Boat cuisine…

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What can you expect for supper on board a small yacht half way across the Atlantic? Strangely, not a lot of fish, reveals intrepid sailor, Tim Halford

Ever since standing on Horta harbour in the Azores in the late 1980s, I had had a dream of crossing the Atlantic on a yacht. Now in my seventieth year I was determined to do it.

The question was whether I was up to it. My sailing experience was limited; and physically I was old – nearly 70; could I take up to 30 days arduous sailing ‘beating’ (ie on an angle) all the way across the Atlantic. And, even more importantly, what would we eat?  I did some research and  discovered Skyelark, a 51ft, top-safety rated, sloop-rigged-quality yacht, sailing from Antigua on 6 May. I booked myself a place as paying crew.

Unlike some charter boats which survive on dried and tinned food, Skyelark is renowned for its ‘cuisine’ because her  captain (and owner), Dan loves cooking. He is particularly good with his mid-Atlantic use of herbs and seasoning.

There would be eight of us on board: first mate Stephen (60) and his Danish wife Malene; Sion (60), a retired finance director; Julie (50) from California; Johan (40) from Vienna and Bjorn (50) from Tromso who has spent the last ten years captaining a diamond dredger off the Angolan coast.   So thrown into the deep end together, we set off on the first leg to the Azores on a boat laden with enough provisions to last  a possible 18 day crossing. Provisioning turned out to be a complex art  –  with over 400 meals to cater for, plus  70-plus litres of milk for tea, coffee, cereal. No popping out to the shop once en route…  The Azores, 2610 miles away, would be our next chance to re-stock.

During the voyage we had cereal for breakfast, when we could fit it in, and for lunch there were wraps of various hues, and salad. We made each other constant cups of tea and coffee, there was a snack drawer and a biscuit drawer, and a huge quantity of fresh fruit hanging Carmen Miranda like in a big net from the ceiling in the saloon.

Ocean sailing is arduous, continuous and constant. It involves rolling watches at the helm of three hours on, six hours off, so some of us would always be catching up on sleep. But at 6pm each day we all met in the cockpit for a proper meal and briefings.

As the sea was often rough, we were constantly at a steep angle with the gunnels under water. Everything had to be eaten with a spoon or fork out of a non-spill ‘dog bowl’, on your knees  in the cockpit or on deck. All food also had to be prepared on a gimballed  two-ring hob or cooked in a tiny oven, probably at a ‘lean’ of 30 degrees.

Dan enjoys cooking and some years before this trip had bought a vacuum-pack kit from John Lewis so that he could cook and then freeze meals for a voyage before departure. All the crew had to do was heat up a meal and cook some rice, potato or pasta to go with it.   Thanks to Dan’s pre-voyage labours we dined on  mid-ocean meals that included lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese, chilli con carne, Spanish chicken and chorizo with broad beans stew, lentils with smoked ham and onion, chicken and sweet potato curry.

Bjorn, a true Norwegian, loves fish. Dan said that even though we trawl a line on this particular Atlantic crossing, we would either be going too fast or the conditions would not be right to catch any. Indeed, in all his Atlantic crossings on this leg he had never caught a fish. But Bjorn knew if he dreamed of fish one would come.  And so it did. I was on watch with Bjorn  one morning when there was a tug on the line. He reeled in a beautiful golden bronze dorado which he  expertly filleted  on deck. It was on our plates within 30 minutes. Dorado (also known as sea bream) has a firm white meat. When rubbed in flour and lightly cooked in butter, salt and pepper it is delicious. Even so, I felt some misgivings as it was such a beautiful creature, and dorado are said to mate for life…

Half way, after nearly 3000 miles of amazing sailing, and a swim in 10,000ft of water, we sailed into harbour at St Martin on the Azores, and had a celebratory meal with glass of wine. Dan  bought some tinned confit of duck from the local Carrefour, to which I added potatoes roasted  in the duck fat, fresh cabbage and carrots. Stephen  knocked up an apple crumble.  A pretty good mid-voyage celebration.

The next day, it was ham and Dorado filled wraps with salad for lunch, pancakes with cranberries for tea, and slow fried pork chops with saffron rice and red cabbage for supper.  Another stunning sunset.

Malene  made some homemade bread scones – and some rye bread from an IKEA mix. We ate it with  bacon, cheese and chorizo.

Bjorn dreamed of fish again, and caught a tuna. Quickly filleted, it was put in the freezer to be pan fried or used as sushi later in the voyage. For supper, we had pork chops with beans and garlic mash.

One of the crew’s tasks when we arrived  in the Azores was for each of us to make a ‘dish’ to vacuum-pack for the freezer for the second leg. Johann’s was the first offering: an Austrian country meal of green lentils, cream cheese, smoked ham, onions, garlic and chorizo. And the food kept rolling on. Frittata, Guinness steak pie with boiled potatoes and butternut squash,  spinach salad from Julie, roast chicken,  braised red cabbage with apples, onion and spices and green beans, steak, leek and mushroom stew, even a  Mary Berry chocolate cake baked  to celebrate Stephen and Malene’s first wedding anniversary.  We ate on deck while  dolphins  surfed down the waves beside us. Nearly every day brought a sighting of a whale.

Two weeks later on Monday 6 June we sailed under the bridge into Southampton, almost exactly a month after we had left Antigua. Flags – Norway, Denmark, USA, Austria, Scotland, UK and Wales – were thick on the quay side, not only representing our international crew but also some amazing meals.  It was a hero’s welcome for a happy and well-nourished company of sailors.