Roles on board: Victualler

02 June 2015

Each crew member taking part in the Clipper Race plays an important part on board to ensure that the team is performing safely and efficiently, there are also specific roles on board that crew can volunteer to take on to support their fellow team mates.

One of the most important of these roles is the victualler, who leads the victualing team and is responsible to their skipper for ensuring their team is properly fed and watered for the duration of the race.

The victualler is in charge of the meal plan for each leg. An army marches on its stomach and the nutritional and calorific content of meals needs to be considered depending on the weather and duration of each race. In port the Race Office team provide local information for supermarkets and team mates assist the victualler with their duties.

It is a huge undertaking to plan each meal for every crew member on board the yacht for up to three weeks at sea. Round the world crew member, Greg Wilson from Dumfriesshire put himself forward for the task on board the Switzerland entry during the 2013-14 edition.

Greg sat down with Clipper Race HQ to talk about his role of victualler.

Clipper Race: When you heard about the victualing position on the race, what made you decide to volunteer?

Greg: I came from a large family and had done a lot of cooking while still at home, so I had experience of planning menus and cooking for large numbers from an early age. I then worked in catering for a few years and gained experience in designing and costing meals for bulk consumption. After that, 15 years working in London in various programming, records and project management roles gave me experience of people management, expectation setting and developing and using spreadsheets.

My Level 1 training was one week before Crew Allocation and when the various on board roles were being discussed, I realised that my background and mix of abilities suited me for the role of victualler. When it came to Crew Allocation, a large proportion of our crew were present, including all the round the world crew members and, after listening to everyone describe their backgrounds I realised I was better suited for the role, based on what people had revealed, than many others who were there. It’s always better to have people who are willing to do a job and one of the things both the training skipper and my race skipper said was that victualing could be a thankless task. I decided to volunteer partly because I knew I could do the job if it was given to me, and I believed that I could take on the challenges within the role and ensure people enjoyed their food as we went around the world.

Clipper Race: Describe the training at pre-race prep week, what was it like?

Greg: Thankfully, the victualing training was carried out a few weeks prior to pre-race prep week, meaning that menu preparation could start before we arrived in Gosport and we were able to do a trial run by victualing the team building weekend and monitoring what extras we needed, what we had excess of etc. The course highlighted that religious issues, vegetarianism and food allergies needed to be taken into account. It was very good as a starting point, and highlighted a lot of things we needed to consider, from storage space and positioning on board to long-term shelf lives of fruit and vegetables before we planned the menus and started buying.

Clipper Race: What kind of responsibilities where you given during the race?

Greg: From the start I had responsibility for menu planning and buying decisions with assistance from one of my fellow round the world crew members. I also had to plan stowage of food and supply/stowage of cleaning supplies etc. As the victuallers were the ones to visit shops, when other crew members might not get the chance, we were responsible for team purchases and individual crew requests too, e.g. “As well as the food, can you get us a garden hose, a stapler and a pair of shorts (32” waist)”. I took on responsibility for planning the Mother duty rota as, being responsible for planning the menus and doling out the ingredients, I had a good idea of whose abilities were better suited for certain things, who could manage on days when we expected high seas, who could be paired with who without killing each other etc.

On Switzerland we had two quartermasters (one per watch) reporting in to the victuallers, who assisted with buying in ports and looked after daily checks on fruit and vegetables. Liaising with the quartermasters to keep track of food quantities and adjust menus accordingly was critical, especially on longer voyages.

Ensuring that the toilets (now I am back on land, I can call them toilets even after a year of sailing round the world!) were stocked with soap/anti-bac hand wash/toilet paper/baby wipes also fell under victualing.

Clipper Race: How did you find the responsibilities you were given, were they manageable and did you enjoy the role?

Greg: Victualing was a lot of fun in the long run. It was clear from early on that people would get bored with food if we kept the same meals the whole way round the world, so adding in new breakfasts, lunches and dinners as we went around was good fun. We found out what the crew did and didn’t like and made adjustments accordingly. It got very boring knowing that in so many days’ time, breakfast, lunch and dinner will be X, Y and Z because that’s what we had yesterday and the day after it will be A, B, C because that’s what we are having today, so menu planning became more fun – keeping things varied across the voyage while avoiding things like two pasta meals on the same day.

I discovered it’s very important to listen to what everyone has to say and learned the importance of snacks and spares on Leg 1. Always assume a voyage will last longer than you think and that people will eat more that you anticipated. Gummy bears work well as both snacks and gaming items: “Can you catch a gummy bear in your mouth while helming?” is not a suitable game for sailors, but “Can you catch a gummy bear in your mouth thrown by someone halfway up the mast?” will not impede sailing performance. Chocolate and Equators do not go well together, so finding space in cool boxes sooner rather than later and keeping snack boxes out of direct sunlight are critical.

A great help in victualing came from other victuallers. Sharing news of shops, wholesalers and local suppliers made it a lot easier to cope. Trading stories of what did and didn’t work made things easier for future legs and/or provided solutions to issues that had arisen.

Everything is manageable, once you have worked out how. Victualing needs to be done and supply has to be done in port, while some on-boat tasks can be done before arrival or after departure: Things got a lot easier once I ensured that time scheduled for victualing/stowing was based around the practicalities of purchase and delivery rather than when it was convenient for others to do maintenance (it’s not possible to stow food on the Sunday, if you can’t go and buy it until the Monday, so we had Sunday as the maintenance day and victualing stowage later in the week).

Clipper Race: What would you say to people who were considering volunteering for this role?

Greg: It’s a tough proposition, to supply food the whole way round the world, but the rewards outweigh the negatives. The thanks you get when things go right far outweigh the grumbles. People won’t remember that form X got filled in and handed in on time, but they will remember “Steak Night” in the middle of the Atlantic, “that awesome Bolognese” on the pontoon in South Africa. Also, the “worst meal ever” will be attributed to the mothers, not the victualler! Remember, there are people who have done it before who will be willing to assist if asked.

And finally remember to factor in a secret stash of tin openers, gas lighters and snacks for emergencies and you’ll be fine. That extra bag of crackers when everyone is convinced there are none left can go a long way to making everyone happy!