Culinary Waves: by Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson
It started with the feeling of being light-headed and dizzy, then progressed to leg cramps. Later that night, the leg cramps became unbearable, shooting me out of bed. Thinking back, I remembered stopping earlier in the day to ask myself why was I in the walk-in and what was I looking for?
Of course, this could suggest exhaustion – I work extremely long hours and taking care of my needs doesn’t come first when the owner and guests are on board. But then I started thinking, how much water did I have that day? Oh, not good. What about the day before? Definitely not good. How about the week? Oops. That’s when it dawned on me – I was dehydrated.
I had forgotten to drink my water. There it sat, a full bottle on the galley counter. It was so bad that my brain had to stop and think about what I was doing and why. By the time I was thirsty, it was too late. I had already passed the point of dehydration. It happens quite easily. I get caught up cooking in the galley and tell myself, “On my next pass by that counter, I will throw back half that bottle.” But I don’t.
I was lucky. Severe dehydration can land you in the hospital with organ failure, brain shrinkage, rapid heart rate and low blood pressure, just to name a few. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s a serious concern, especially when you consider that you might be thousands of miles away from a decent hospital. As yacht crew, we are well aware of exhaustion, but sometimes the real problem is dehydration.
Deck crew need to be especially aware of dehydration because they are out in all extremes, and the heat can do them in. During my long career in yachting, I have seen many new crew carted off to the doctor because they suffered from dehydration. As a chef, I look for ways to help the crew stay hydrated. For example, I give them packets of hydration gel with simple tear-off tops that they can squeeze into their mouth, or a hydration powder that they can throw into their water bottle. These gels and powders provide electrolytes, which we lose when we perspire.
Electrolytes are essential minerals such as sodium, potassium and magnesium that, among other things, keep hydration levels in the body balanced. Proper functioning of the digestive, nervous, cardiac and muscular systems depends on adequate electrolyte levels. Muscle cramping is one sign that electrolyte levels are dangerously low, and correcting dehydration can depend on replenishing them. Mineral water and coconut water have natural electrolytes, but filtered drinking water does not, making the hydration gels and powders especially helpful.
I also stock up on foods with high water content to serve when it is hot outside, or when the crew or guests have had a night of heavy partying. Watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries and skim milk are prime examples. Some other foods with high water content include zucchini, broths, soups, peppers, celery, cabbage and cauliflower. Many of these foods also come packed with vitamins and minerals, including electrolytes. Cooked celery and zucchini can be combined into a terrific cleansing detox drink for your kidneys.
I provide these water-packed fruits and veggies as snacks or as a quick grab-and-go for the crew, and also serve them along with a meal so that the owner and guests can munch on them while the main entree is being prepared. This helps especially if they aren’t much for drinking water throughout the day.
While we are in an environment that suggests cocktails and wine before, during and after meals, alcohol is extremely dehydrating. We wake up the next morning with our brains and bodies depleted of the moisture they need to stay alert, be healthy and function – aka the hangover. No, there is no cure, but we can lessen the severity if we adequately hydrate before taking that first sip of alcohol.
On occasion, I have guests onboard that have congestive heart failure, As a chef, I have to remember that fluid balance is the most important aspect of managing their condition, especially if they are dehydrated. Some patients have to limit their intake of fluids, while others never get enough. Consult a doctor if you are unsure of how to address their needs so that they are not dehydrated while onboard.
There are so many ways to obtain water other than just opening a bottle cap. It’s very important to remember our bodies are made up of water and we need to maintain adequate hydration levels for optimum health.
Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments are welcome below.