Dont Freak If Your Fridge Fails

6/1/2009

By Liz Tosoni

With our first boat, Hoki Mai, we lived without refrigeration for nine years. That might sound a bit ascetic, even eccentric, but it actually wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it had a lot of advantages. Now, aboard Feel Free we have a fridge and freezer and do treasure the luxury, but find that often, if the sun isn’t providing enough solar energy to keep up with the power demands, we seamlessly slip back to our old ways, no hesitation.

Aboard Feel Free we have a fridge and freezer (seen here) but we lived “fridge free” for nine years aboard our first boat. Surprising to most people, we didn’t mind it at all.


Breakdowns need to be dealt with urgently if you have a freezer full of frozen goodies waiting to go bad. Preparing to cross the Pacific from Mexico, friends packed their fridge to the gills with frozen steaks, chops, chickens, fish, even ice cream. A few days out and the disaster happened. Their fridge failed and they were forced to throw away – yes, throw away! – all that beautiful stuff!

On the other hand, another cruising friend, when we mentioned something about making an adjustment to our fridge layout, came back with, “Why would you want to bother with a fridge? There’s no need for a fridge on a boat.” He’s completely content with his fridge-free status as he sails round the world.

There’s no denying that nothing can compare with an ice-cold drink on a tropical day. If you have an energy efficient system that’s easy to maintain, life is good. But if you find yourself without, the world will not fall apart. A lot of items last a long, long time without refrigeration, for example:
Cheese – Hard cheese lasts longer than soft. Wedges of parmesan, Romano, and mozzarella can keep for months, especially if kept in vinegar-soaked cheese cloth. We’ve also preserved cheese by immersing it in oil in a jar.
Eggs – In many countries, eggs are not refrigerated in stores and markets. If they are unwashed (sometimes hard to find) they will last even longer, several weeks in fact. Another way to make them keep longer is to slather them with Vaseline (before a long passage) and turn them regularly. We carried 200 eggs from Mexico to the Marquesas and kept (almost) all of them using this method.
Butter –  Anchor butter of New Zealand comes in one-pound cans of pure creamery butter and Malaysia also carries a brand. Of late, we’ve taken to using sunflower-oil spread; it has the same texture, color, and taste of butter, but is cholesterol free and doesn’t melt in the hot climate.
Milk – We use milk in our coffee and cereal, so always carry large supplies, either in the UHT (ultra-heat treated) boxes or whole-milk powder if we can find it, which comes in cans. You can get skim and whole milk varieties of both UHT and powdered.
Condiments – Opened bottles of catsup, barbeque sauce, mustard, relish, taco sauce, salsa, jams, salad dressings, mayonnaise, and so on are good for about a month before they begin to mold, so small containers are best. Honey lasts forever. Leftover meat, fish, pasta, rice, and anything else can be left in the cooking pot and reheated the next day.
“Refrigerate after opening”  Often, this is not necessary, even if it says so on the can or jar, as long as you exercise a little extra caution. If in doubt, throw it out.
Fruits and vegetables require no refrigeration and can be purchased in various stages of ripeness to ensure a steady supply for long periods of time. Just about everywhere you go local fruit and vegetable markets have high quality in-season produce at good prices. Very often, it’s picked that very morning.


Yesterday, we visited our first Tunisian market and it was outstanding – huge heaps of asparagus, peas in pods, strawberries, dates, oranges, apples, herbs, spices, and delicacies to make you drool.

The souk (local market) in Monastir, Tunisia overflows with produce galore.

When we head out on a long passage we always carry plenty of various types of fruits and veggies in ventilated bins that allow a good flow of air circulation. We follow the “rule of hardness.” The harder it is, the longer it will last. Potatoes, onions, and heads of cabbage are kept in bins in the bilge where it’s cooler and they are checked for bruises and turned often. Smelling like a dead animal, there’s nothing worse than a rotten potato lost in some remote corner of the boat, so we make sure they are well secured in their containers.
Especially on passages, dehydrated soups are great mainstays. When it’s too rough to make fancy meals, it’s a must to have fast, easy dishes that you can serve up with little effort. The night before a passage, I always cook up a large pot of something like chili or stew so that the first day out, we don’t have to think about what we’re going to eat. “Grab and eat” foods that require no more preparation than ripping a package open are good for passages too of course, especially during night watches. Fresh and dried fruit, granola, candy bars, jerky, and nuts are some of our favorites.
Being fridge-less means that you eat less (or no) meat, so if you can’t live without meat, you definitely won’t want to be without. It also means that you inevitably change your eating habits and cooking style, looking for ways to make the meals delicious and nutritious.  You end up getting much of your protein through legumes, various types of beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, economical foods which on their own are bland and boring but with the aid of spices and herbs, and a good recipe book, can be delectable, not to mention healthy.

Diverse spices from local markets can make every meal tasty and interesting. Textured vegetable protein is a dried soya-based meat substitute that takes on the flavors of whatever meal you are making. It needs to be soaked in water before cooking. In the Marquesas Islands, we had way more bananas than we could eat, so we dried some of them in the sun to make banana chips for snacks

A great discovery for us since we began cruising is TVP or textured vegetable protein. It is soya based, dried, and serves as a meat substitute, taking on the flavors of whatever meal you are making – curry, spaghetti sauce, whatever. It comes minced or chunky, lasts forever, and is inexpensive. You can provision your boat with large quantities, taking comfort in the knowledge that you won’t run out of a protein source for months on end.

Catching your own fish is almost guaranteed in some places, like the east coast of Australia. This tuna provided some nice sashimi.

If you love fresh fish as much as Tom and I do, catching your own is best and in some places, such as the Sea of Cortez, the Red Sea, or the east coast of Australia, it was almost guaranteed on a daily basis.
When we catch one that is too big to eat all at once, we do the following: First, we have tender fillets, usually pan fried, or if it’s tuna, the first course is sashimi. (By the way, we always carry a good supply of wasabi to mix with soy sauce for our sashimi.) We take about half of what’s left and coat it with a seasoned flour mix that can include cumin, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, or whatever strikes our fancy. We fry it in oil and it’s great for another day or two as a snack, in sandwiches or with rice. The remainder (except tuna as it’s too oily) we cut into thin strips, soak in a marinade of soy, sugar, ginger, and garlic (teriyaki) for a few hours. Then we drain off all the liquid and put it in the sun to dry. Voila! We have a flavored, dry fish to eat like jerky or throw in salads or sandwiches. 

When we catch a fish that is too big to eat all at once, we cut it into thin strips, soak it in a marinade, and then dry it in the sun. The result is a delicious “fish jerky” snack.


Another way to preserve extra fish is to pickle it with any number of pickling recipes available. The fish should last a couple of weeks.
While it’s true that refrigeration does preserve food and extend the life of some items, it may be somewhat overrated. We’re always astounded at the lengths to which people go to for the sake of their refrigerators. One couple we traveled with in the Maldives en route to the Red Sea backtracked 400 miles to windward in order to affect repairs and pick up parts. It meant that they ended up being well behind schedule for their Red Sea passage, and of course it also cost them all that extra effort as well as money. In the (humble) point of view of the crew of Feel Free, the refrigerator’s main contribution is cold drinks, though admittedly that’s an awfully good one.