Sunday, January 13, 2013

No Cardboard Aboard!

“Cardboardophobia” probably isn’t a real word, but when you live on a boat … it should be. Nothing – nothing – made of cardboard comes aboard. We know folks who take new purchases out of cardboard packaging on the dock before coming aboard or getting into the dinghy.  (And doing so gives you a very real understanding of just how much waste our packaging generates, oh my!)  So why are boaters so weird about this?  Roaches can live in corrugated cardboard and eat the glue and lay their eggs; once you bring these little hitchhikers aboard they just love to hang out in the dark moist bilges.  This is a concern especially in warmer climates, which of course is where most of our boating takes place.  Isn’t being warm the whole point? Even if you’re not in a warm area, cardboard doesn’t do much to protect food in the humid boat environment; instead of keeping water out it’s more of a moisture magnet. Soggy crackers and moldy pasta just don’t work for me.  Yuck.

Since moving aboard I’ve become obsessed with canisters and containers.  No cardboard aboard due to bugs and sogginess, so food once purchased needs to be transferred to something else.  But what?  Glass?  Better not, it could break in rough seas.  How about metal?  Nope, it’ll rust.  That leaves … plastic.  My e-friend Diane Sullivan is moving aboard and transitioning from a land-based kitchen to a cruising boat’s galley. She posted on Facebook recently, “Looking into things we'll need on the boat. Dehumidifiers, more line (rope) for the anchors, plastic storage bins, etc. All things plastic and polyester? Who woulda' thunk it? Me? Ms. Natural everything? How things change.” [slightly edited by me for clarity since I’ve taken her slightly out of context] Yes, Diane, we liveaboards and cruisers really do get into lengthy conversations at happy hour about the relative merits of zip-loc bags versus vacuum sealers and Snapware versus Lock-N-Lock or Rubbermaid or Tupperware or Pyrex.  Welcome to our world!

But once we’ve decided on plastic, there are still so many choices!  We invariably like square containers better than round when we have the option – less wasted space when lining up squares or rectangles on a shelf.  Some of our containers are purchased and others are reused packages from things we buy a lot of.  The purchased ones have the advantage of nesting to store compactly when not in use.  The recycled ones may lack that efficiency, they take up as much space empty as full, but make up for it by being free.  Selecting items in the grocery store can be as much about whether we can reuse the package it comes in, as it is about our choice of brands.  Ziplock bags with the air squeezed out, or vacuum sealed packages, have the advantage of taking up no space at all besides the volume of the contents … but if you’re unfortunate enough to get pests, they can eat right through the thin plastic!  

Sometimes I feel like a little kid playing house as I shuffle the contents from one canister to another as we use down the contents, trying to maximize space efficiency.  What gets me the most is somewhat funny, though.  By the time I’ve run out of something that has been carefully de-cardboarded and stored, I forget what the package looked like, necessitating a weird scavenger hunt at the grocery store.

After we ate all the wild rice or salted peanuts that these once held, they are now on their second (or tenth!) lifetime storing dried beans or couscous. Don't they look cozy in there?
For a while these big gallon containers held our main stock of pantry staples in an out-of-the-way locker, and we used them to replenish a smaller “day-use” jar in a more convenient location to save space.  This arrangement sounded great in theory, we thought we were really clever, until one went buggy and contaminated our entire 10-lb supply.  Now we break everything up into smaller quantities so if one package goes bad we don’t lose it all.  
These both hold about 5 pounds of flour.  Sometimes it is worth paying for the space-efficient square one, other times, being eco-conscious (and free!) is more important.  We've done both.
Now what do I do with all this stuff?  Transfer it to bug- and moisture-proof containers, for one thing!


  1. OK, so some geek questions. On land I prefer the Lock-n-Lock, but how do they do aboard?

    So you transfer into the plastic containers at the dock, on the boat, at the store?

    How do you keep your inventory? I have been playing around with the "myinventory" app on my iPhone for that.

    How much foot do you try to keep on board? Are we talking a month or do you go for longer?

    Sorry to hit you with so many questions. Just looking for some hints from someone with experience.

  2. Hi Smitty, thanx for reading. Tell me more about your plans - where/when are you going? I love the energy of people in transition! Not that I'm an expert, but here's my general thoughts. Take 'em for what they're worth and apply them to your own situation.

    * Lock-n-Locks are great! They seem to have almost a cult following among the serious ocean cruisers I know. Pretty much, who you are on land, is who you'll be on the boat. So if Lock-n-Lock work for your style on land, use it aboard. Double check the sizes, though - often containers and baskets look small in the store, surrounded by all that space. Then when you get it aboard you find it dwarfs the locker you had in mind for it.

    * Corrugated cardboard (a case of beer, for example) doesn't come aboard, it gets transferred at the dock, because my biggest fear there is critters. (Of course in the specific instance of beer, it's not unlikely that only 23 of the 24 bottles makes it aboard; the 24th goes promptly into me!) Pressed cardboard, like breakfast cereal or pasta, it depends. In a northern climate, where the issue is food getting soggy more than critters, we transfer as soon as we come aboard, just for practicality. In the tropics, where we are more worried about bugs, we try to do it dockside. Besides, in the bright sunlight, easier to check and make sure there are not critters in the food itself! If we're walking back from a store, we'll sometimes take the packaging off right there before putting our stuff into a backpack. Keeps the sharp corners from digging into my shoulder blades.

    * I've tried several times to build an inventory in a spreadsheet or similar and discovered my brain just doesn't work like that. I'm okay at setting it up, but I just don't keep it up. The only thing that works for me, is just to look through the lockers every month or so to remind myself what's in there. Bonus - you notice when cans are getting rusty, etc.

    * How much food to keep aboard depends, of course, on where we're going. I'm happy planning on about having about 1-1/2 or twice as long as I think I'll need. So if I expect to be out of resupply range for a month I'll plan on 6-8 weeks. But more fundamentally, you need to know yourself. Which possible error makes you more uncomfortable - running out of a favorite food because you bought too little, or losing some food to spoilage before you could eat it, because you bought too much?

  3. Thanks for the reply. Very helpful.

    I actually posted on your blog once before (the Take it or Leave it post) under Jesse K on s/v Smitty. Reading your blog and other sailing/cruising blogs inspired me to finally start my own. So if you would like, you can read about our plans at

    Thanks again.

    Jesse K on Smitty

  4. Nice!! I'll be following you online.