How to Use a Stove Gimbal

How to Use a Stove Gimbal | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Elizabeth O'Malley

June 15, 2022

If you want to know how to cook on a gimbaled stove, put on your safety strap and get ready to go with the flow!

Despite the challenges that gimbaled stove cooking presents, read on to learn differences between fore/aft stoves and athwartships stoves, why counterbalancing a gimbal stove is important, key parts of and accessories for a gimbal stove, and how to get started slowly and build confidence when gimbal-stove cooking.  

Whether you want an omelet and bacon for breakfast or a pot of chili for cold winter nights aboard, you need to know all about gimbaled stoves, how to cook on one, when to cook on one, and if you should cook on one. I’ll cover all this and provide some tips for taking gimbaled-stove cooking to the next level.

While these days, I’m primarily a day sailor, I am an enthusiastic hostess and take any opportunity I get to clamber aboard friends’ boats and take over the galley. Many experienced sailors I know are hesitant to even bother with “fancy cooking” (which some folks consider gimbal stove cooking to be). They are often content cooking with the outdoor grill and maybe a pressure cooker, but when I can borrow a friend’s galley as a “test kitchen,” I jump at the chance. It’s a (mostly) fun learning experience and the compliments during and after meals are (mostly) worth the sometimes unsettling, make-it-up-as-you-go moments that often happen when cooking on a gimbaled stove. Let’s go over a variety of things to keep in mind when you’re deciding if French onion soup and flourless chocolate cake courtesy of the gimbal stove really need to be on the underway menu.


Table of contents

What is a Gimbal or Gimballed Stove?

In short, a gimbal stove has the ability to swing – with the motion of the boat – so that, just like your legs and knees “swing” with the movements to keep you from tipping over, the stove swings so that pots and pans and tonight’s dinner don’t go sliding off and crashing and splashing all over the galley (or the cook)! Typically, but not always, a gimballed stove runs fore and aft and like a gimballed compass or gyroscope (or even gimbal drink holders), the point is to keep the item (stove, gyro, compass, drink) upright even when the boat rolls or pitches.

Measuring how many inches your stove can swing can be translated into degrees – and gimbal stoves will swing anywhere from 20 – 40 degrees. Candidly, when you get up into the high end of that range, cooking on a boat stove, despite the desire for a hot meal, probably loses a good bit of allure (certainly for the cook). Of course, if you can coax the (fairly experienced) skipper into a heave-to situation you may be able to achieve your goal – it’s just not something I’m willing to risk. (And, per a good friend’s experience: practicing heaving-to while concurrently learning how to cook on a gimballed stove is highly inadvisable!)

Were a stove not to be gimballed on a boat (and there are boats with stoves that are not gimballed, but hard pass for me on that setup), even with pot restraints in place, the likelihood of spills, splashes, and crashes is extremely high. So, what’s a cook to consider when contemplating a gimbal stove adventure?

To Gimbal Fore/Aft or to Gimbal Athwartships?

Depending on the direction a gimbal stove faces, the direction that the stove tilts will vary -- because of the direction of the axis of the gimbal. So, it will either tilt fore/aft or port/starboard. Most boats are going to come with a fore and aft-gimballed stove, but in case you are custom-building or considering refitting your galley, a few things you should consider relative to an athwartships stove set up:

  • Rather than facing port or starboard, the cook will look fore or aft. This can be helpful because should a splash or crash occur, the contents will likely spill to one side or the other (port or starboard) and not fore/aft -- in the direction of the cook.
  • Athwartships stoves will likely take up less (swinging) space than a fore/aft set up but there’s a beam consideration because of the rectangular shape of the stove and it’s widest sides would be athwartships. crashing
  • Athwartships allows for a greater degree of swing than fore/aft stove setups, which decreases the possibility of the oven door banging open. (More on door latches to come!)
  • Also, something to keep in mind: the closer the stove is to the centerline, the less overall movement the stove is subjected to. This is a good thing and is much harder to achieve with most stoves aligned fore/aft to a wall.

Counterbalancing on a Gimbal Stove

Depending on the number and location of burners on the stove, when using the stove in a gimballed and not locked position, it’s a good idea to counterbalance the active hot burner with a pot filled with water of equal weight – kind of like keeping scales balanced or a seesaw balanced. This helps keep the stove even keeled, so to speak.

