Under ordinary circumstances, any canteen where half or more of the workforce were seen vomiting profusely shortly after their first meals would not stay open long. National Media would all over the story like a rash, the Health Department would be rubbing their hands with glee and preparing pictures of the cooking staff to mount as trophies in their offices, and the politicians up for re-election would be working the angles. The unfortunate staff would be demanding somebody do something, the Class Action vultures would be there with outrageous contracts and claims aplenty and the insurance companies would be desperately circling the wagons. The only uncertainty would be how far down the chain the blame would vest, and whether some unsuspecting lowly kitchen-hand would end up as a convenient scapegoat for the sins and omissions of those more lavishly remunerated. But these are no ordinary circumstances. I’ve long believed that in any organisation, there are people who are important for career development, and people who are actually important. My boss, and his boss are the former. Receptionists, secretaries, IT support, cleaners, technicians, etc. are the latter. When something needs to be done quickly, these people often make the difference between smooth success, rocky adequacy or embarrassing failure.
The Europa is slightly different, not least because the lines of who does what amongst the crew are more than somewhat blurred. Plus it is very difficult to argue that the captain is not the most important person on the boat in all respects since he takes the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the boat stays above the sea. Which – given the alternatives – is probably a “good thing” which overrides all others.
But as some general whose name I’ve long forgotten (Napoleon? Wellington?) once famously said, an Army marches on its stomach (which makes it all the more bizarre that the Royal Navy of two centuries ago was as famous for lousy food as it was for peerless gunnery). The Europa is no exception, and the smooth functioning of the galley makes a difference. It is of course a documented fact that no-one who works in the galley (which is apparently most of the crew) can ever be seasick, no matter what the conditions might be. While us mere mortals are wondering how to stagger five metres to the rail for yet more retching, the galley salves ares are happily tending their vats of bubbling delicacies and goodness, or down in the dungeons of the hold finding those last ingredients. Without even the slightest hint of the dreaded mal de mer. Some things are preordained. Sail changes will happen just after your turn on the helm has finished. The number of layers you are wearing will be wrong for the conditions. The day you want seconds is the day you have to be on lookout before seconds are called. The yards will be rebraced just after coiling up is finally completed. The adverse currents will seek out the Europa at every opportunity. And breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served on time, no matter what. On about day three or four conditions were a little bouncy. If not more than a little bouncy. Or as coastal sailors would say, best enjoyed from the bar on dry land. The boat was rolling and lurching and even standing was difficult. Yet by some minor miracle, the usual lunchtime soup appeared (albeit us mere mortals were not to be trusted to carry it), leaving me to idly wonder how the pots stayed on the stove, and how it was possible at that angle to put enough soup in the pots to cover the bottom without simultaneously slopping over the sides.
When standing vaguely upright was a major achievement even with the assistance of two walls and a rope, watching the strangely balletic way the crew negotiated the lounge or deckhouse with a hot bowl of soup in hand time and again was baffling. And then things got yet more rugged. All the watertight doors to the deck were closed. Mugs and glasses were becoming collateral damage in the deckhouse. Safety harnesses were the new must-have fashion accessory - inside the deckhouse. And as for anyone foolish enough to venture through the wheelhouse to the near vertical main deck... Under these circumstances, having a dinner of bread and cheese would have been understandable, and possibly expected. Or even biscuits and water. Fruit could have been an alternative, were it not for the risk of apples leaping from the fruit bowls and shooting like missiles across the room. Then rumours started of a pot of sacrificial cauliflowers making a desperate bid for freedom out of the galley and into the companionway. The only surprises were that anyone even considered cooking anything, and that the potatoes and broccoli decided not to join the mutiny.
Yet at seven o’clock sharp, dinner was served. Not bread, not biscuits, but a hot meal of the usual two courses, with dietary alternatives as normal - although a touch light on the cauliflower. And again, served gracefully to our seats without mishap, in a manner which had me questioning whether laws of physics still applied. Just keeping the plate on the table and transporting the food the final half metre was almost beyond me, yet the empty plates were whisked away seamlessly, to reappear clean and gleaming a few minutes later. In conditions they themselves subsequently described as “brutal”. It would be interesting to see it would take to stop the galley, but I suspect I’m unlikely to find out on this trip. Or more accurately, I rather hope I don’t find out. I did however note than none of the boats on the sloop deck appeared to have soup-pots as standard, but it is of course possible that they may be installed as part of the protocol for Abandon Ship…
So to all the galley hands, who keep the food coming in all conditions, who keep the tea and coffee topped up, who smile and are positive no matter how lousy they may be feeling inside – I salute you.