Rather than avoid regions that have suffered hardships, there are groups of sailors actively seeking out areas that could benefit from aid or emergency relief, writes Helen Fretter
Gusting up to 190mph, Cyclone Winston was the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded reaching land in Fiji and the South Pacific Basin. On 20 February 2016 the Category 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone hit Vanua Balavu, the Northern Lau Group of islands in Fiji, killing 44 people, damaging or destroying over 30,000 homes across the region, and devastating crops and fishing fleets.
Among the first non governmental organisations (NGOs) to reach the remote island communities were volunteers from a small charity called Sea Mercy, arriving by yacht.
Seeking out remote and idyllic spots is obviously a goal for many bluewater cruisers, but that very remoteness can sometimes take sailors into areas susceptible to natural disasters, or with limited infrastructure.
Rather than avoid regions that have suffered hardships, there are groups of sailors actively seeking out areas that could benefit from aid or emergency relief, and taking their yachts there as part of a co-ordinated aid mission through programmes such as Sea Mercy.
Sailing with a greater purpose
The not-for-profit organisation Sea Mercy was established in 2012 by American philanthropists Richard and Stephanie Hackett, with the aim of making a positive difference to communities visited by yachts through “sailing with a greater purpose”.
They initially focused on providing health assistance to the remotest islands of the South Pacific through Floating Health Care Clinics. Since then Sea Mercy yachts have visited more than 150 islands dotted across Fiji and Tonga, and involved nearly 200 volunteers – including many medical professionals and dentists – treating 11,500 people.
The volunteers offered eye tests and distributed reading glasses to thousands of islanders. They also provided dental care, diabetes screening and other essential services that were otherwise inaccessible to the less populated, sea-bound villages.
Having established strong relationships across the South Pacific region following three years of health care programmes, and with a base in Port Denarau, Fiji, in 2015 Sea Mercy expanded its programme to include the distribution of solar-powered lights and educational supplies, and has further plans to assist with projects to improve agriculture and infrastructure.
However, the South Pacific is an area that is highly susceptible to tropical storms and disaster relief has become a key part of Sea Mercy’s work. In 2014 the organisation sent a fleet of vessels to offer assistance in Tonga following the destruction wrought by Cyclone Ian.
Six yachts then worked on rotation over five months in the remote area of Vanuatu, which had been devastated by Cyclone Pam in March 2015 in what was described by Oxfam’s Vanuatu director as “one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific… Entire communities have been blown away.”
In 2016, when Cyclone Winston devastated areas of Fiji, Sea Mercy provided an emergency response to bring essentials such as water, food, shelter and medical aid. In mid-May, a fleet of yachts were en route from Opua, New Zealand to Vanua Balavu, Fiji to begin the second phase of disaster recovery work.
Over 40 vessels have so far pledged their support, including family cruising yachts such Fluenta, a Stevens 47 which is making the voyage with a family of five including three young children on board, and the 53ft ketch Amelie IV, as well as motor cruisers such as the catamaran Domino.
Floating health care clinics have treated more than 11,500 people in over 150 islands
Once in Fiji, the volunteer vessels will be helping to distribute aid and rebuild water supplies across some of the worst-hit islands, often inaccessible to aid workers from the larger visiting NGOs.
Brian Wallace and Susan Dracott were among the teams who volunteered in Vanuatu, with their Beneteau First 40.5 Darramy. Darramy was safe in a cyclone pit in Fiji when Pam hit the region, while Wallace and Dracott had returned to the UK having spent three years cruising the Pacific.
Seeing the reports on the news, they cancelled their planned trip to Indonesia and started getting in touch with aid organisations, eventually joining a team of three yachts that were heading to Vanuatu with Sea Mercy.
“I’m fairly practical and we were asked by the governor of the Shepherd Islands to go to his region, to distribute aid and try to help where we could,” recalls Wallace. “We loaded up with lots of aid, which was not swishing about just then, but we managed to procure quite a lot of stuff and headed out to the Shepherd Islands, and virtually made it up as we went along.
