FIRE: The Rhythm of the Day (Part 1)

by sara rose


The stove top in the Mercantile Galley. The ladder is the main passageway in and out of the galley. The bars around the stove top keep things from sliding off when we’re heeled over.

I just finished a 5-day trip aboard the Schooner Mercantile.  This is the first week I’ve started to really settle in to the rhythm of the days of sailing.  Once the initial rush of provisioning the boats on Sunday/Monday is over and we’ve left Camden Harbor with our passengers, there is a sweeter, slower rhythm developing each day we’re at sea.  

My days start at 4:00am.  I wake up, get dressed and head straight to the galley to start the fire. At 4:00am on the eastern edge of the country as we hover around the summer solstice, the sky is just beginning to lighten.  By 4:30 it is daylight and at 5:00am, the great golden sun starts to peek over the horizon.  Usually, no one is up and around until almost 6:00am, though sometimes we have an early rising passenger who will sit quietly on deck or in the galley if it’s raining.



The fire box on the ShipMate cook stove, ash box is down and to the left, oven is behind the word “ShipMate”. The barely visible handle above the “S” is a door that can be open or closed and essentially creates a convection oven when closed, allowing the flame to wrap around the oven and provide more even heat.

The wood stove I cook on and with each day is a “ShipMate” made in Stamford, Connecticut.  She’s a great curvy, sturdy cast iron lady bolted to the soles (floors) of the galley.  The ShipMate company seems to be the place to get wood cook stoves for sea faring vessels.  Their website states “Traditional solid fuel boat stoves and accessories hand built today the same way they were over 125 years ago and made to last another century.  The Yacht and Ship wood stoves by which all others are measured.”

The firebox is quite small, maybe 10 inches wide and 6 inches tall at the mouth, though wider and taller inside and fairly deep.  I lay the fire each morning with newspaper, a small bit of dryer lint, a strip or two of cardboard, some pieces of bark or scraps from the wood shop, a few smallish logs and an organic custom-processed Ecuadorian cacao bean for good measure (Nova Monda Cacao & Chocolate represent!  I light the paper and within minutes the fire is steady and strong, except when it’s not, which is sometimes a possibility if it’s damp outside.  



Mexican-style hot chocolate for a cold, blustery day. Made with Nova Monda jar chocolate, whole milk, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, vanilla and topped with freshly ground Ecuadorian cacao beans. Rich, creamy and SPICY!

I feed the fire with smaller pieces of wood for the first hour, about every 10-15 minutes or so, til there are embers and a raging flame.  Within an hour, the stove top is at a cooking temperature and the water in the kettles is hot enough to brew the first pot of coffee.  An hour and a half to two hours after the fire is started, the oven is hot enough to bake, about 350-400 in the hot spot next to the firebox on the top shelf and about 250-300 in the cold spot on the bottom shelf all the way to the right.

While I’m tending the fire for those first few hours, I have the galley (and the boat really) all to my self.  I take that time to step out and watch the sunrise paint the sky, to adjust the menu as needed based on changing conditions and the ingredients that are most in need of being used, I also premix most of my baked goods for the day, keeping the wet and dry ingredients separate until right before they go into the oven.  



A perfectly browned blueberry pie, served with whipped cream.

There are generally at least 4 baked goods per day mixed and waiting on the counter by the time people are up and about; a pastry or muffin for the 6:30am snack (which is hopefully already baked by 6:00am), one for breakfast at 8:00am, one savory bread for lunch and one brownie or cookie or bar for the dessert after lunch.  I usually have to start prepping breakfast before I finish the baking but by 9:00 or 10:00am all the baked goods are done except for dinner’s dessert, which I do after the 3:00pm snack.  

When I took the job here, I was unsure how the wood stove cooking would go — would it be really hard? Would I burn things? Would I accidentally let the fire go out?  How would I manage the 100 degree temperature difference from one side of the wood stove to the other? How would I know when things were done?  I was full of questions, but also a great curiosity. As it turned out, it seems these wood burning cook stoves and I were made for each other.  Once I learned that most things had to be covered in foil, it’s been easy, or maybe more accurately, it’s been very intuitive for me to learn how to work with the stove and wherever she’s at in any given moment.  

The best lesson I’ve learned in working with this stove is to be in the moment.  If I was set on getting a particular temperature at a particular time or if I was intent on control, I probably wouldn’t survive this job.  Instead, I’ve had to learn to work around the 100-200 degree difference between the two sides of the oven, how to know when foil is necessary or not, how to adjust everything when all I have to burn is oak as opposed to pine, how to adjust everything when it’s been raining for days and the fire’s food is impregnated with moisture, how to use the wide open expanse of the stove top to get anything from high boiling heat to a heat low enough to melt chocolate, how to just let go when the fire refuses to cooperate for no logical reason, how to bake anything and feed the fire safely while we’re heeled over sometimes almost to 45 degrees (or so it seems), how to release the smoke when it starts filling the galley either by opening the ash box door, adjusting the fire box door or opening the convection damper (or all 3), and how to laugh it off and salvage whatever’s salvageable when I do accidentally burn something.  There are so many variables and so much surrender required to cook well on a sailing vessel over a fire.  

Next week, part 2 . . .