“Just throw it overboard,” our host told us. “The cans will rust, the fish will eat the scraps and the bottles will break up. But bring back the garbage bags.”
He was answering my question about what to do with the trash we had accumulated while staying in our waterfront cabin on one of the Gulf Islands while we fished and cruised in our 30-foot sports fisherman. We were preparing for our cruise across the Strait of Georgia, back to our North Vancouver moorage. Well, if the resort owner thought it was OK, it must be. So we did.
That was 1966. Deep-sixing garbage was routinely practiced back then. I’m haunted now by the thought of those tin cans, glass bottles and plastic containers still down there in company with how many others, sunk into the bottom of Plumper Sound.
Roll on 16 years. “Take the bottles and tins to the recycling bin by the wharf,” said my skipper. “The garbage goes in the black bin over there. I’ll rinse these dishes at the tap.”
We’d enjoyed a sunny picnic on Sidney Spit and now with the setting sun we are cleaning up and getting ready to return to our Crown 23 for our short reach across to our homeport of Tsehum Harbour.
That was 1982 and few boaters would ever dream of throwing garbage overboard. There was no need to, as most marine parks had garbage and recycling bins, along with potable water. Portland Island, De Courcy, Wallace Island, Sidney Spit, Beaumont provincial parks; Stuart, Jones and Sucia islands in the San Juans, all come to mind as having facilities for waste. Cruising was easier then. Our garbage could be offloaded without guilt, mooring buoys were free, and the best anchorages were emptier.
“Yikes, this boat reeks! I can’t put the smelly meat tins in the cockpit because it’s already full of garbage. Can we tow these behind in the dinghy? We’ve got another week to go.”
That was 2000. The price of mooring buoys was up, the trash bins were gone and even the recycling bins were hard to come by. The pumps and taps that used to provide water on islands like Portland, South Pender and Tent were being dismantled by governments possibly concerned with liability, and boaters were being faced with too much garbage and too little water. We headed back to our Pender Island homeport in our C&C 25 replete with redolent refuge and depleted of water.
So there’s bad news and good news. The bad is that those wonderful days of dockside trash bins and accessible water are long behind us, and hey—it was very convenient, let’s face it. The good is that now we have to take responsibility for the messes we make and the packaging those messes come in. Our attitude toward our resources and our responsibilities have grown up.
Now, however, in the 21st century, we can find ourselves up close and personal with ill-smelling company we would have preferred to leave behind.
If, like us, you like to explore deserted anchorages and tuck into quiet corners in marine parks, or cruise waters where marinas are few and far between, what’s to be done?
It’s 2016. Over the years and after many seasons of bad starts and uneasy negotiations, we’ve reached an uneasy truce with our temperamental trash.
Aboard the same C&C, we head toward the same homeport after two weeks of sailing, with garbage easily tucked into one small bin, without a peep of pungency. Wicked odours are history, extra visits by hungry wasps, flies, raccoons, crows and seagulls are curtailed, and the trash we take home is negligible.
Here’s what we do:
- We keep our Styrofoam on shore. The trays containing meat products are really nasty and often come with plastic “cushions” under them to soak up the juices. When the heat’s on, the odours get up, really, really quickly. Separate the meat from the mess and leave that behind in your garbage bin at home, or better yet take your containers to the deli or meat counter and ask for the product to go directly into them. We’ve started patronizing stores with their own meat counters and obliging staff and our Pender Island food store trumps. (I know, we’re a bit extreme green, but then we’re Gulf Islanders.)
- We get rid of excess packaging before setting sail. While much of food packaging is recyclable, it’s better to leave it at home where it can be routinely recycled, rather than in a marina bin where recycling may not be available or is costly and time consuming for the merchants if it is. Refundables are never a problem to recycle but other paper products often never make it to recycling heaven. Cracker, cereal and potato chip boxes, for example, stay behind in our blue bin, snuggling up to pancake mix and macaroni and cheese boxes. We put these products into our own bags, along with peanuts, powdered milk, biscuit mix and almost everything else.
- We buy dried foods rather than tinned and dry our own fruits and veggies as much as possible: Frenched green beans, sliced zucchini or tomatoes, spinach and kale and peppers, etc. Of course many fresh veggies can last up to two weeks if stowed away somewhere cool in a net bag where the air gets at them. Food like beets, onions, squash and cabbage will probably be perfectly OK, but you still have waste to deal with, and even vegetable peels or skins can smell pretty rancid when left to their own devices for too long. We also like the fact that there are no tins to rattle around and keep us awake in a bumpy anchorage or get loose when we hit some heavy wake. An added blessing is that the extra time it took for me to dry my own veggies, or even just select them from a bulk bin, I get back when I’m cooking dinner and don’t have to do any slicing or peeling in a tiny galley. Need I point out that all this dried food can go into baggies, which get washed and stored? Many of ours have been around the nautical block many times.
- I love fresh milk, but when it’s sour, nothing smells worse. For some reason, milk seems to spread itself around when it’s aboard. If even a drop escapes, we know it. No matter how much I wash milk containers, they still seem to harbour their nasty odour, and after constantly pulling everything out from our ice box and scrubbing it down trying to erase the pong of accidental spills, I finally decided fresh milk was not worth it and switched to powdered. (Even long life milk or canned milk doesn’t come aboard. The containers continue to exude.)
- Unsurprisingly, the best kind of packaging is none at all. We love nature’s larder. The food is always nutritious and fresh and comes unendowed. Every year after our weeklong “survivor” shakedown cruise, we learn more about what we can eat and drink in the wild. Of course crab, clams, oysters, shrimp and fish are the obvious protein source, with the fish and shrimp heads going into the crab trap and then the crab shells going overboard, and the oyster shells going back into the briny after being shucked with all their tiny exterior occupants still lively and happy to be returned. For veggies we’ve got seaweeds, sea plantain and sea asparagus, mushrooms and numerous greens in the forest around us—like dandelions and nettle. For fruits there are often berries to harvest, like huckleberries or salal or the ubiquitous blackberry, and even tiny sweet strawberries growing in sandy areas. And then there are all the abandoned fruit trees often happy to supply us with plums, pears and apples in the fall. Even rosehips are edible then. All this bounty brings no garbage with it and is far tastier than a limp iceberg lettuce that gave up the ghost days ago with only its smelly spirit remaining. Of course harvesting from nature involves a certain level of knowledge and there is always risk, especially if mushrooming, so start small with just a few things you absolutely recognize (like nettle, dandelions, shaggy mane mushrooms) and take along good reference books. One of our new favourites is The Deerholme Foraging Book by Bill Jones.
Being islanders, we understand the challenges and expense involved in the disposing of garbage, so at our frequent stays at marinas we enjoy the feeling of satisfaction we have at not having to add to their refuse pile. We see that as another benefit.
So if you can return to port after two weeks, without garbage, without having had to dispose of any en route, and without having had any crew jump ship, you too can pat yourself on your life jacket for a job well done.