A Shippie’s Diet

The regular readers of this blog know that I was a shippie until very recently. Shippie is a term used for a person who work on ship. I worked in the capacity of a marine engineer on five different ships. Following is not my resume. It explains to you the food habits on a normal ship.

My very first ship was with the shipping corporation of India. Before being inducted in the corporation, I had to undergo training for a period of one year under the guidance of very senior marine engineers, with lots of good tales to tell and experiences to share. I never had my mind on studies during the training period, but whenever any instructor recollected any incidence regarding food onboard(on the ship), my eyes would wake and my ears open up. From what they told, I had a general impression that the food onboard was good most of the times. Very rarely would it be bad. Bu it was always abundant and free flowing, considering the long voyages(journey between two ports). And the cooks seemed to be the best of all.

During the tenure of my five ships I had a very mixed view about this.

My very first ship, M.T. Subhedar Joginder Singh PVC, was a crude oil tanker, and being old, most of the voyages were to the Indian coastal ports(Except for that one time when we went to Labuan, Malasiya). So, food getting spoiled, was almost a rare event. But, I do not recollect a single day when all the three meals, were fit for a king. I would always be either a good breakfast, a good lunch, or a good dinner. But never a combination of two goods and one bad, or three goods all together on a single day. Be it diwali, Id, Christmas, or any other festival celebrated in India. The catering department pointed out that this kind of diet was abiding to the INSA-MUI rules, and was a balanced diet. Funny to hear this on ship where you work hard with heavy machinery under extreme conditions.

Here I must interrupt to explain in brief, a funny kind of agreement made between the INSA(Indian National Ship owner’s Association) and the MUI(Maritime union of India), with regards to food(most of the clauses from the entire agreement are very ridiculous, but I stick to food.)

The agreement states the type of meals a seafaring officer will be provided. It goes in length and details to explain the number of official meals, served by stewards, an officer is entitled to. And it does not stop here. The union has even quantified the amount of milk a person can have, in milliliters. And the catering officers stick to it. They have described in details what type of combination of food should be prepared for each meal.

So back to my ship, where we were served slices of cheese after lunch, as a mouth freshener. With only one good meal, we had to decide early in the morning which meal to load ourselves with, and adjust our other meals accordingly. The very first month when I was put up for a night shift along with the fourth engineer, I learned that its a common practice on ships during the night watch, to cook something in the galley(kitchen of the ship). Most of the times, we would boil eggs inside the engine control room itself, using an electric tea kettle. Which was forbidden, so don’t tell my chief engineer. But once I went to the galley, and being interested in cooking and all, and made some scrambled eggs. The next day, I found some chicken legs in the refrigerator. I fried two of them and shared with the other junior engineer. The third day, the refrigerators were locked with a custom made latch onboard. So no more “stealing” supplies from the fridge. For the next six months, we were scrambling eggs which we were supplied for our night shift.

On to the second ship, which I joined at Mumbai port, where picked up supplies for our journey to Iran. From there we were scheduled to go to mohammedia, morocco and the catering officer got some “news” that the ship was supposed to come back to Mumbai from Morocco. So he ordered for the minimum supplies, as he calculated that he could pick up some on the return voyage at the Suez canal transit. Just before arrival to Morocco, it was declared that we would be going to the Angola offshore oil field, and then to Houston. All the calculations went wrong. The catering officer could not pick up supplies from Morocco, due to the exorbitant prices(a slice bread packet for 200 rs and a dozen eggs for 400 rs.). And there were no provisions at Angola offshore field. So we had to cut down on our food varieties during the transit to Houston. A one point at the end of the voyage, we had no bread, almost no milk, no fresh vegetables(salads were stopped from the day the catering officer found that his calculations had gone wrong.) Those were the days when I came to know about chicken giblets. One fine morning, the menu announce that we would be served chicken giblet curry for lunch. I was thrilled since I was about to taste something new, even when we have a food crisis onboard. Only later did I realise that giblets were the spare parts of chicken, which included the toes.I am fortunate enough not to have read chicken giblet curry on any menu card, anywhere, after that day.

On the day of my signoff(when we are relieved from our duties, its called as signing off from the ship) I went for lunch, only to find prawns curry. I started eating it, and mid meal, I asked the chief steward about when he had picked up new supplies with the prawns. He informed that the provisions were from Mumbai, about 8 months, and hundreds of of run/stopped refrigeration operations, old. May be that was the reason I had to stay empty stomach from afternoon till 10 pm when I entered the Cairo airport. Another common thing on both these ships were the mackerel. Very old and dry. Felt like they had been purposely dried to preserve for many months. They stink when fried.

My third ship wasn’t any better, being the same old SCI mentality. In fact, I was a food on that ship, with all the bed bugs sucking out my blood.

Things changed a lot after I moved to a foreign flag ship. This ships, though managed by Indian staff from land, had a very different culture. Though the provision stores were under lock and key, we never went disappointed whenever we requested something to the chief cook, who was the in charge of the entire galley operation under the supervision of the Master(the captain of a ship is called the master. He is the owner of the ship while onboard and is responsible for its proper functioning.) Provisions were picked up just enough for the voyage, and a bit more accounting for any delays. There were fresh provisions every 7-15 days. There was no rule regarding how much milk or juice a person consumed. Also there was an advantage of working with Filipino crew. I could try out various dishes popular to Pinoy(Filipinos). Various kind of soups including pork, meat, shrimps, crab were common. Onboard was the first time I tried crisp fried squid(kalamari in pinoy). Steak was good. And, this was the first time I came across a full fledge party onboard, with barbecue on the poop deck(aft deck, or the deck on the back end of the ship). A pigs head, with apple in its mouth, was roasted almost every time we had a party. Parties didn’t require occasions. A long voyage with calm weather and a jolly captain would suffice. Drinks were free flow. Beer, whisky, rum, vodka, wine…you name it.

Then we had times when we officers, who had some interest in cooking, would take over the galley for one meal. Its would be fun, and the end product would be exciting. Its surprising to know how efficient, men, who have no training in the kitchen, can be in the galley.

Though the times have changed, and its rare to find a ship with the “free flow of good food” culture depicted by our senior instructors at the training institute, I still feel that with the combination of right people on board, the sailing tenure can be a fun. Food wise or otherwise.

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