Equipment to use with a Gimballed Stove

Safety Strap for the Cook

While opinions are greatly divided on the use of a safety strap for the cook in the galley, I am pro-safety strap – depending on the way that the galley is configured. Some fear that a strap can trap the cook in place should a big wave or roll launch piping hot or boiling contents off the stove – a legitimate fear, I guess. These folks sometimes express similar reservations about car seat belts because they “can trap you in your car if it’s on fire and you can’t get out.” But a safety strap doesn’t have to be as binding and constricting as a seat belt and doesn’t have to lock you in place directly in front of the stove. Galleys vary – U-shaped, L-shaped, open, tight – and just as in kitchens the way you move in different spaces is going to vary. Taking the shape of the galley into consideration as well as the likelihood of the need to be cooking in such rough conditions that warrant a safety strap are the priority criteria for myself and other much more seasoned gimballed-stove cooks.

Gimbal Stove Latches

There are two important latches or locks on gimbal stoves.

  • The stove latch secures the entire stove into a locked, non-swinging position. At anchorage, it may be possible to use the stove in the latched position, recognizing that even small waves can slosh a pot’s contents or slide a pot off a burner. (Fiddles or pot restraints to minimize this possibility are covered below.)
  • The oven door latch keeps the oven door from crashing open in choppy conditions. Securing this latch becomes second nature by the third time the unlatched door flails open, regardless of whether there’s a meal cooking inside.

Pot Restraints and Fiddles

Two items that help keep pots and pans in place whether in the oven or on the stove top are pot restraints and fiddles. Fiddles exist in various forms throughout boats – on flat surfaces – to act as a catcher to keep items from sliding off the flat surface. You can have fiddles on shelves, tables, and yes, appliances like a stove. Until I got a bit saltier and learned they were called fiddles, I called them bumpers or guard rails – not exactly sailing jargon – but landlubbers knew what I meant.

Pot restraints on the other hand are like little arms that reach out and “hug” pots and pans on the burners. They are attached to rails and are often adjustable and can slide to accommodate different positions and different sized pots and pans. If you are going to be cooking on a galley stove – gimballed or not – both pot restraints (or pot clamps) and fiddles are, in my world, absolute musts.

When Cooking with a Gimbal Stove -- Practice, Practice, and More Practice

If you turn your nose up at sandwiches for dinner or you’re a gourmet chef at home and want to take that passion underway for the culinary enjoyment of family and guests, my best piece of advice is to practice cooking on a gimbal stove Every Chance You Get. Start small. Start slow. Start low. Start thick.

Start slowly by doing your cook-be-nimble gimbal-practice sessions on very light wind days when it’s flat as can be. That will help you get experienced with the speed of both the swing of the stove and the slosh rate within the pot. Starting slow and steady gives you the ability to watch and learn how a gimbaled stove compares and contrasts with the fixed ones you’ve used all your life until now. If it’s really flat out there, give the stove a few pushes to get it swinging and re-create a more action-oriented scenario.

Start small by only working with one burner at first – learning how to counterbalance with another pot or kettle filled with a comparable weight of liquid. Remember balance – like balancing scales or a seesaw. Start low by filling your pot no more than 20-30%. Push the unlatched stove on its axis, making it gently rock and watch the contents of the pot slosh about – you’ll be surprised at how much movement there is. You’ll gain an appreciation for what it might be like if it wasn’t so flat and if the pot was filled to 50% or more. (And take note for the future to cook with the deepest pots practical and fill them to the lowest point that’s practical every time you cook.) High pot sides and low content levels are a good combo for cooking pots on a boat.

Start thick by cooking more dense food options. This goes for the burners as well as the oven. Preparing oatmeal is easier for a gimbal-stove newbie than preparing spaghetti because of the liquid to solid ratio. When possible, steer toward more solids – for example, I’d go with stew over vegetable soup. One is just denser so less likely to slosh and gain energy for splashing and crashing. In the oven, start by bringing frozen casseroles on board and reheating them. It may sound mundane but you’ll be learning the movement of the gimbal with less room for error. Baking cookies is a lot safer than a flourless chocolate cake that requires the cake pan to sit on a water bath, and if someone turns up their nose at warm cookies right out of the oven, politely suggest that they step overboard.

Cooking on a gimballed stove is not for the faint of heart. It does, I believe, require a bit of courage, lots of common sense, catlike reflexes, and, ideally, an almost intuitive sense of physics. But come to think of it, all those traits make a good sailor a great sailor, even if he or she never lays a finger in the galley. So, remember, practice, practice, and more practice will help get you nimble with the gimbal – and, after a while, the whole crew will be raising a toast to the chef while dining on French onion soup and flourless chocolate cake! Bon appetit!

How to Use a Stove Gimbal
Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth has sailed Sunfish, Catalinas, Knarrs, and countless other boats. Forty years later, she finds herself back on the waters of Bogue Sound, where she lives and sails with her daughter, Morgan, and chocolate lab, Choco.

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