Aboard the barque Picton Castle, in the eastern Pacific
I wrote this letter a few months ago and thought I'd send it to keep the continuity of the voyage in tact for your readers and my Island friends.
It's been three months since my last confession. That was from Pitcairn Island in the southeastern Pacific. We are now hove to off of Vavaâ'u, part of the kingdom of Tonga. Your intrepid sea cook from Martha's Vineyard is holding up well, and we still have a perfect record of no illnesses due to food. Some crew may be sick of me, but that's another story. We are fresh from a stay on Palmerston Atoll, part of the Cook Island group, where we had a wonderful stay and were treated to some fine local food (parrot fish, tar, manioc, bananas) and some excellent Polynesian dancing, in which we all took part.
Before that we were in Rarotonga where we were feted by the local elementary schools with more excellent dancing and by some islanders with a taste of local cuisine. I went one day to a new friend's get-together, a bunch of guys from the bar across the quay sitting around drinking beer and whiskey, playing ucher (an Italian card game, which I may not have spelled right) and eating goat stew which later was questioned as possibly being dog. They made some jokes about it while we were eating, and a girlfriend of one of the guys told a crewmember that it had in fact been dog. In any case, it was a good feed and as the cook of the vessel, I suppose it is my duty to try everything. Not having ever tried dog I can't confirm if it was so, but the whisky and the laughter and listening to they guys yak away in Maori made up for any possible discomfort. I wonder now what breed it could have been, a chow perhaps? It was after I had gone and got my right arm tattooed in Maori style, so I was already feeling the effects of that, and so anything was a pleasure.
Before Rarotonga we were at Mangareva, French Polynesia where, you guessed it, we were treated to some more fine dancing, led by a woman who turned out to be a man. Not uncommon in these parts and totally accepted. He/she gave me some black pearls for the hospitality I showed them as cook, preparing for them a snack of Pitcairn Island bread sticks. So all in all, this journey has been fulfilling.
The sailing has been quite good for the most part. We often hit seven knots, for a 175-foot barque that's not too shabby. The crew is coming along, learning the myriad lines that are necessary for a fully square-rigged ship, much like the ones Vineyard whalers sailed in long ago. They have even taken to the food, I am glad to report.
The food… oh yes, that. I am having, shall we say, an interesting time of it. Cooking three meals a day for 50 people on an inclined plane that is constantly moving up and down has been, as always, a challenge. The worst are the cross seas that we encountered in the southern Caribbean Sea on the way to Panama. Since then, for the most part things have been somewhat calm. No big blows to report, not even between myself and the skipper Dan Mooreland, for whom I cooked when he skippered the Ernestina out of New Bedford.
There has been much to remind me of the Vineyard, in addition to the bills I receive when we happen to get mail. The struggle that the people go through on the islands we have visited, Pitcairn and Palmerston especially, who only get supply ships when it is convenient for the shipping companies. In some respects on these islands it must be what it was like for Vineyarders many years ago, when they had to depend on the whalers and coastal shipping for provisioning, and if the weather didn't co-operate then the islanders went wanting. But this is 2005, and the people on the far outpost islands survive on rickety old ships and the occasional passenger cruise ship that happens by. Even at St. Cristobal in the Galapagos, when I was giving a ship tour to a friend I had made there, when she saw what we had in the hold she asked if there was any way I could sell her some peanut butter.
Another big item is mayonnaise, but out here they call it "Best Foods," the brand name. "Can you spare me any Best Foods?" I do what I can but can't help to see the tremendous juxtaposition I am faced with as a sea cook. The people on the vessel wax nostalgic for McDonald's, and at times I can sense the bickering (bitching?) that goes on: Why can't we have more snacks? You never make cookies. Powdered milk again?
Meanwhile, the people we meet who are forever kind and giving and greatly satisfied and thankful when they receive a can of corned beef or a jar of Best Foods. I guess there is more to be learned on a trip like this than how to clew up a buntline. As far as feeding the crew is concerned, now that I think of it, I did manage to get a really good recipe for goat.
We are now in the Vanuatu group of islands at the far eastern side of the Pacific after spending 10 days in Fiji. We had a fine passage from Tonga, and from there to Fiji we hit our record speed of nine knots. I am working on writing about the Fiji experience and will send that along soon, I hope all of you are well and that they haven't started airing Christmas commercials on the tube. In Vanuatu, in late December, they celebrate Family Day, and there are rumors that cannibalism is still practiced here. I'll write about that too, so long as they don't cook the cook. Be well; happy holidays, I'll write again soon.
Joe Keenan is chief cook and steward, aboard the barque Picton Castle. His email address is Shingleero@earthlink.net