Bob Decker and two friends celebrate Thanksgiving 1985 with a proper, propane oven-prepared turkey, aboard the Fantasea. CONTRIBUTED

Those who spend their days — and holidays — on liveaboard boats in the Florida Keys know a secret. Everyone, even the landlubbers among us, knows how a day on the water can make a simple taco and beer taste otherworldly. But the full-timers also know the power of a salty breeze when it comes to seasoning an entire Thanksgiving dinner. 

The thought of a perfectly brined and browned turkey, or a heap of buttery potatoes, accentuated by a chilled white wine and a view of the harbor, would have anyone salivating. Like so many things in life, though, the reward takes effort. Keys residents, like New Yorkers, are accustomed to managing their lives from the confines of smaller-than-average living spaces. For those who live on boats, the challenges (and benefits) are magnified. A boat-based Thanksgiving is a truly next-level undertaking.

Florida Keys marinas are home to hundreds of liveaboard boat residents who make creative use of all available space, especially when preparing a Thanksgiving meal. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

A typical galley, boat-speak for “kitchen,” will feature a two-burner propane stove, a sink attached to freshwater tanks, and a downsized fridge. The whole setup is gimballed, which means everything is secured, but allowed to sway a bit when the boat rocks. But galley real estate is a precious commodity, so the most valuable pieces serve dual purposes. Combination bottle opener and can opener? Check. Fewer pans, fewer utensils, more ingenuity, more adaptability. 

Key West artist Fran Decker is not one to shy away from a challenge. She and her late husband, Bob, spent nearly a decade adventuring around the world on their sailboat, the Double Decker, so all celebrations and holidays took on a watery tone. The Deckers were anchored in Bermuda one year just before Thanksgiving when a hurricane struck. They hunkered down to ride out the storm, hitting the seas again on Thanksgiving Day, which they spent eating a canned turkey pie. Subsequent Thanksgiving celebrations were a tad more traditional. “For seven years, I cooked small turkeys in our propane oven,” Fran said.

Bigger is not necessarily better and the best dishes don’t come from the most elaborate recipes when preparing meals on a boat. In fact, for those less concerned with aesthetics, some galley chefs suggest chopping a turkey breast, or spatchcocking (splitting, flattening) a whole bird. Of course, the actual meal is the least significant element of a holiday that’s synonymous with family and community.

Terry Jeffers preps the Thanksgiving turkey aboard the family’s boat. CONTRIBUTED

Julie Jeffers is known around the bight for her Thanksgiving spreads that are headquartered around the large table she inherited from her late mother and regularly filled with invited guests. Her desire to feed people was bolstered by support from Glad Tidings Church and the Island Family Holiday Meal was born. “Pastor Carey gave me permission to use our church fridge as I shop, which made it much easier to prepare dishes ahead of time. On Thanksgiving, I put two tables together in our aft cabin. It’s the best view ever to eat and count your blessings.” 

On a hot day, cooking on board can raise the temperature inside a boat to an uncomfortable level. 

Jeffers avoids that with a roaster for the turkey, plugged in and placed outside on the aft deck. Side dishes are made in her “tiny oven” or microwave, then transferred to crockpots and chafing dishes. Previously frozen desserts or freshly baked additions from Key West Cakes round out the meal. Growing in scope each year, the meal has even had an impact on the year-round structure of their home. “Bless my hubby for tearing out cupboards to install a full-size fridge this past year,” says Julie. The Jefferses continue each year to prepare a full Thanksgiving dinner for their marina “family” — friends anchored out nearby, individuals working at the seaport and members of the homeless community. Julie notes that one of the most important items to have on hand that day is plenty of to-go packaging — “to share homemade meals with our neighbors without kitchens!” “Sadly, 2020 is going to be much different. We’re planning a small intimate feast, just the five of us and three dogs, around my parents’ big family table. My heart can always feel them smiling down.”

The Jeffers’ Thanksgiving Day spread. CONTRIBUTED

 

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