On the Job

Warning: Do Not Try a Beach Barbecue in Alaska

3 August 2022 By Nina Wilson
Illustration by John Devolle

Pre-galley, Nina Wilson trained as a dive instructor and skippered sailing boats in Greece before starting her yachting career in 2013. Currently head chef on a 55-meter, her talents included telling brilliant jokes and being able to consume six cheeseburgers and feel no guilt. Follow her on Instagram @thecrewchef.

Of course I adore a beach barbecue. A chance to get outside, in the actual sun? Breathe in the salty ocean air and feel the sand in between my toes? Hell yeah! It’s a welcome contradiction to the stuffy silver services, the atmosphere is joyful, and I don’t even mind burning myself on the barbie — pain isn’t a thing when you’re wearing board shorts!

The idea is we all gather on the rocky shore, set up the pot, and toss in corn, crabs, carrots, and reindeer sausages.

My first introduction to this fabled event was in the BVIs, where after fighting off neighboring yacht crews for prime position, the deck and interior team joined forces to create an absolute paradise: white linen gazebos and wreaths of lush foliage floating above the 12-seater teak table. (Aforementioned greenery was aggressively foraged from the surrounding rainforest; we are creatures of resourcefulness after all.) Starched table linens and ice buckets full of those miniature Fiji waters which could quench the thirst of maybe a small house cat? It was a stunning set up, and as a sous chef, I was permitted to attend the after-main meal to dish out individual fresh fruit salad and sorbet. Yes, you read that correctly, we had a sorbet bar at the beach. It was bliss! I felt relaxed just by association — the sandy feet and salty Tupperwares were no chip on my shoulder.

The fact is, it requires an immense amount of man/womanpower to pull it together. Checklists and crates, tender load after tender load, sunburned stews, and the fact that the bathroom is…non-existent? Ever tried nonchalantly wandering into the ocean post-service “for no apparent reason”? It is the definition of self-consciousness. But, the guests love it, and we all enjoy being off the boat for any reason. The combination of Bahamas, Caribbean, crystal clear water, and floating unicorns have made me pro-barbecue for the majority of my yachting career. Until now.

Picture this: We’re in Alaska and it’s the last evening of a 10-day trip. The guests have a mix of dietary requirements — vegan, gluten free, low sodium, the usual — and our Alaskan guides suggest an “old-fashioned crab boil.” The idea is we all gather on the rocky shore, set up the pot, and toss in corn, crabs, carrots, and reindeer sausages. Brilliant, I thought, an evening in the Alaskan summer sun! While some modifications were needed, we were able to delicately sway them into also providing a barbecue to mitigate the veggies boiling in meat and seafood juice (although I am sure it is delicious).

It started out well. The brand-new gazebos, emblazoned with the yacht’s name inflated proudly. Two massive logs formed excellent seating around the (below the tide line!) fire pit. There were even rumors of a toilet nearby. The stews were sent over to source firewood while happy sounds of chatter and laughter echoed across tranquil waters of the bay.

Then, out of the blue, one of the stewardesses discharged a bear spray canister into another stew’s face. Stew down. Accident? We can only hope. It then started clouding over, and a cold wind began creeping in. The pot and gas burner for the “crab boil” were dropped over two hours before the start of the barbecue and the deck crew filled up the largest (30 liter) pot with frigid seawater and set it on the meager heat source. Hmm. I started to have bad feelings.

It started out well. The brand-new gazebos, emblazoned with the yacht’s name inflated proudly. Two massive logs formed excellent seating around the (below the tide line!) fire pit. 

I trundle on over in the rescue tender with bags galore, loaded up with local king crab legs, corn, reindeer snags, burger patties, and all the necessary accoutrements to assemble s’mores. After initially taking the wrong path into a disgruntled camper’s set up, I stumble across seaweed-covered rocks trying not to breathe through my nose or twist my ankle.

It’s now 45 min ’til the guests arrive and I check the pot. The gas burner has conked out and the water is ice cold. No boil then… I turn my attention to the barbecue. It’s about the size of a throw pillow. Right. Moving on!

I set the deckhand to cracking the crab legs; I’ll do them first on the grill in a pan with a load of butter, and start setting up my burger station. But wait, I’ve been so distracted up until this point that I haven’t noticed the bugs. OH MY GOODNESS. The bugs. They are ungodly. It’s a plague! It is literally a biblical invasion of small flitting, biting things.

Now, I’m an Aussie gal so I’m comfortable with bugs. I’ll swat at horseflies without flinching and mosquitos are my pals. But these…these abominations have almost got me undone. The chief stew and I exchange panicked looks, blindly grabbing the bug spray and dousing ourselves in it. We even do that thing where you scrunch your face up and then spray all around the face and hair area. It does nothing. Luckily, the bugs have avoided the fire pit, and the guests arrive, taking their seats obliviously.

I’m in purgatory, standing in front of the grill, balancing on a slimy rock, and stoking the coals. Bugs are in my hair. Bugs are crawling on my neck. At least three of the critters are up my nose. I try deliberating spilling butter into the barbecue, attempting to shield myself with a smoke screen. I pull up grass from the shore nearby and toss that on — but nothing is working. These bugs will not be deterred.

So, beach barbecues are for warm weather and sunny, bug-free beaches. Heed my warning.

We hustle the butter-soaked crab, burgers, and snags over to the guests and thrust it desperately at them, retreating with our bug swarms protesting behind us. I’m almost at a breaking point when it’s time to make s’mores, and I’m desperately pleased that I brought a blow torch; however, waving that around in an attempt to ward off the winged devils is frowned upon by my fellow crew. Somehow, we make it through the pack up, and blast off in the rescue tender.

Dear reader, I cannot convey my intense feelings of relief and joy to be off that cursed shore. About half the bug population of Alaska may now reside in my airways, but at least they’re no longer crawling on my cheeks. I was very glad to be safely back in my clean, bug-free, climate-controlled steel box of a galley (no matter how many Alaskan sunsets I may miss).

Indeed, the whole experience was so traumatizing that when we pulled up on that very same anchorage the following trip, I started experiencing PTSD and began slapping my face free of the imaginary bugs.

So, beach barbecues are for warm weather and sunny, bug-free beaches. Heed my warning.

The Best Burger Sauce You Will Ever Make

Basically, it’s a homemade Big Mac sauce, but I call it “M/Y (insert boat name) Burger Sauce.”

> 1 cup mayonnaise
> ½ cup sweet white onion, finely minced
> ½ cup sweet relish
> ½ cup minced pickles
> ¼ cup ketchup
> ¼ cup French’s Mustard
> 1 tsp white wine vinegar
> ½ tsp onion powder
> ½ tsp garlic powder
> Generous shake of white pepper
> Pinch of MSG

Mix all together. Add more ketchup and mustard as needed until the color and taste seem like the real deal! The longer it stays in the fridge, the better it gets (overnight at least, and up to two weeks). 

This article originally ran in the December 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


More from Dockwalk