Life Aboard

Boats Don’t Have Kitchens

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The following is an essay written by S/Y Ocean Star shipmate, Taylor Brown.

It took me a week to stop calling it a kitchen.

The cabinets are stainless steel, lovingly rubbed down after every meal with a rag soaked in WD-40 (metal and salt air don’t mix). They’re filled with dishes and cooking utensils and pots and pans and spices and dry goods and canned goods. Anything you can imagine in a can, we have it. The fridge is an original – a giant box with 4-inch thick walls and a trapdoor top that you open by yanking down on a complex pulley system, exposing fresh produce, yogurt, and eggs. Dozens and dozens of eggs. Turning on the oven means getting on your hands and knees and sticking a lighter against the pilot while you fiddle with the propane knob. There’s barely enough room for two people, one in front of the sink, the other in front of the stove, pressed in back to back like sardines. The Galley is small enough that you can stand in its center, reach out your arms, and touch both walls. Everything has a place, down to the last can opener. A single fan, about the size of a dinner plate, offers respite for the chef in front of the stove, but in all actuality, it doesn’t do much besides blow hot air in your face. Your best bet is opening the hatch to the deck to facilitate as much of a cross breeze as you can. If you’re familiar at all with the principles of thermal conduction or have ever stuck your hand inside of an oven, you can imagine what it’s like cooking in the galley of a 75-ton steel-hulled ship.

Notice how I said “galley” and not “kitchen.” Boats don’t have kitchens. They have galleys.

Meal time was ritual onboard Ocean Star. Just as an army marches on its stomach, a crew sails on their bellies. The chef and sous chef of the day, determined by the job wheel posted on our captain’s cabin door, did very little else than cook. The rest of the crew seemed to orbit around them, like planets to a sun. Before a meal, deckhands would bring tables and benches up on deck from the salon. “Gophers” would help ferry up the food, ready to catch pots and casserole dishes as they were sent up from the galley through the hatch. They were rested on hot pads on top of the charthouse as delicately as objects on an altar. Sharing is caring, everyone is reminded, as they scoop the meal into their bowls and hunker down around the dinner table. Elbow to elbow, we feast. Days full of diving, hiking, sailing, classes, and all other manners of adventure make for hungry, gurgling stomachs by the time dinner rolls around. Seconds and thirds are scarfed down all in the midst of boisterous conversation.

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After plates are cleared (and rarely is even a morsel of food left), clean up commences immediately. The dishy pit, with its salties, freshies, and driers, sees each dish scrubbed in saltwater, soaked in bleach water, rinsed in freshwater, and dried. We use steel wool and sponges and dish soap, wiping and rubbing and scraping until they could be mistaken for new. Gophers toss them down through the hatch – clean bowls, silverware, and cups fall like rain. Deckhands stow the tables and benches and scrub the deck while the salon steward sweeps, dusts, and disinfects down below. The chefs clean the galley until the stainless-steel shines. All the while, music blares from the ship’s speakers and everyone’s voices add to the cacophony of chatter, banging pots and pans, and bristle brushes against the non-slip deck. It’s organized chaos. There’s always singing, there’s always dancing, and there’s always laughter. Every day is the same process. Every meal is the same process. Counters are dirtied, things are cooked, food is eaten, and clean-up is meticulous. Everything done is undone. When all is complete, the galley is left like no one has ever even so much as thought about food preparation in its five-by-five-foot space. We run a tight ship. Our captain reminds us to take care of Ocean Star like she takes care of us.

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The galley was where I cooked my dad’s homemade white pizza for my crew. Golden brown, crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside pizza dough. An even layer of olive oil and minced garlic. Thinly sliced tomatoes. Grated mozzarella cheese and crumbled feta, all topped with basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and garlic powder. We ate it the day we hiked to the world’s only boiling lake, on the island of Dominica, 8 hours roundtrip. We climbed through the rainforest, slogged up and down a mountain, trekked through steaming sulfur fields, and splashed around in natural hot springs. We peered over the edge of a cliff into a bubbling pool of bluish-grey water engulfed in clouds of vapor. We ate our packed PB&J sandwiches before turning around to do it all in reverse. Done and undone. Back on the boat, legs sore, slightly sunburned, covered in mud, I cooked my dad’s homemade white pizza, a recipe I’ve known how to make since I was old enough to see over the kitchen counter.

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There are countless other meals from my trip I could have shared: Caribbean lobster barbecued on the beach at sunset in the Tobago Cays; grilled lionfish in Saint Lucia, freshly spear-gunned by yours truly; and gourmet French crepes in Saint Barths. All delicious, but none quite so delicious as my dad’s homemade white pizza. Though there was no pomp or circumstance, this meal was my favorite. It’s the one I can still taste when I close my eyes. In an instant, I am transported back to our quiet anchorage off of Dominica. I’m hand-rolling dough covered in a sheen of sweat in the boiling galley. I’m eating slice after slice, perched on Ocean Star’s cap rail, listening to my crew relive our hike to the boiling lake through stories that get more extravagant with each retelling. I’m scrubbing the galley spotless and seeing my distorted, smiling reflection in the stainless steel cabinet door. Done and undone. I would return to Ocean Star in a heartbeat, if only for one last night of cooking, eating, and cleaning under the velvet Caribbean sky with my crew.