We’ve had some questions along the way about why we get so crazy about the grocery store, or about how we store our food, and with boats, provisioning can be a pretty complex subject, so I thought we’d touch on it here.

Grocery storefront in far-away place vs. grocery storefront in a provisioning center

Grocery storefront in far-away place (Fakarava) vs. grocery storefront in a provisioning center (Tahiti)

When setting out on a voyage it’s important to plan how you’re going to feed and water yourself. Some places have better availability and pricing than others, and some remote spots, like the San Blas off the southeast coast of Panama, have no stores at all. For us, it went something like this:

Trinidad has big grocery stores and a Price Smart, so that was a good place to get our first round of staples. Kijro was small, however, so we couldn’t overdo it. We knew that even though some things might not be as available later on, we wouldn’t have room to carry much more than a month’s worth of food for 3 and keep it dry, so in order to conserve storage space, we needed to compromise and accept lesser availability or higher prices later on. We supplemented our purchases with what fresh vegetables and fruit we could find in Carriacou and Bonaire, then moved on to Curaçao for round two.

If you’re provisioning, Curaçao is a great stop, full of all kinds of canned meats and vegetables and a very broad variety of packaged goods…even sushi-making supplies like nori are available. Because we were leaving for a flight to Panama, Jason and I didn’t do a big restock there, but from our trips to the store for fresh goods, we knew that if we wanted it, we could find it there. They also had good pizza-making supplies and plenty of American brands like Velveeta macaroni and cheese for dry nonperishable goods.

Heading west, it’s last stop: Panama for treats, favorites and affordable canned goods until you reach Tahiti, so stock up well because for many folks it’ll be 2-3 months before you get there. With a few noted exceptions, Panama has pretty much anything you can ask for, and prices are a little less than in the U.S., so you feel like you get a pretty good deal. It’s probably not enough to relieve the pain in your wallet after all the fees they tag you with for the crossing through the canal, but we wouldn’t know. We just work here, after all. BUYER’S NOTE: There is little to no spiced rum available in Panama. If you like your Captain Morgan or any other Caribbean blend, find it by Curaçao or you’re likely to end up empty-handed. Also, buy your beer and wine here. Canned beer is near impossible to find in Galapagos, and wine can be expensive.Oh, and one more thing, we haven’t seen cocktail sauce anywhere since Panama, so if you like it, get it now or possibly hold your peace until you return to the Atlantic.

Lucky for us, Tahina had a whole stateroom that was sitting empty, so we took advantage of that fact and went crazy in Panama. Karen and Frank had already gone for staples when we arrived, but we spent around $800 in additional groceries the week before we left. It’s a good idea to make an inventory sheet before you stow a big run like this, noting how much of everything you have and where you’re putting it, because months later, you may have a hard time figuring out under which floor panel or in which closet you stuffed that box of Ritz crackers you’re craving so badly. This week I found 2 lost bottles of ketchup, 2 lost cases of beer, and 1 bottle of sorely missed cocktail sauce under the floor in the “garage,” the room where we keep all the tools.

A good portion of our Panama purchases are still in stock on the boat now, and it’s been a good thing, because canned vegetables and snack foods turned out to be very expensive in parts of French Polynesia.

In fact, once you hit Galapagos, the grocery stores begin their downward spiral. They become these tiny, dusty places full of candy, crackers, and some random cans of vegetables, very low on meats and fresh goods. The fruit flies abound, and while you can make good finds here and there, you shouldn’t plan your menu ’til you get to the store. Chances are if they had it yesterday, it probably isn’t there today, and if it is, it’s getting soft and slightly slimy.

The top 2 photos show the entire contents of one magasin in the Tuamotus. There are no fresh goods available. The bottom two show the frozen food section and one of the 4 fresh seafood counters in Tahiti. With this sort of disparity, it's no wonder we go crazy buying in big cities.

The Marquesas and Tuamotus can be just as bad. Nuku Hiva had some ok magasins (food stores), and we had no trouble getting cheese and baguettes and such, but if we wanted selection (and “selection” here had a narrower definition than it did in the Caribbean), we had to get there the afternoon the supply ship came in. There’s a mad rush to the magasins that day, and if you want it, you better get it fast. The first time we found lettuce, we were ecstatic.

In the Tuamotus, we found that if you’re looking for something other than bread or eggs, you better be ready to pay for it ($9 for Corn Flakes, $12 for a bag of Lays chips), if you can even find it. The stores here were less like grocery stores and more like a 7-11. I think the locals must order their groceries to come in on the supply ship.

$12 bag of Lays

$12 bag of Lays on Hao

About the time we were in the Tuamotus, we discovered that some of the flour and pasta bought in Panama had not been vacuum-bagged when it was brought on board. That led to a full-fledged weevil infestation, mentioned in an earlier entry. But aside from concerns about bug infestation, considerations in provisioning must be made for keeping supplies dry and cool, for keeping vegetables and fruit from rotting on board, and for planning refrigerated or frozen items, if your boat has refrigeration. Some folks only have enough room to keep a few steaks and fillets of fish fresh, while other boats are equipped with deep freezes that could feed 4 for a month or more. Decisions about what to buy (tuna cans and jerky vs. hamburger meat and chicken quarters) are tied directly to the availability of refrigeration. Of course, having limited refrigeration doesn’t mean you have to eat from a can all the time. It just means that fresh meat is caught from the sea, so if you want it, you better have plenty of tackle and a good fillet knife. There are some boats that go entirely without refrigeration, and their crews may supplement their meals by doing their own canning or vacuum sealing, paired with the quantities of fresh vegetables, fruits and roots we all store in dim, well-ventilated areas to prevent them from maturing too quickly. There are whole books specializing in this subject, including “The Care and Feeding of the Sailing Crew” by Lin Pardey.

When we arrived in Tahiti we were astounded by the size and availability of products in the grocery store, because it had been so long since we’d seen anything like that. We went wild restocking on oranges and grapes and pears and celery, something we hadn’t seen for months.

As we approach the Cook Islands in a couple of weeks, we’ll do our best to cut down on all the meats and fresh products on board, because the Cooks have tight regulations on bringing in foreign meats and produce. That’ll require some planning as well. We wouldn’t want to dump our hard-earned money into the sea due to overbuying on groceries.