Sailors & Sustenance
October 20, 2005
Mariners have always been concerned about keeping an adequate supply of food and drink on board. On his epic circumnavigation in 1519 - 22, Ferdinand Magellan miscalculated the size of the Pacific Ocean and in the 98 days it took his fleet to reach the Philippine Islands from the Straits that bear his name, his crew was reduced to eating leather rope guards, sawdust, and the ship's rats. They weren't happy (neither were the rats).
Although we feel we're less likely than Magellan's crew to succumb to scurvy, the fact remains that even today, eating healthily while cruising requires some thought and planning. Of course, eating healthily on land requires some thought, too; witness the current obesity "epidemic" that seems to have captured the media's attention in North America. Whenever we go home to visit we're amazed at how much stuff people are shoveling down their gullets -- and most of it hardly qualifies as food. Not that we're any better at resisting the urge to over consume if given the opportunity to do so; we were off the boat for most of the summer and David just can't figure out why his pants seem to be getting tighter.
When we're cruising there's less of a temptation to stuff our faces with junk food because there's not too much of it readily available. Unfortunately, the good food isn't always that available either. Outside of North America, finding fresh produce has been our biggest food challenge. The open air markets in most large developing countries typically offer good selection and cheap prices. The Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and much of Central America are all great places to food shop. In many small places without a commercial farm industry, however, the odds of discovering a crisp head of lettuce are about as good as locating the Holy Grail. We compensate by stocking up on canned fruit and vegetables where prices are cheap and carrying mega doses of vitamin supplements to make up for any nutritional deficits.
In many developing settings where fresh produce and drinking water ARE readily available, possible contamination by parasites, infectious diseases, and chemical pesticides may pose serious health problems. We lost some of our enthusiasm for the piles of colourful fruit and vegetables we encountered in Guatemalan markets when we read that Guatemalan women have the world's highest concentration of DDT in their breast milk. (It's not uncommon for substances that are banned in the developed world to get dumped in the developing world.) We've learned to do our homework beforehand to determine where we may be at risk and treat any locally obtained food and water accordingly.
One good source of information on the sanitary condition of local water, food, and dairy products is the International Association For Medical Assistance To Travellers (www.iamat.org). IAMAT is a nonprofit organization that aims to advise travellers about health risks and the availability of competent health care. For a voluntary donation, you can obtain a wealth of information on what to expect -- from a health perspective -- when travelling in virtually any country in the world. Its World Climate Charts not only contain monthly data on local temperatures, humidity, and precipitation, but include recommendations on the condition of water, milk, and food -- where it's safe, where it's not, and how to treat it.
We tend to err on the conservative side and thoroughly rinse all fresh fruit and vegetables before eating them. Of course, this is effective only if the rinse water is uncontaminated. Boiling is the most reliable method of making water of uncertain purity safe for consumption, although it's often an inconvenient process. In risky areas like much of Central America, we're more likely to chemically treat the fresh water we're about to drink. Disinfection with iodine (either tincture of iodine or tetraglycine hydroperiodide tablets) works best; chlorine -- in the form of household bleach, for example -- also can be used, but its effectiveness is less consistent depending on the pH, temperature, and organic content of the water to be purified. Pure water is not an issue if you happen to have a reverse osmosis watermaker on board, as long as the raw water you're treating isn't so polluted that it'll clog the machine's filters and destroy its membrane.
We admit to a great fondness for food sold by street vendors (see our November 29, 2001 entry "Eating the Street"). It's likely to be tasty, cheap, and -- unfortunately -- busting with bacteria. In unsanitary settings, we're probably safest avoiding all meals we haven't prepared ourselves. We don't have the self-discipline to resist the sights and aromas of street food, so we try to minimize our risks of Montezuma's revenge by taking some commonsense precautions. We choose fresh fruit blender drinks that contain only fruit that's been peeled and we skip on the ice. We compromise our environmental standards by favouring disposable plates, cups, and utensils over ones that have been rinsed and recycled. We pass over prepared sandwiches and snacks that have been sitting in the open; we figure goodies scooped directly from the deep fat fryer are probably safe (but don't improve our cholesterol levels).
Fish is a healthy low-calory source of protein -- unless it's laced with ciguatoxin, in which case it might kill you. Ciguatera is common worldwide in subtropical and tropical waters, mostly occurring in reef-associated piscivores (fish-eating fish). Toxic patterns vary significantly according to species, size, and particular location; groupers on one side of a small island might be safe while those on the opposite side are poisonous. It's best to consult with the locals before consuming ANY fish caught on or near a reef. If in doubt, restrict yourself to smaller individuals and fish species with invertebrate diets. Scott and Wendy Bannerot in their definitive book, "The Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing" (International Marine/McGraw Hill, 2004), devote most of a chapter to ciguatera and several other seafood toxins. It's enough to make you a vegetarian.
Part of the adventure of cruising in distant waters is sampling exotic foods and beverages. Magellan took this to the extreme. But we don't want to leave the wrong impression. With some forethought and a bit of commonsense, we've avoided scurvy and haven't poisoned ourselves. And, so far, we've also managed to enjoy a rodent free diet.
David & Eileen