Food & Wine

The Gift of Downtime Off the Boat

20 April 2021 By Rubi McGrory
Island Fantasy
Illustration by John Devolle

Rubi McGrory has 25 years in yacht galleys and more than 150,000 miles at sea. Aside from culinary creations, she does art, design,  illustration, and curates custom tablescapes. Follow Rubi’s culinary shenanigans on Instagram 

Non-yachtie people carry an erroneous idea in their heads that we yachtsfolx live in a blissful world floating on crystal-clear turquoise water, gazing out upon white sand beaches that cradle tropical isles. We breakfast on foraged pineapples and coconuts; our fresh fish lunch and dinner are plucked from the loins of nature herself. 

However, our reality is more along the lines of murky dock water slapping against the hull as ferries and container ships trudge by kicking up diesel exhaust and wake at all hours. Breakfast is most likely cereal, because despite being on an island where chickens freely roam the streets, there are no eggs to be found. “Marketing” is hours of sitting in traffic to elbow your way through a produce selection of cabbage, potatoes, and onions in a grocery store redolent of salted fish. It’s exotic in its own way. 

However, our reality is more along the lines of murky dock water slapping against the hull as ferries and container ships trudge by kicking up diesel exhaust and wake at all hours. 

Very rarely, the reality of a yachting job actually aligns with people’s misperceptions of it. This is when the boat is someplace truly gorgeous and inaccessible to most of the human population — with no guests on board. The gift is that you’re allowed to exist in this space for a few days to interact with an island or anchorage like explorers and adventurers, instead of consumers and crew, frantic with guests or in a pre-pickup frenzy. This is an opportunity to connect with a place on its own terms, to understand what it means to be stewards of that land. 

I don’t mean whiling away a winter at anchor in Antigua or on the dock in Saint Martin with a very light schedule. This is typical yachtie life: surrounded by the hectic pace of provisioning, bar life, and wash downs. 

Some crew have no desire for such escapist fantasies: it’s difficult to get fresh provisions and any kind of support, Wi-Fi sucks, and it’s too far from the bar and social drama. That’s fair. Some crew would stage a mutiny before they’d miss being seen at Tap 42 happy hour or Boatyard brunch. That’s cool, you do you. 

But there may come a time when the schedule opens up, like clouds parting and heavenly rays of sunlight beam rainbows down. The boat stops, guestless, for a few days, in an idyllic anchorage. Captain lightens up the work schedule, or hell, even gives everyone a day or two off and use of the tender and toys. 

I’m going to tell about that fantasy come to life. 

We’d been sent down island on a wild goose chase before the boss canceled a trip. Captain navigated us to a heavenly bay in Tobago. A small boat by superyacht standards, we were the queen of the very sparsely populated anchorage. Captain instructed us to not be douchebags: no throwing off a wake, no Jet Skis, no crazy loud speakers. As long as there was food in the fridge and someone on watch, we had two days off to explore. He was about to wrap up — I saw a glint in his eye when he added that this wasn’t about spending the time sleeping or lounging about below deck catching up on Below Deck. 

We were to fully immerse ourselves in where we were. He ordered us out of uniform and frolicking within an hour. “Remember,” he finished, “this is the real Caribbean, this is what people come for. Treat this like a sanctuary, not an amusement park.”  

Some things don’t require repeating. I hastily whipped up some mediocre salads in time to hop in the tender at the appointed hour. We swam, snorkeled, and splashed around before heading to the tiny bar hut on the beach. We quickly befriend Peter and Anna, 20-something siblings, and Becks, Peter’s girlfriend. They were slowly cruising through the Caribbean on a 50-foot sailboat with Peter and Anna’s father and his wife.

Our conversation evolved into a mutual admiration society. They were mind-blown that we get paid to travel through the islands. We found it utterly inconceivable that they spend their days at the whim of exploring and swimming as they pleased — their lives falling in with the rhythm of the sea and the natural world. 

Carib beer flowed like water downhill. Sonny, the bar owner, kept up our supply of mostly-cold beer as the light drained from the sky. I’m not used to being idle around dinnertime. It felt weirdly naked and indulgent to allow night to fall without my being the sentry, welcoming the evening in with plates of food.  

But seriously, another Carib and I relaxed into the role. Along with our new friends, we hatched a plan for a beach barbeque the following night. Sonny offered a grill and tables we could use. Peter declared that he had a secret lobster spot and would invite some to our feast. I assured him we had tons of food to offer.

Let’s skip over the slight headaches and sandy tender situation the following morning, our field trip to three different waterfalls, and head straight to our beach barbecue. I’ll be the first to point out that the planning and execution was more like work and less like “full-island immersion.” 

Apparently, Peter’s lobster spot wasn’t secret to the lobsters. His contingent arrived with 52 lobster tails. That’s not a typo. Fifty-two lobsters gave their lives for our soiree. I stood silent, the words knocked out of me. The mate spoke up. “Dude, why are there so many lobsters?”

Peter beamed like he was standing on the gold podium at the Olympics. “Isn’t it amazing?! There were so many, we thought, why leave them? We found this spot, so the lobbies are ours, all ours.”

I swear I heard a “Mwah hah ha!” leak out of his mouth, like a proper villain. I didn’t hunt and kill the lobsters, yet I felt personally responsible. We’d just decimated a small lobster population. Planetarily, 50 lobsters aren’t a big deal. But to this one bay, to this community, and the local ecology, removing all of the lobsters is going to affect the sea life in the area. 

My fellow crew looked equally disturbed. What’s the protocol? Do I say something? Do I self-appoint as ambassador of the crustaceans? Our beach party of 12 represents 10 countries, four continents, and three languages. I over-analyze the diplomacy, language barriers, gender and cultural differences, and the most tactful words to point out that there was a way for us to have lobster while leaving the population intact. 

I felt sick. I didn’t want the lobster anymore. But at the same time, if I didn’t eat it, would their death and the destruction in their wake be in vain? Will we — our boat — get blamed for this? Is this what Captain means by connecting with the place and being a steward of these islands? How can we do better? What can we do next?  

Vanilla bean vinaigrette

Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette

Lobster and vanilla are unlikely, but perfect, flavor companions. This dressing makes for a sublime lobster salad.

> 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
> ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
> 4 Tbsp Champagne vinegar
> 1 Tbsp finely minced shallot
> 1 ½ Tbsp honey (or to taste)
> ¼ Tsp salt
> Fresh ground pepper

In a small saucepan over low heat, bring olive oil, vanilla bean, and seeds to just barely a simmer. Immediately remove from heat. Let sit at least an hour (and as long as two weeks) to fully develop flavor. When ready to make dressing, remove pod from the oil (leave teeny seeds in), combine shallot and vinegar, let sit 10 minutes. Add honey, salt, and pepper. While whisking, slowly drizzle in vanilla oil. Keep whisking until emulsified. 

This column originally ran in the February 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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