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Fridgeless Cruising

First off, let’s get this straight—we cruise on Arcturus without a fridge by choice, not necessity. Granted, we have limited space on board and a limited budget—both financially and in terms of amp-hours...
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How to keep cruising cool without refrigeration

First off, let’s get this straight—we cruise on Arcturus without a fridge by choice, not necessity. Granted, we have limited space on board and a limited budget—both financially and in terms of amp-hours—but to us it makes no sense to have refrigeration on our little boat. Plus, we like simplicity. Even if we could have a fridge, I am not so sure we would. We don’t even have an icebox.

Cruising is an adventure, after all

“I don’t want cruising to feel like I’m at home,” the editor of a prominent sailing magazine told me last year in the Azores. “There has to be an element of adventure there, and that element is what draws me to sailing.”

I love that attitude. My wife, Mia, and I are not full-time liveaboards anymore, so doing without certain creature comforts is now only temporary, part of the adventure. The small things are what make memories, and not having refrigeration makes lots of them.

Admittedly, it is much easier to live like this when you’re cruising near civilization. The morning ritual of deciding which of us will go out and buy the day’s milk for our morning coffee may sound annoying, but in reality it is liberating. We are forced to explore more of the area we are cruising in than we would if we had everything onboard in the first place: likewise with fresh veggies and meat. Sailing coastwise, we live like people did in the old days, buying the fresh food we need each day.

Without a fridge, food becomes a bigger part of our day. Making a meal requires planning it out and buying supplies. We have to be careful what we actually purchase and cook, because there is no place for leftovers. In the far north, where Arcturus is now berthed, it’s easier to keep stuff fresh for longer thanks to the cooler outside temperatures. Milk, for example, will usually last one overnight in the cockpit, as will leftovers. And the farther north we go—Svalbard is the goal in 2016—the easier this will get.

However, cruising in warmer climes can be a real challenge. Anything fresh has to be kept on ice—which can be hard to come by—or consumed more or less immediately.

Fortunately, local markets in the Caribbean are ubiquitous, and the fresh provisions are usually better and always more varied than anything you can get Stateside, so that it is far cheaper and vastly more interesting than shopping at home. (One bargaining tip: try to augment your haul rather than beating down the price—you can almost always get a couple of extra mangoes or a nice watermelon for whatever price you have just been quoted.) The only thing missing is ice in your rum.

What if we did want a fridge?

Last summer, Arcturus got a new engine, and she will soon have a new battery bank. Before installing the engine I hired Bob Campbell of Marine Electric Systems in Annapolis, Maryland, as an energy consultant, and together we set about calculating our daily amp-hour usage. The boat is now exceedingly simple—LED cabin and running lights, hand pumps for fresh and salt water, a VHF/AIS combo, a small handheld GPS wired into the 12V system and a stereo, which we connect to an iPod for music. Altogether we draw about 42 amp-hours per day on passage, less when coastal cruising.

Throw a fridge in the mix, though, and we quickly discovered why Arcturus does not have one and probably never will. With a fridge we reckoned that 42 amp hours jumps to 115, nearly triple the usage, and the entire electrical system—from the battery bank to the alternator—becomes exponentially more expensive and more complicated.

Thanks to Campbell’s advice, we now plan to install a 330 amp-hour battery bank on Arcturus this summer, enough to potentially add a fridge in the future. But without one, we will only need to charge the batteries once every third or fourth day. As tempting as a fridge might be, I really like the sound of that.

Fridgeless passagemaking

Very few cruisers, it seems, like to cook at sea. Many people are fixated on the idea of pre-cooking meals at the dock and reheating them underway. To us, though, cooking on a passage is one of the highlights of the day. We do this even when delivering fancy yachts. To each his own, I suppose. The point is that it is possible and even enjoyable to cook on long passages.

Crossing the Atlantic from St. Pierre to Ireland took us 23 days on Arcturus, and we ate very well. Mia gets all the credit. With our friend Clint along as crew, she planned meals for three and made menus for seven days. These included things like pizza, curry, three-bean chili, tuna salad with roasted vegetables, pasta and stir fry.