“It was mainly using our initiative,” he explains. “When we could see things or our assistance was needed, we tried to do so and offer direction. We tried to do stuff that was community-based, rather than for individuals.”
To be accepted onto the islands abiding by local customs was key, but the couple found the local people welcoming and scrupulously fair in how donated supplies were shared out. “In Vanuatu we had to try to abide by the cultural way of life because it’s a very male-dominated society. But they were also very equitable in how they distributed stuff, so if you took a bag of nails, they had, say, ten households on the island, they would divide those nails by ten.”
The Sea Mercy teams were able to make the most impact on small projects that had been overlooked by the larger NGOs. Wallace explains: “We realised that the dry season was coming and they’d got water butts, but some were leaking and some weren’t working. Loads of 3,000lt water tanks were delivered, but there were no stop-taps on them so they were totally useless. I managed to procure all the stop taps and show them how to do it, so we managed to get some stored water.”
The team also repaired buildings and installed guttering to help collect fresh water, but had to be adaptable when faced with tropical hardwoods and other unfamiliar materials. “For instance, you come to put some gutter brackets up, but you can’t just knock nails into things, the wood is so hard you’ve got to drill it and drill it. There is no cement or anything like that, so you’re using coral bases for putting water tanks on.”
Wallace wrote up some practical tips for volunteers on future missions, such as the current work in Fiji, on how to complete these jobs with the type of tools most bluewater yachts would have on board.
Despite a few hairy moments, Wallace says they never felt concerned for either their own safety or that of their yacht. “There were a couple of places where the landings and unloading aid were certainly precarious. It was a case of putting the dinghy on a long line and letting it float down on the waves. Then the local people would wade into the water up to their heads and we’d pass stuff down a line of people. Sometimes they were submerged, but all the stuff landed dry.
“We made sure we felt comfortable with it, but we were certainly in situations we wouldn’t recommend to people. We weighed each one up, though, decided we could do it, but were ready to abort our missions if we had to.”
The Darramy volunteers turned down Sea Mercy’s offer to reimburse their costs, considering it part of their donation. The rewards were “a lot of satisfaction,” says Wallace. “I felt very humble from the way the people there reacted to what had happened to them.
“And they know it’s going to happen again, that’s the sad part of it. It’s just a first for us.
“It was great to do something and offer something back to these communities. We just enjoyed it. We were absolutely knackered, but we made some interesting friends with the locals, because you got really involved with them.”
Yacht Aid Global is currently co-ordinating a major post-earthquake relief effort in Ecuador. Yacht Aid Global is a superyacht-focused organisation that also has strong ties with Sea Mercy.
With a global network of large superyachts, including long-range motor yachts and ocean research vessels, Yacht Aid Global can often identify yachts that can offer substantial logistical support to disaster-hit regions and have the speed and range to deliver supplies to them.
22 tonnes of shelter kits were taken by superyacht to Ecuador in May 2016
Isla McKechnie of Yacht Aid Global explains how it works: “Yachts like Umbra (a 167ft Sea Axe), which is in Ecuador at the moment just back from Panama, has fresh watermakers on board, so yesterday they delivered 3,500lt of water. They’re able to get in and actually use their resources on board to help people on land.
“They’ve even been able to take other teams with them, so they’ve taken health care workers and been able to get them in close to where they need to be.”
Yacht Aid Global also collaborates with organisations such as Lift, which co-ordinates helicopter drops in disaster-hit regions, as well as smaller yachts in the area and Sea Mercy’s ongoing health care programmes.
Based in Vanuatu, the Butterfly Trust is a charity focused on improving education and health, and post-cyclone rebuilding programmes. Its yacht, Rireana, doubles up as accommodation and office, as well as sometimes transporting people and materials across the 83 islands of Vanuatu, as travel between them is otherwise unaffordable for many local residents.