Skip to Content

Storing Food on a Small Sailboat for Long-Term Cruising

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I earn a small commission of product sales to keep this website going.

My advice for people who ask what size sailboat they should get is to always get the smallest one they’re comfortable in, not the largest one they can afford.

There are many advantages to doing this, most being obscure financial costs. Lin Pardey wrote an entertaining chapter in Self Sufficient Sailor called “Thirty Feet is Enough”. It’s true.

But there are disadvantages of course, and one of those is storage. Just where do you store food on a small sailboat for cruising?!  Or even shoes?

Through some proper planning and a little creativity, it is possible to provision for months for a crew of two on a sailboat not even 30 feet long.

Provisioning basics for a small sailboat

If you have a small sailboat you’re going to have to pay more attention to how you provision – your menu won’t be as diverse as it is on land.

No, you won’t have to eat rice and beans every day, but you can if you want!  I’ve assembled a nice variety of recipes through the years so I never get tired of one thing. These recipes are way beyond the scope of this post; I’ve been compiling some of my favorites for sharing in the future.

The key is simple, multi-use ingredients that you can find anywhere. Don’t waste the storage space for one ingredient that you can only use for one dish once a week. You can really do a lot with just a short list of ingredients.

This attitude really simplifies provisioning in obscure locations and organizing your stores on board in limited spaces. It’s best to go into cruising knowing that you won’t be able to find a Trader Joe’s on a tiny Caribbean island, so start off with that mindset from the beginning.

hammock

Gear hammocks are my fave!

Food storage on a small sailboat

Know where all of the little nooks and crannies are on your sailboat. Some may be hiding in plain sight.

Extras to the bilge

Generally, food stores are best kept in cool, dark, dry places. This gets tough on a small sailboat because the coolest and darkest spots are against the hull below the waterline – in the bilge, where water will inevitably find its way.

If you have a full or cutaway-keel boat like Saoirse you usually won’t have actual water in the spaces of the bilge directly underneath settees – if the water is that high, you’ve got other problems! But even a sailboat with a bolted fin keel will generally be dry enough in those areas. Still, you’ll need to keep all of that salt-infused damp air out of your food. So, what are the options?

Larger sailboats have the luxury of using big plastic bins. That’s great when the bilge is deep enough for those bins, but they don’t make shallow, curved plastic bins for the rest of us. You’re killing a lot of precious space even if you could utilize square bins.

It’s best to store items individually to really utilize that awkwardly-shaped space efficiently. Bags of flour, pasta, beans, rice, popcorn, sugar, etc all store just fine when kept in a thick ziplock freezer bag. Wrap that bag in a towel or another freezer bag, because it will chafe in the pounding seas and could rub all the way through.

Cans can be kept in the bilge on their own, as long as they’re all contained so that they’re not spread from bow to stern. Mesh bags can keep them together.  The labels may peel off, so label them on your own with a permanent marker. Unless they’re kept down there for years, rust shouldn’t be a concern.

The bilge should only be used for extra stores, not your daily sources. You don’t want to tear apart the settee every time you need flour to make biscuits. That brings us to…

rice

Storing food in the galley

Saoirse doesn’t have a lot of easily accessible food storage space. There’s a small pantry behind the stove, and of course the equally small icebox, but that’s it. And like most small sailboats, the pantry is made up of smaller compartments and shelved areas instead of one large open space.

Plastic containers for loose food

The system that works best is to have small plastic storage containers in your galley and replenish those containers from your stores in the bilge when you’re running low. Inspect the storage bags in the bilge while you’re there.

All of the ingredients that you need for weeks are immediately accessible and in small containers that prevent contamination of a larger supply. Even though my pantry is small – 4′ long by 12″ deep by 18″ high in the largest area but only getting smaller towards the bow – I can keep a rather diverse collection of ingredients in here.

My staples (just what’s in the pantry) are wheat flour, white flour, confectioner’s sugar, minute rice, quinoa, macaroni pasta, pancake mix, popcorn, black beans, canned olives, chickpeas, canned corn, canned chicken, canned green beans, tomato paste, tuna, peanut butter, olive oil, soy sauce, honey, baking powder, dijon, and red vinegar. I think that’s all.

Anyways, I can fit all of that into this tiny space and have a nice spread of ingredients so I’m never making the same thing two nights in a row. All thanks to the storage containers.

But those cheap Tupperware or Ziploc leftover food containers are no good, except maybe for storing leftovers in the icebox when you aren’t on passage. They spill much too easily.