Besides the beans and the tuna, not a lot came from cans. We would rather eat like vegetarians than eat canned meat or Spam. Beans and peanut butter provided protein, and we ate a ton of root vegetables, like potatoes, carrots and turnips, which keep forever. We bought some fresh produce that we ate for the first few days offshore, and kept lots of long-life UHT milk. Because the UHT milk was in one-liter containers, and we had no way to store it once opened, Mia only allowed us to open a new liter if she needed milk for a meal planned later in the day, usually cream sauce for pasta. So on “milk days,” Clint and I had a little celebration with our coffee that morning.

The classic cruising books discuss all sorts of ways for storing provisions, from wrapping vegetables in tin foil to coating eggs in Vaseline. We did none of that. The fruits and veggies were stored in net hammocks hung over the seaberths just forward of the galley (apples and oranges lasted for weeks), the eggs in a locker behind the settee backrest in cardboard egg cartons, the dry provisions in the icebox (sans ice).

One thing we did do was buy eggs straight from the farmer. They had never seen a fridge, and lasted much longer for it. Of the eight-dozen eggs we left the dock with, only one went bad.

“How will I know if an egg is bad,” Clint asked, putting together an omelet one morning. We had taught Clint how to crack each egg individually into a cup—otherwise, if one were bad, it would contaminate all the others in the mixing bowl.

“Don’t worry Clint, you will know!” was Mia’s response. He found out, about midway across the Atlantic, and howled in disgust the second he’d cracked it and let out the smell.

Aside from our meals, which always included some kind of veggies—peppers and onions with Parmesan cheese on the pizza, grated carrots and cabbage in the stir-fry, roasted potatoes and turnips with the tuna salad—we baked a ton of bread. We made flatbread on the stovetop in an uncoated iron pan, baked buns in the oven, and even attempted a loaf in the pressure cooker (which failed, due to our impatience).

Clint discovered he could add nuts and raisins and made “Clint Bread” a couple times per week, little rolls baked in the oven with lots of goodies inside. Then of course there were pizza nights once a week, made from scratch. Mia made several celebratory cakes from flour and cocoa powder with some fresh lemon juice.

Each time we baked bread we would divide the bounty evenly into Ziplocs with our names on them—Clint and I inevitably ate our entire share in one sitting, while Mia liked to save hers to snack on during night watches. All told, we went through 16 pounds of flour during the crossing.
Finally, we never miss the fridge on Arcturus, because not having one provides the single biggest highlight of most of our trips: the fresh food at the other end.

Photos by Maria Karlsson

Food You Can Keep Without a Fridge

• Root vegetables like turnips, parsnips, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash and pumpkin

• Apples

• Citrus fruit, like oranges, lemons and limes (Keep vegetables and fruit dry, well ventilated and out of the sun. Storing them in nets is a great idea. They’ll always last longer if they have never been in a fridge. Buy them fresh, preferably from a farmer’s market.)

• Eggs (must never have been refrigerated; turn once a week)

• Spanish cured ham

• Condiments, like mayonnaise, soy sauce, dry Parmesan cheese, mustard, hot sauce, pickles and olive oil

• Peanut butter, jam, honey and maple syrup

• UHT Milk (once opened it lasts about a day)

• Yeast, baking powder and flour (for bread)

• Make sure to use clean knives and spoons when dipping into jars. If bacteria gets in, the food will not last!

Swedish Pumpkin Soup

Our Favorite No-Fridge Meal


1 butternut squash or medium pumpkin
1 can tomato paste
1 red onion
3 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp. red curry paste (or dry curry powder)
1 can coconut milk
1 cup chicken broth
Olive oil
Dried red pepper or cayenne to taste


Dice the onion and garlic and brown with olive oil in a large soup pot. Peel and dice the pumpkin/squash, adding to the pot and browning for a few minutes. Add the curry, tomato paste, chicken broth and red pepper (the more the spicier!) and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until pumpkin/squash is soft. Add the coconut water, and mash the mixture to the desired consistency with a potato masher. (We like it a bit chunky.) Serve with brown Irish soda bread. Enjoy!


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