Now I wouldn't like you to think that I'm an expert at browsing the shelves and spending wisely but I have learned a thing or two over the years and thought I might write a few words on the subject. Of course, I'm totally outranked by Chele who is to shopping what George Formby was to playing the ukelele – both exquisite exponents of their respective art forms. However, I believe that my own lack of enthusiasm for shopping has honed my abilities to do so with the very least pain, both to myself and our cruising fund.
Firstly, I should advise that shoppers should proceed with caution. I recall many years ago reading of a cruising couple (the eminent Eric and Susan Hiscock of Wanderer fame if memory serves –corrections would be welcomed) who were about to leave a Pacific island after a fairly length sojourn. During that time they had patronized a local grocery store and had developed a cosy relationship with the proprietor who had served them well. When it came time to leave, they had approached him on the matter of eggs. We can imagine the conversation unfolding something like this.
“We’re leaving in a couple of days and would like to buy the freshest eggs available so they stay fresh as long as possible.”
“Leave it to me, good folk. You know I can be trusted. I shall bring them to you just before you leave to guarantee that the eggs are freshly laid.”
So, the deal was done and money changed hands. As promised our merchant turned up with the eggs which they carried below and were carefully stowed. To conserve their supplies, they ate ashore that evening. Just after dawn the next morning our voyaging couple weighed anchor and slipped out through a gap in the reef. By lunchtime, the island was no more than a hazy silhouette far astern.
“Fancy a spot of lunch,” said She.
“Could murder an omelette,” replied He.
Although thoughts of murder remained, they weren’t directed at omelettes. They discovered the eggs were rotten. Cracking a few representative samples released a stench that filled the cabin. They concluded that their helpful grocer had found an ingenious if cynical way of disposing of out-of-date stock.
And they weren’t the only ones to be taken in. Many years ago, my then wife and I were in George Town in the Cayman Islands, bound via the Yucatan Straits to the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston. We had sailed there directly from the Leeward Islands, over 1000 nautical miles to the east. Unlike many Caribbean islands at that time (1974) instead of a cluster of dusty buildings and acres of corrugated steel George Town was sparkling with ultra-modern offices, hosts to the numerous offshore banks with their tax avoiding services.
Doubtless there are now many more in the four decades or so that have passed since then. The Cayman Islands are a British registered overseas territory and today there are more registered companies there than people. Which doesn't reduce its attractions. However murky their motives, the water in the anchorage was as clear as I have ever seen. Our anchor remained visible where it lay, securely dug into the sand that lay some three fathoms or so beneath us. To this day the Caymans are a top spot for the sub-aqua fraternity.
Whatever the wonders of this place, shopping featured high on our job list. We rowed ashore, checked in through Customs and Immigration, and sought out the local market. Almost the first thing we spotted were the piles of fruit – most conspicuously trays of the most colourful and plumpest oranges we had ever seen. Did they sell them separately? Yes, but it made no sense we were advised. Buy a whole tray, we were told, and the savings in cost would be considerable. Were they a local produce? No, the soil in Cayman was unsuitable. These had been grown in Florida. That was apparently good, he said, because US Customs could be twitchy about produce from unknown sources
A quick conference and we were sold on the idea. With a fast trimaran and only about another thousand miles to go, journey’s end should be well within a week. And, even without refrigeration the oranges would easily survive for that long. Indeed, if we bought more than we needed there would be plenty left to take ashore – even hand out to friends. The fruit-seller was ablaze with encouragement and, spurred both by our own eagerness and potential generosity, we settled for three trays worth, handed over the cash, and lugged our spoils back to the boat.
In the event it took just five days to complete our voyage. We crossed the Gulf, slid into Galveston Bay and docked against an arrival jetty. Immigration was no problems – our paperwork was in order. Next came the Customs who immediately spotted the oranges – two trays of which remained.
“You can’t bring those in,” we were told.
“Why ever not?”
“They carry citrus diseases.”
“Ah, but they were grown in Florida,” I assured the officials. “You can’t get more hygienic than that.”
Another shake of the head. “Sorry, sir. Even if they hailed from the Garden of Eden, you sure can’t bring them back into the US. Once they leave our shores, they’re gone forever.”
And thus it was that we had paid three times over for the half dozen or we had consumed. And it was entirely our fault. As the ancient Latin maxim put it: ‘caveat emptor’ — ‘let the buyer beware’. But enough of high-flown classicisms. It seems to me that ‘never give a sucker an even break’ is nearer the mark.