You’ll need sturdy plastic containers with airtight locking lids. Thankfully I found some at Walmart that fit perfectly in my small pantry. They’re made by Sterilite and come in a few different sizes (I also found them on Amazon so you can see what I’m talking about).

The small 0.8L/3.5C containers are perfect for popcorn and small boxes of rice and quinoa. The larger 1.3L/5.3C containers don’t waste any space when storing pancake mix, pasta, sugars, and dry beans. There’s a taller container perfect for storing a small bag of flour and holding small glass bottles of condiments – this keeps them from sliding around, banging into other hard objects, and if one does break the spill is contained.

What I love about these containers is that they’re stackable, maximizing my use of available space while minimizing the chances of them sliding around. The containers and lids all nest and take up next to no room when not in use. They’re airtight and I’ve actually left some foodstuffs in them for over six months without any spoilage.

Just make sure you get the ones with gasketed lids that lock on all sides – the cheap ones that only lock on the ends are only good for storing small engine parts and cotter pins and such.

pantry

This little section of the pantry, only 2′ wide by 11″ tall and 11″ deep, can hold 12 containers, 4 across and 3 tall, maximizing use of the space.

Storing glass

And speaking of glass – don’t be afraid to have glass food containers aboard. You shouldn’t have to worry about breakage if they’re stored correctly. Bubble wrap may be a little extreme, thin foam padding works great but is hard to find, but dish towels are readily available and multi-use. Wrap your glass bottles in them before a passage and store them nice and snug in a compartment where they won’t bounce around.

Storing produce & snacks

So that brings us to produce and snack items. Gear hammocks are my favorite thing ever and are perfect for storing fruits, vegetables, and other small snacks like cookies and crackers (see the picture in the beginning). I have two handholds spaced perfectly to hang the hammock above my sink; you can install some sturdy eye hooks if you don’t have anything like that to hang them from.

Keep them away from the hull so your produce won’t bruise when the hammock swings at sea.  Sea Dog Line, a well-respected chandlery, makes these nylon nets measuring 5′ long when totally stretched out.  You can get them here for less than $8 each.  They’ll last for years.

The icebox isn’t just for leftovers and beer either. Take advantage of it for storing other items that don’t regularly need to be refrigerated. In fact, on this trip right now, my refrigeration control unit isn’t working so I’m refrigerator-less and using it for dry storage. Sailing in the Caribbean without a refrigerator?! Yeah, that’s a whole other blog post coming up soon.

Pest control

pancakes

All food, especially those in cardboard containers, gets moved to a plastic container with a locking, airtight lid. I write whatever instructions I need to know with a wet-erase marker.

Everyone should know that sailboats are no place for cardboard food containers. Other than quickly becoming soggy out at sea, cardboard also makes a perfect vessel for stowaway pests and attractants for termites.

No matter what you do to mitigate pests…it’s not a matter of if, but when. This is another argument for plastic airtight containers.

Every couple of months I put a little boric acid powder, like Roach Prufe, in my food storage areas. There are tablets too but I like the powder. If you have any pests like ants, termites, or cockroaches, they’ll eat this powder, walk through it, and bring it back to their friends who will ingest it. The acid will eventually eat the pests from the inside out and is very effective, though it won’t kill them immediately. I put a bunch of this powder out after seeing just one small cockroach years ago and haven’t seen another one since – knock on wood.

Bay leaves are another little trick, simple and nontoxic, but it won’t kill the pests. It will only keep them away. You can use the dried leaves you find in the spice aisle (or spice isle – HA!). Drop them in your pantry and put them in your bags of food if you don’t have airtight containers. Roaches, ants, and weevils hate them.

I also have a pet lizard right now. Not by choice – she’s a stowaway – but I’ll let her stay since she comes out at night and eats all the bugs. I just wish she’d stop laying eggs in my cabin.

 

So those are my solutions for storing food on a small sailboat, having evolved over the years, and still slightly evolving. How do you manage it?

Sebastian

Friday 24th of June 2022

Gracias John !!! Me encanto tu artículo, saludos desde el Caribe Colombiano.

John Casey

Friday 13th of April 2018

Great article John. One of the best tricks we learned from an Aussie couple was to wrap citrus in foil. We bought a Costco bag of limes before Christmas, and while you may lose one or two, by the end of March, ours were still in great shape.

John Peltier

Friday 13th of April 2018

Thanks. Now that you mention it, I do recall doing that years ago with great results. I guess I just never carried enough citrus to keep doing it :) Great tip!