Former yacht crew Sam and Jess Bell witnessed the devastation of category 5 Cyclone Pam when it hit the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean on March 13. Winds as high as 165 mph wiped out structures and vegetation and killed up to 16 people on the 82-island nation of 224,000 inhabitants.
The Bells got right to work on recovery efforts through their business, Kaleva Yachting Services (KYS) Vanuatu, provisioning two large yachts headed in to help.
The 169-foot (50m) support vessel M/Y Umbra arrived with helicopter and decks full of 10-liter containers to distribute fresh water. The 240-foot luxury M/Y Dragonfly made and ferried fresh water via helicopter and tender. It was all hands on deck to get the water, food and medical aid ashore.
“Crew have amazing skill sets, whether they change fuses, rewire a solar system, fix a generator, or something as simple as covering seedlings to shade from sun,” Sam Bell said.
“Yacht crew have skills, passion and ability to get things done quickly and properly,” Jess Bell said. “Typically, things don’t happen quickly here.”
The Bells started KYS more than six years ago, and two years ago they were designated as the disaster aid relief team in Vanuatu for YachtAid Global, a volunteer relief organization that calls on yachts to bring aid to hard-to-reach coastal communities all over the world.
With experience as crew on large sailing yachts such as S/Y Maltese Falcon, S/Y Blue Gold, S/Y Squall and others, the Bells were naturals to be part of the YAG team.
“We started doing aid business because we realized the impact yachts have,” Jess Bell said. “I was so impressed with what yachts can do in a short time.”
She saw it firsthand in Vanuatu last month.
Capt. Mike Gregory and his crew on M/Y Dragonfly made more than 62,000 liters of fresh water and transferred it to containers and then ashore to waiting islanders, along with tons of food.
The crew went ashore and used chainsaws, axes and saws to move fallen trees, and they helped repair buildings. Crew also treated 250 islanders for trauma, wounds and infections in makeshift medical clinics they set up.
Overall, Dragonfly distributed more than five tons of medical and food aid.
Recovery is happening in Vanuatu, but sources of water and food are ongoing concerns, said Capt. Mark Drewelow, YAG founder.
“Some islands are dry islands, meaning no well water,” he said. “Rainy season is past and people are dependent on water deliveries.”
Every where water tanks survived the storm, many collection systems did not, so YAG is working with other yachts to not only bring in water, but to make a lasting impact.
“There is critical need for water for 110,000 people at last count,” Drewelow said. “The next yacht will focus on rebuilding of water collection systems and carry 1,000 feet of water transfer hose and three big water pumps.”
The storm defoliated many islands, including much of the locals crops. Harvest of newly planted crops is still three months off so the need for food is huge until then, he said. Distribution of food to isolated communities is well suited to yachts, especially those with multiple tenders and helicopters.
Although yachts can bring in emergency aid, it doesn’t take a disaster for yachts to help in remote areas, the Bells said.
“Cruising yachts generally do that just by visiting,” Jess Bell said. “They spend four or five days in a village and end up helping. Yachts helped pre-Pam and they continue to help in this region. “Every cruiser that pays to see land-diving [precursor to bungee jumping type ritual] or buys food, whatever, it all helps where it is desperately needed. … More and more we’re seeing that yachts see the value of the visits.”
“Superyacht and small yacht traffic is so important to the country’s outer island communities, particularly now when some of those affected communities could certainly use the financial support that the yachting industry provides each year,” said Capt. Justin Jenkin, owner of Vanuatu Yacht Services.
“Being a large archipelago, many islands are undamaged,” he said. “There will be no problem at all for yachting tourism this season, which is beginning now. We have some yachts on the way and some already cruising through the islands. There are no government restrictions on travel between the islands.”
Vanuatu is already recovering. In just a month, the islands have begun to look green again.
“Around here they say, ‘wave a stick at the ground and it starts growing’,” Sam Bell said. “There wasn’t a leaf on a tree and now there are heaps of leaves with trees you can’t see through. It is fertile land.”
And the volcano that draws many guests hasn’t changed, either. Neither has the kindness of the native people.
“It’s exactly as it was two days before the storm,” Jess Bell said. “All the sights and sounds are here. I wouldn’t advocate a guest trip this month, but people don’t come here to see the cities; they come to anchor out and those things are the same.”
For information on how to help, visit www.yachtaidglobal.org.
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.
All photos from www.frankandpeggy.com.
Click to see video from M/Y Dragonfly’s relief work.