At sea, taste buds left high and dry

Deprived Volvo sailors dream of pizza, steaks

April 26, 2002|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

As they sail east from Annapolis toward France on Monday, the crew of the fleet leader in the Volvo Ocean Race will dine on a repast of roast turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberries.

All served up in dog bowls.

The meal is rehydrated turkey and slopped-over powdered potatoes dotted with Craisins, heated over a butane burner and served up in deep-dish plastic bowls normally suited for the family pet. All to keep the goop from sloshing out in rough seas.

"Real elaborate, huh?" says Richard Clarke, a crewman aboard first-place illbruck Challenge.

The men will wash the food down with beverages made from the briny deep - water purged of its salt and most of the ocean plankton.

This is typical fare for these modern Magellans, who are forced to leave their fast-food diets at the dock.

"There are no sail-through McDonald's on the high seas," says Clarke.

Food is picked not for taste, but for nutrition and weight. In a race in which every ounce counts, a tiny bottle of Tabasco may be the heaviest food item on board. The rest is freeze-dried, vacuum-packed or already lightweight foods like pasta and oatmeal. Even chewing gum is rationed.

Some boats carry more provisions than others. "We probably carry more food weight than most [about 15 pounds of provisions per day for a crew of 12]," says Clarke. That's about one pound of solid food per person before adding water, which turns most meals to mush.

Clarke, the quartermaster who plans illbruck's menu, allows his crew 12 different entrees, twice the number offered aboard Amer Sports Too, the all-women's boat. Not that the variety on any of the eight vessels is all that striking to the palate.

"You can't tell the difference between meals," complained Tony Mutter, part of Team SEB. "Sometimes you think [you're eating] chicken stew, but it turns out to be beef. And when it's dark outside, who knows what it could be?"

Aboard Amer Sports Too, the sailors may have a limited menu, but they make the most of it. When preparing "hearty" meals, such as dilled beef or sauteed chicken, the women take time to heat the food in water, which makes it more edible. Some boats simply boil water, then douse the flame and add the food.

Another choice at sea is when to serve the light fare. Illbruck often swaps breakfast and lunch to give its crew more oomph for morning chores. On Monday, it will be eating Mexican chicken with kidney beans at 6 a.m. Other main courses that fuel illbruck's sailors are beef teriyaki, roast lamb and chicken a la king.

"Our motto is, `Eat to Win,' " Clarke says. "If you're hungry, you're fatigued and you don't make the right decisions. You haven't the energy to trim [the sails] or to drive. You have to make sacrifices to win this race, but there's a point where you can be too Spartan."

Competing in this event can take the starch right out of you - also proteins and minerals, says Timo Malinen, medical coordinator of the race. "One sailor told me it takes nearly a year to recover," the doctor says.

Losses of 10 to 20 pounds per person are not uncommon on long legs of the journey, leaving mariners ravenous when they dock. Illbruck reached the Inner Harbor last week to find its shore crew bearing eight large pizzas, which the crew attacked like piranhas.

"In port, they tend to go a bit silly with burgers and beer," says Malinen, of Finland.

Two breakfasts a day in port were the rule for Australia's Tom Braidwaad, 30, of Team SEB. Amer Sports Too's Liz Wardley hit the ground running for a big block of cheese. "I'm addicted to it," the 22-year-old Australian says. Teammate Bridget Suckling, 27, of New Zealand, polished off 11 crab cakes during her first four days in Baltimore. "What I don't crave is fish," she says.

On land, they feast, relax and reminisce about tough times at sea. Like the time Amer Sports One lost its utensils, which were inadvertently thrown overboard on Leg 1. The crew made do with spoons fashioned from the lenses of their sunglasses.

Even worse was the malfunctioning burner aboard Amer Sports Too. For 10 days during the jaunt from Africa to Australia, the women's sole source of heat was a flickering flame with the clout of a candle.

"We fixed mashed potatoes in cold water. We soaked crunchy rice in cold water," Wardley says. "There was soot everywhere, from that yellow flame. We all looked like chimney sweeps."

Now, the crew carries a backup burner, despite its precious weight (one-half pound).

"We've learned our lesson," Wardley says.

Jesse Colvin contributed to this article.

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