WOFF: A sailing trip of the South Pacific also takes in some important health care work, Ross Peake writes.
Calling all Canberra yachties and medicos wanting to escape our chilly winters for a balmy break in the South Pacific.
You could join an inspiring team of Australians who sail to the Vanuatu archipelago to conduct dental and eye care clinics.
Being volcanic in origin, many landings are on to rock ledges and steep black-sand beaches as the team visits the remotest of islands.
While the medical teams begin their checks, the children of the village might be treated to the surreal experience of an Ice Age movie if the weather allows the crew to lug ashore the portable generator and DVD player.
Where necessary, the winter and spring missions are conducted by Medical Sailing Ministries (MSM), using the Melbourne-based 53-foot steel-hulled cutter Chimere.
The MSM program is run under the auspices of the North Ringwood Uniting Church (Melbourne) and operates mostly through private donations, and unsurprisingly, keen volunteers who pay for the privilege of joining the vessel.
They assist the locally based Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project and the Vanuatu Dental Care Service, both operated through the Health Department of the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu in association with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health.
Chimere is now back in port after its 2013 mission but there is an ongoing hunt for crew to join – generally for periods of one month for the sailors and two weeks for the medicos. Each mission has five sailing crews – including delivery there and back, and three medical teams – a total of 35 volunteers, for its four-month program.
“We try to be as self-funding as possible,” organiser Rob Latimer says. “Word gets out and it is amazing, the generosity of people and their willingness to get involved.”
On the first leg of last year’s trip, the team sailed for two weeks around remote islands before a fresh crew flew into Port Vila for the next stage.
In that first fortnight, the team visited four small islands, dispensing 41 sets of spectacles and performing 49 dental extractions in more than 200 individual consultations.
For the next leg the team sailed north from Port Vila, using the prevailing south-east wind to push on to the Maskelynes and the west coast of Malekula Island. The final leg ventured north through the Banks Group and finally, to the very remote “forgotten” Torres Group of islands.
In total, 33 clinics were conducted on 15 separate islands with more than 1500 people receiving treatment, including 579 extractions and 550 pairs of glasses.
The work of Medical Sailing Ministries complements other medical teams who fly into grass airfields and use local boats and trucks to reach communities on the 80 or so islands stretching more than 800 kilometres from north to south.
Some of the islands of Vanuatu have been populated for thousands of years but others are uninhabited.
The commonly held theory of Vanuatu’s prehistory from archaeological evidence supports that people speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands 4000 to 6000 years ago. Pottery fragments have been found dating back to 1300BC.
The chain of islands was named the New Hebrides by Captain Cook in 1774.
France and Britain agreed in 1906 to administer the islands jointly, under a unique form of government known as a Condominium. The nation gained independence in 1980 and celebrates the event on July 30 each year.
Vanuatu’s friendly people attract a huge volume of visitors – including at least five cruise ships a month on average – and divers who come to swim over the wrecks of World War II ships and aircraft and enjoy the pristine clear water.
English and French are spoken throughout Vanuatu, along with over 100 regional languages. However, most people speak the national language known as Bislama – a pidgin language of English origins but with a very local flavour when it comes to spelling, grammar and pronunciation
In 2004, Mr Latimer, a Melbourne financial planner, was inspired by an article about island-hopping yachts carrying medical teams from a group known as Pacific Yacht Ministries.
“I was hit by this thought that I’d love to do that but at the time I had no boat, no knowledge of Vanuatu and no medical background,” he says.
He had grown up sailing Bass Strait with its notoriously rough seas but it wasn’t until 2009 that he finally had the boat and resources to start Medical Sailing Ministries.
“Using the yacht means the medical team can get to some of the more remote areas where before it was quite risky, or they simply couldn’t go there,” he says.
Now they can, on the yacht he co-owns – but it’s not always smooth sailing.
“We’ve had some terrible weather during the last mission,” Mr Latimer says.
“On the first tour last year we planned to visit seven islands but unfortunately there were three [others] we could not get to because it was too rough.
“That was very disappointing because they don’t get much attention.
“At one island that’s just like a big pinnacle rising from the sea, we came in close but the wind bullets off the island were hitting us at about 60 knots and we realised it was too dangerous to stop there.”
The Chimere is clearly powered by goodwill, especially considering the cramped quarters onboard for the team of nine Australians and two indigenous (Ni-Van) health workers who spend two weeks together over the course of each tour.
“Volunteers come from all walks of life, but often it’s people who’ve got to a certain age, they’re established and can take some time off work,” Mr Latimer says.
“Many people are looking to do things that are worthwhile, where they can utilise their skills. You just have to create something they can get aboard.”
The Chimere has completed three missions, with the previous ones in 2009 and 2010.
Mr Latimer recalls the joy of children watching Ice Age in a remote village on a previous voyage. “That island is just a cone that sticks up out of the sea – four kilometres wide and one kilometre high,” he says.
“While we were showing movies in a bamboo hut, our team doctor had diagnosed that a woman there needed a caesarean delivery in a few weeks time.
‘‘We were the first boat they’d seen in six months and we offered to help her but she had already left to walk back to her village, two hours away.
‘‘Someone went through the night to collect her and at 7am the next morning she was standing on the rock ledge with her mother, waiting to be picked up. It’s a volcanic island so there were no sandy beaches to pull up on.
‘‘We took her further north to an island with a grass airstrip and then arranged her flight to a hospital.”
The following year the crew went out of their way to check up on the young woman’s progress but the baby had not survived.
Mr Latimer recalls an unusual conversation with the baby’s father who related that his sister – the young woman’s aunty – had given birth to twins around the same time. ‘‘In a matter-of-fact way he went on to say, ‘because she have two babies and my daughter’s baby die, she give her one of hers’ a very practical ‘village solution’.”
At another island Mr Latimer told this story to the local nurse who had assisted two mothers who delivered around the same time – one to her fifth son, the other to her fifth daughter. The nurse said each mother was keen to have a baby of the opposite sex, so before going home to their village they swapped babies.
As an adjunct to the medical clinics, Mr Latimer also demonstrates the making of low smoke cooking stoves using mud bricks made with locally sourced clay in the villages
Studies have shown that more people die from smoke inhalation worldwide than malaria. ‘‘So any improvement you can make on open-fire cooking must have lasting benefits,” he says.
Now Mr Latimer is keen to hear from Canberra people with sailing or medical skills – doctors, dentists, optometrist and nurses – who are interested in joining their future missions.
** For more information on Medical Sailing Ministries visit msm.org.au.
** The writer travelled to Vanuatu at his own expense.