Onion Vs. the Bilge Pump

Onion vs. bilge pump

“Bad cooking is responsible for more trouble at sea than all other things put together”

        While it is widely known that the prudent mariner protects his ship following the 4Ls rule (lead, log, longitude and look out), it is probably known only to a handful of non sailors that a ship with no onions aboard is in as much the same level of danger as a vessel with a big hole at the waterline. A crew at sea faces many enemies, but while the sea enters a category apart, the one of problems that cannot be avoided therefore should not be bothered with too much, the strongest foe is the human brain. It’s all a question of attitude, psychology and common sense where the latter, being the most important, is all too often seriously endangered by the life aboard.

            The main contest between the onion and the bilge pump rotates around superstition. While it is commonly known that a craft should never leave harbour without onions, not the same can be said about the bilge pump, which nonetheless is compulsory in many countries. The sceptic might notice that a prudent mariner should be not led by superstitions, but the sceptic has probably never been at sea too long. Facing weeks and perhaps even months on the Ocean, one is apt to ask for the assistance of all odds and gods, at least for the sake of the peace of mind. It is indeed a fact that, should a captain weigh seriously every possible contingency the sea might bring, he may as well not leave. One has to do his best, of course, but without a certain level of insanity a healthy biped would not cross oceans on small boats.

As Tilman used to say, ‘If a man refuses to take risks there is nothing to show that he has done right, while if they are taken the proof that he has done wrong maybe too conclusive’, and there are few places more conclusive than a planetary expanse of undrinkable water. Thence, when considering all the odds and therefore leaving ample space for casualities, one soon realizes that a generous help from fortune is warmly welcome. This does not mean to surrender to destiny, of course, only admitting that supernatural factors do exist.
The strongest foe modern man can oppose to supertistions is the power of statistics. Most vessels leaving harbour do indeed arrive. Rationalism, technology and statistics, stubbornly applied to the preparation of the crossing by the prudent captain, should leave no scope to incidents. That is the plan. But, as Von Moltke said, ‘few plans withstand the contact with the enemy’. Indeed rationalism would prevent sane men to sail away from land, technology proved too sensitive to salty moisture and statistics just underline the obvious fact that the more you sail the more you court unpleasant conclusions. Respecting superstition just means admitting that we cannot control everything. The sea ranks high in the list of things we neither know nor control.

Thus superstitions, read the respect of older traditions wrote down by better man in happier times, should not be set aside with any hope of impunity. Why should we modern sailors, born and raised in the age of exact satellite navigation and wireless communications, consider ourselves better sailors than chaps who used to nail silver coins to the masts before leaving, with no engines, GPS and radios, to places they did not even know existed? Not even under menace of a gun I would start a crossing on a Friday, and if a candle were the only fire for my cigarette, I would carefully use it to light a piece of paper, and not my fag. Refusing superstitions would mean we have everything under control and our vessel, mind and body can reach the destination in any case. And this is by no means possible. And whenever fortune has to be allowed for, we must psychologically be ready to face the simple truth of being small, weak and ignorant. And we finally reach our conclusion: our most important asset at sea, after our vessel, of course, is our frame of mind and common sense. And everything able to care for these assets has immense value. Food ranks among the first.

All troubles are halved by food’. That is so easy to demonstrate if starting from the contrary. No one can be seriously happy without food, apart from some bearded bikkhu living on dreadful mixtures of sand and flour in forgotten Himalayan caves. Wisely the chaps who chose this unconventional diet situated themselves as far as possible from the sea. We already demonstrated that well being and a consistent psychological balance are essential when facing the sea, the more so for longer periods. Victuals are to well being what petrol, oil and Germany are to an engine. Once we agree on this, it’s easy to demonstrate that the better a crew is fed, the greater its performance in the clever use of both, body and soul. While this is somewhat easy to achieve for a short outing, the task is a trifle trickier for a month-long crossing, especially if the crew was born and raised in continental Europe, a land where the education of the palate is, to put it bluntly, unrivalled.
The defeat of botulism isn’t good enough an excuse to overload in cans.  Few items now deserve to be incoffined so brutally. Beans are better and lighter when dry, even if they suck a load of propane, meat can be vacuum packed and corn is dreadful in any form. Tomato sauce, peas and peach halves are notable exception and can be loaded without shame. A reliable butcher with a vacuum machine means great beef for weeks. Flour lasts for ages, provided one keeps maggots away from the boat, eggs the same and these two ingredients, wisely combined, offer and wide array of delicacies. Luckier boats also have powerful fridges, able to keep chicken frozen for days thus dishing out chicken curries in the middle of the vast nowhere.
In colder latitudes it’s surprising the efficacy of mutton to keep the crew happy even in foul weather. There is undoubtedly a strong link between sheep and high latitude sailing. These woolly friends thrive in places few sailors venture to, like Patagonia, the Falklands, Scotland, New Zealand and such places. A well butchered beast, which previously roamed freely around windy meadows, meets its glorious end wandering the wild southern seas hung to the lifelines, kept in business by salty spray and restless winds. Mutton fillet steaks, battered in flour and lemon pepper, sautéed, can defeat the depressing effect of a moderate gale.
The importance of hot sauces on a boat cannot be overstressed. That’s the main contribution of the New World to the galley and the effect of peppers on the stomach and the psyche is significant. Even setting aside the kick they give to food, hot sauces can reach bacteria anywhere and prevent badly preserved food – not uncommon on boats – to have dreadful effects. If some ingredients of your concoction have an unpleasant look, but are nonetheless essential, spice them up!
The gale diet
Even good old Joshua Slucum, who was able to brew a beef stew during a storm off the coast of Chile, had to give up soon after and resort to emergency diets. Here probably every skipper has his own special diet, and I cannot but state my humble opinion. The objectives of a storm diet are to keep the body going when the latter refuses any intake stolidly. The diet I tested is based on simple ingredients – cooking in a storm is out of the question – and is available at any moment of a crossing: water with squeezed lemon, tea with or without squeezed lemon juice, chocolate, apples and cigarettes. Most of these items can be chewed while on watch. Long, memorable watches passed rapidly thanks to the efforts, mostly vane, to keep the cigarettes dry, the chocolate unsalted and the tea warm.


A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree’
– Ancient adage

The knowledge of the causes and the remedies of sea sickness progressed wildly in medicine, but a real sailor does not give a penny for them. Both were commonly known since the dawn of time to the real old sailors and fishermen. Don’t marvel if a Genoese staple is focaccia with anchovies! This simplicity can settle the most upset stomach. But if one does not have them aboard, one should at least know what to avoid. Sugary things, sweets and bubbles are enemies. Starches, bread and salty are friends. Pills are probably helpful the first days, but no one knows if they increase the speed at which the body naturally reacts and settles, or not. Onions, teas and fruits are good. Cigarettes, coffee and alcohol are not.  Drugs are dreadful, by the way. If you have a joint or start a cruise hangover you are courting disaster, or at least three days of hell.

In the end, a crossing should be planned for a period of time in which onions do not rot. Onions are a must, no joking… They are the main difference between simple nutrition and gourmet dining. The smell alone of sautéed onions in butter and olive oil has a stunning effect on the crew. While this apparently simple operation is carried on properly, the crew, by dinner time slumping berth-bound after a day of toiling or swearing at backgammon, comes to life again.

Yes, sautéed onions win hands down against the bilge pump.

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