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Postcard from Vanuatu

Nov 2, 2015
Voyagers assist people on Awei Island rebuild. Michael Hawkins with saw and the Australian Levinson family.

Voyagers assist people on Awei Island rebuild. Michael Hawkins with saw and the Australian Levinson family.

Michael Hawkins

To the editor: On March 13 and 14, 2015, a super Category 5 cyclone named Pam hit the island nation of Vanuatu full force. It made a direct hit on the most populated island of Efate, as well as other central and southern islands in the group. Vanuatu is one of the favorite cruising grounds of many sailors in the South Pacific.

The islands are best known for the indigenous Vanuatu people, known as Ni-Vanuatu or NiVans. They have been called the “Happiest People in the World” and, from personal experience, they fit that description. They are welcoming, happy and friendly people of Melanesian heritage. While we were safely sitting out cyclone season in Whangarei, New Zealand, doing boat projects in the yard, we watched the spotty television news stories about the devastation in the lovely Vanuatu islands.

We thought we could actually support them by making a return visit and perhaps helping out a bit. As we prepared to leave, there were many relief projects being launched among the cruising community. Many boats got involved in various relief efforts like the Butterfly Trust or Sea Mercy by collecting goods and offering their sailboats as cargo transport to the islands. There were also major relief efforts going on by the large worldwide agencies such as UNICEF.

We left New Zealand in mid-May for our trip north. We arrived in Aneityum, Vanuatu, after a good nine-day passage and just a few months after the cyclone. This is the southernmost island of the chain and one that was impacted by the storm. The island was green, the people were open and friendly and the houses had roofs! The people in the village told us that they had been busy rebuilding homes that were damaged and that they lost most of their personal goods and their fruit trees. The gardens were slowly coming back — but it would take a while for the bananas, mangoes and coconuts to be ready. These are major portions of the islanders’ food supply and income. The other cash crop for Aneityum is the cruise ships that stop there on a nearby island called “Mystery Island.” The islanders did an incredible job getting the jetty and huts rebuilt on this property.

A house is rebuilt on Tanna Island.

Sue Dall

We moved on to the island of Tanna, home of Mount Yasur — one of the very active and accessible volcanoes. We nestled into Port Resolution and we saw firsthand the changes the cyclone made to this landscape. Having been here the previous year, we noticed the changed waterfront immediately. The sea surge had taken away a large chunk of land near the Port Resolution Yacht Club and the lovely guest cottages that once stood on this land were gone.

Ashore, the large trees that provided beauty, shade and fruit were all gone. Many of the traditional homes built from the coconut trees and thatch were blown down or crushed. But the good news was that people were working hard rebuilding their homes, as a community, each helping each other get another home rebuilt. The road to Mount Yasur, the largest tourist attraction in Vanuatu, was open again from Port Resolution — but the ride was even wilder than the year before. There were holes in the road that could swallow the pick-up truck we rode in. Our driver told us that they cut the trees that had fallen in the road with bush knives, as there were no chainsaws to help. Many boaters and organizations provided help and support here with tools, basic food supplies and rebuilding efforts of community buildings, schools and clinics.

From Tanna, we sailed north to Efate and the capital city Port Vila, which also took a direct hit. It was amazing to see Yachting World Marina in full swing again. The seawall was filled with boats, and new moorings were in place in the bay. We talked to a few people who were here during the storm. There were 30 boats at anchor or on moorings in the very protected harbor during the cyclone. After Pam blasted through the island, six boats were left floating. Eight were missing — presumed under the mooring field. The remnants of boats can still be seen on shore and the island resort in the middle of the harbor remains closed. Storm surge and waves in this incredibly protected bay were 3 meters during the storm. In the aftermath, the same folks remain on staff at Yachting World and, as usual, are incredibly helpful. The fuel dock is back up, offering diesel. We walked a lot around town and the big trees and roofs seem to be the storm’s victims. But the fresh vegetable market is up and running, though with a less varied supply. There are still plenty of fresh grown goods to buy. Bananas — both sweet and cooking varieties — are still very hard to find here.

On Efate’s northern side, the folks of Moso Island collected recently laid turtle eggs to protect them from the storm. They recently sent the newly hatched turtles back into the wild.

The temporary bamboo gutters on Awei.

Michael Hawkins

From Efate, we moved on to the Maskelynes, a small group of islands on the southern tip of Malakula Island. We settled in a favorite spot near Awei Island. The village here had some significant damage. The people here, like everywhere we’ve seen, were working hard to simply rebuild their way of life — working extra hard in the gardens and constructing new shelter. The water supply on this island was damaged and the entire village made weekly canoe treks to the Malakula Island to re-supply water for the week.

From the Maskelynes, we continued our northward trek to Malakula and Santo on our way to the Banks Islands. The cyclone had not impacted these islands dramatically. The northern islands did share their grown goods with the islands to the south when shipping was available.

What is really terrific to see in action and hear on the Vanuatu SSB radio net is that boaters are doing great things here for villages and people. It is an international group of cruising sailors who have delivered tons of supplies on their small sailing yachts or brought tools, know-how and hard work to help rebuild.

Physicians on boats are providing medical aid to the people in remote communities. The cruising community is paying back this island nation for its warmth and friendliness. We have heard of three Dutch boats that got together and arranged to buy and deliver enough water pipe to get a village on Tanna their vital water supply.

Supplies arrive on the island of Emae.

Sue Dall

Some boats have pitched in money to buy the taps for the large water collection tanks provided to the islands by one of the large organizations — they had come with holes in them where the taps should go! One boat went and installed the purchased taps. Another boat was the “seed” boat, having gone through much red tape to get 100 kilos of seeds approved and imported legally; they now package and deliver them to the islands to get the gardens back up and running with other boats helping them “seed” different territory. One former-banker-now-boater became a “civil engineer,” buying concrete and repairing an in-ground water tank. On the morning radio net, people report what the various islands need so the folks in Port Vila or Luganville can get the supplies and get them to the right places.

It is a wonderful thing to be involved in and feels good to be able to do a small part in making these people’s lives a tad better. You get a good laugh watching a boat leave Port Vila with giant water tanks on the bow or sitting low on their lines due to tons (literally) of bush knives, rice, nails, gutters and pipe aboard. On the net you hear questions about pipe fittings and fasteners — not for boats but for villages. Cruisers are providing extra “people power” to rebuild homes, community buildings and clinics. Fiberglass fishing boats are being patched so the villagers can earn money and gather food. They go out and chop bamboo and use it to gutter the few tin-roofed buildings for rain collection. And cruising folks are repairing everything from sewing machines, solar systems and chainsaws to patching people and making sails for small canoes. One boat with a young woman on board is delivering 900 bras she collected through her high school. A cruising eye doctor is doing exams and handing out 800 pairs of glasses. Cruising boaters are some of the world’s best jury-riggers, and that comes in handy on these islands that don’t have tools, spare parts or a hardware store on the corner.

Vanuatu is open for business with a big smile on the faces of every NiVan we meet. We are proud to be part of the boating community here who are giving back in any way they can.

—Barbara Sobocinski and Michael Hawkins live aboard their 1987 Moody 422, Astarte. They are currently in the South Pacific. 

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