Friday 13 September 2013

Loh Island, Torres Group

So here we are, approaching the top end of Vanuatu; the 85 island-chain archipelago spread out 800-900 km north to south.

This is the fifteenth island visited so far, across the three missions, with probably another two islands to go … Hui in the north and Toga to our south.

Going back a step.  Last night’s sail up from Ureparapara was something of a dream run – as planned.  We managed about 1 hour of pure sailing, then in order to maintain our speed to arrive here at Loh around 6:00am, we turned on the motor … affectionately known as the iron headsail.  This kept the speed at around 6 knots and our action before the rolly sea a bit more stable.

Barry, our all-important tut doctor, declared it one of the best night’s sleep he’s had, Nancy emerged with the sunrise as sparky and chipper as ever, with Graeme, Doug and Ruth also looking refreshed as they got stuck into a breakfast of cereal, milk, fruit and toast.

Dave, Matt, Cathy and I shared shifts through the night to keep things on track and it must be said we were looking forward to getting the medical team ashore so that we could grab a few zz’ds.
Like many islands, Loh has a few villages, the main one being on the “weather coast”, or where the SE trade winds blow ashore – not the ideal place to happily drop anchor.  We like sheltered, calm spots, and whilst there is one of these around the top of the island, to anchor there would have meant a long walk and cartage of gear.  So I was always a bit anxious about whether it would be an easy start to the clinic, or a difficult start.

In the end it worked out to be relatively easy.  Whilst it as a 1-2 metre swell running we found a nice sandy spot to anchor in the middle of the bay – just off the village – and set about making three dinghy trips of people and gear ashore through the waves onto a white sandy beach – something we haven’t seen too much of in these parts, the region being mostly black volcanic rock in origin.

The team were all ashore for an 8:30am start, which was the best result we could have hoped for.
Radio communication via VHF late morning revealed that it was a busy clinic and no doubt we’ll hear more when they return shortly.
Back on the boat, the pitching and yawing got a bit much after a couple of hours and so we relocated to one side of the bay where it was definitely calmer, but the proximity to coral heads did cause us to snorkel over the side on a bit of a research mission to be sure.

By lunch time two local boats had come past, and from each we gathered as much information about anchorages, weather and local conditions as we could.  The consensus being that it would be good to more around to the north of the island where it was calmer and a safer place in the event that the weather should turn nasty – not likely from our current forecast.

Further radio communications onshore revealed that local health worker, Zebulon would like to run clinics on the nearby islands of Hui and Togo if possible – something we’d expected and why we’d allocated 3 full days in this region.
Details of these further missions are yet to be revealed because radio communications around the top of the island, where we are now anchored, do not extend to today’s clinic.  In last speaking with Graeme on the radio it was agreed that at the end of today’s clinic he would hire a local boatman to bring the medical gear and team through the coral-ridden channel that runs between this island and a very small adjacent island (on which the airstrip is located) the northern outlet of which we are sitting peacefully at anchor.

It’s a place we stayed at in 2009 and which we dubbed “Atchins Anchorage” after the name of the local man … Atchin, who spent some time aboard helping us with local information.  My initial inquiries suggest that Atchin is still on the island and there’s a remote possibility he might be joining us tomorrow, if indeed we head north to Hui.

With nothing but the ship to look after, Matt, Dave, Cathy and I have had a day of cleaning, sleeping, snorkeling (to check the location of the anchor and to scrub Chimere’s increasingly dirty bottom) and cooking.

We expect the medical team to emerge from the small channel off our bow, sometime around 5-5:30pm … about now.  It’s a channel
requiring a lot of local knowledge and fortunately the tide is on the rise so their prospects of making it through soon are good.

In soaking up some wonderful sunshine and real tropical conditions this afternoon, it got me reflecting on the process of seeking volunteers for such a mission as this, and how the right people just seem to have fallen into place at the right time over the past 6 months.

So many valuable skills and so much experience – some to sail the boat, looking after all the mechanical and operational systems and some to run the clinics offering dental, optical and medical coverage with such a high level of professional service delivery.

As a simple example, on the boat side of things … a few days ago there was no charging of the batteries when the main engine was operating and in addition, the engine rev counter was not giving a reading.  All things which Dave quickly pinned down to the alternator, with a new V-belt being found in stores and fitted in half an hour or so – the result – all fixed and working.  We’ve already mentioned Dave’s make-shift high pressure hose for the watermaker – I’m pleased to report that it’s still operating, although ongoing tightening of the hose clips is required. David has now moved from “Dental Dave”, with his help of Barry with patient suction, to “Desal Dave” for his ability to keep freshwater coming out of the pipes.

In having Matt onboard, I think of him sadly having to pull out at the last minute prior to the 2010 mission on account of a cricket injury.  Aboard for this year’s mission, his sailing ability and experience mean that at times the operation of the boat can just be left to him – I’m glad he was able to make time to come this time.  I recall several times over the past two weeks, as we’ve set course for yet another island, slipping back into my bunk for a kip, knowing everything was in good hands.  Then there are other times when we’ve been reluctant to drop anchor and I’ve taken the dinghy into a new landing while Matt keeps Chimere hovering in the shallows off shore; in the case of our landing at Merig for up to an hour.

Then there’s Cathy, brought up on trailer sailors she certainly knows her way around a boat and has quickly become accomplished in many of the key functions onboard, in particular  – anchoring, tacking, engine starting and stopping, food planning and most important of all, the galley and the preparation of meals and the making of bread.

On the medical side of things, North Ringwood Uniting Church has contributed a dentist in Barry, plus two doctors, Graeme and Doug, and a nurse Ruth – all doing an amazing job.   Then there’s optometrist Nancy – always cheerful, always up for a new challenge, and getting married in a couple of months!

A few hours ago, as we were starting to wonder when the medical team was coming back from the village, the VHF radio suddenly burst into life – it was Graeme informing us that part of the team were making their way around the top of the island in a local boat and part were walking through on the track next to the coral channel.  We looked and sure enough, there on the horizon was the boat and already onshore were a few bodies waiting to be picked up.

Aboard the small boat was Atchin and once aboard we had a wonderful time recalling the activities of 2009.

So the plans for the next couple of days appear to have been developed.  We pick up Atchin and the local health practitioner Zebulon at 6:00am onshore (they’ll walk through from the village) and we’ll head north the 2 hours to Hui where we’ll run a clinic all day.  (We’ll then return to this anchorage for the night)  Then on Sunday we’ll go south to Toga, where all reports suggest there are a few people in great medical need.

Doug has seen me typing and asked me to send a special message for his son Andrew Utley:

Hepi britday long Yu.  Papa blong yu, proud yu fella havim gud day
Nambawan
Love
Papa Doug

Smooth seas, fair breeze and Atchin’s anchorage once more

Rob Latimer

www.msm.org.au