other dark rum
4 tbsp of brown sugar
4 tbsp of butter
1-1/2 tbsp nutmeg
Mix all ingredients. Heat gently and serve in mugs or cups.
Birthdays and Anniversaries
There is nothing like celebrating my birthday and our anniversary aboard our boat…our sense of excitement is heightened by the promise of wonderful adventures and fond memories of discovering the world (and each other) by boat. We usually try to design the day around our favorite activity and serve a favorite meal to celebrate. Since I’m the primary cook in the family, I often opt for dinner ashore on my birthday, or we “order out” my favorite dish!
Holidays afloat offer an exciting opportunity to be creative. If you don’t get caught up in unrealistic expectation and comparison with shoreside celebrations, you can create a memorable holiday on your boat!
Setting a Holiday Mood
Use your senses and resourcefulness to create a festive and attractive environment for your holiday celebration aboard.
Sight: Coordinate the look of the meal you are serving with your décor and table setting—bright colorful foods stand out on neutral white, cream or dark plates, while pale dishes become festive in brightly colored and patterned bowls and plates. If your décor and lighting are bright and colorful (as for Christmas or the Fourth of July), complement them with a single color pastel or a dark table setting. If the mood you seek is cool and sophisticated, use plants, leaves, fruits and vegetables, pods, and other natural things in your environment as décor (for example, votive candles sitting in seashells or driftwood) and cool striped pastel linens and table setting. If you want a casual and cozy environment, use candles and oil lamps, flowers in yellows, golds and reds, and soft pillows and cushions to make your cabin glow.
Smell: Bring in flowers, herbs, potpourri, candles and other fragrant items like oranges, vanilla, apples and lavender to create the right ambience during holidays. Heat herbs in hot water, or microwave a small bowl filled with sliced apples, vanilla and cinnamon for the holidays. Nothing is as inviting as the fragrance of cookies baking or steaks grilling—use your menu to entice your guests.
Sound: Think about what kind of music you want to play…classic rock, big band or reggae for a casual cookout, or sophisticated jazz for a celebration dinner. Bring appropriate holiday or classic music aboard for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter.
Maybe you simply want the sounds of the boat on the water during an anniversary dinner. You can change the tone and mood of a celebration by the tunes you choose!
Touch: Use a variety of textures to create the right environment. Thick cloth napkins, real china and crystal send the message to guests that this is a serious and special occasion, while pretty paper napkins, bright paper plates and plasticware tell guests this is casual and easy. Soft pillows on the settee invite guests to relax. Iced drinks, cold soup and a salad invite guests to cool off from the daytime heat. Think about touch and the range of feelings and moods it evokes.
Taste: Create contrasts and complement the various tastes your menu offers. Deep, rich flavors can be balanced by lighter, brighter dishes, while light, tart meals might end with a creamy, sweet dessert! Dishes that have a combination of tastes—sweet, tart, salty and crunchy—are always welcome. Build your menu from light to heavier dishes so guests don’t fill up too fast. Mixing traditional and nontraditional foods in holiday menus can be lots of fun if the tastes work together.