The Last Night

Friday 7 July 2017

At sea between Erromango Island & Port Vila, Efate

The end of Mission 1 for 2017 is at hand.  We are currently doing the 80 mile hop between Williams Bay (Erromango) and Port Vila.  It’s almost a full moon and everything outside is bathed in a soft light as we glide over a relatively calm sea at 6-7 knots under full “canvas”.

It would be nice not to have the engine on, but our weight and rig-size mean that the wind would need to be a bit stronger than 15 knots for us to make a respectable passage under sail alone.

After a well-attended, full day’s clinic at William’s Bay, we up-anchored around 9:00pm tonight after a final farewell dinner at the Williams Bay Yacht Club overseen by enterprising David and his family.

I say enterprising because after being the first to meet us in the bay, in his dugout canoe, and inviting us all for dinner, he then asked if we had any fish, or maybe some oil, onions, or similar, to assist with the dinner.  Gerry thought this was a novel business model, and bound to be a winner when your patrons are charged for dinner but are also asked to bring along the ingredients for which no off-setting payment is made; bingo!

When I suspected David’s conversation was heading in this direction I relayed a story to him (with much mirth) from a dinner put on by the chief at the Asanvari Yacht Club on the island of Maewo in 2010 – “for all boats in the bay”.  I explained the chief’s strategy at that time was to paddle from anchored-yacht to anchored-yacht building up a varied ingredient-list sufficient to fully cater for the function for which we were each then charged.  Despite his very good command of English I’m not sure David put two-and-two together because still he asked for the ingredients with a straight face. 

“Maybe we should make it 400 Vatu a head instead of 500 Vatu”, I teased as I handed over a generous box of goodies, containing the 2kg of frozen marlin (given to us by another boat 2 weeks ago) rice, noodles, three tins of beans, some onions, an old bottle of olive oil containing around 150ml, half a bottle of sesame oil and three herb containers.

David didn’t take the bait, but the box of goodies was a different matter.  “You can have all the ingredients, David, but I need to get the bottles of herbs and oils back again”,  I was very firm about that.  And now, writing this, 30 miles north west of Williams Bay, I realise one thing I forgot to do tonight was retrieve my bottles of herbs and sesame oil from the kitchen of Commodore David … Doh!!  

Ah-well, we are just hours from being able to buy as many new bottles we like in Port Vila, but it’s the principle of the thing!

Like the Bob Newhart comedy routine from years ago about the final address from the captain of the mythical submarine USS Codfish at the completion of its two year, non stop, “endurance” voyage around the world (well worth looking up) I find myself reflecting on Chimere’s deeds and events and those of her crew and passengers – some glorious, some best forgotten, but all worthy of being recorded in the pages of history. 

Taking each vital character, in no particular order, there’s Daniel: the young, bright, questioning, enthusiastic, fit, late-entrant on the sailing list but one who has proven to be both a worthy crew member, and a key part of the medical team at times as he seeks every opportunity to broaden his community health experience with a view to eventually becoming a doctor.  It’s been great having you in the program Daniel and thank you too for your Ships Log contribution the other day.

Speaking of doctors, we’ve had two as a part of this team – Doug and David.  Normally we have just the one doctor, but when a second doctor said “can I come too?” … hey what’s a bloke to do?  Despite the obvious risk that it only takes two doctors to commit someone to an institution, I thought what could go wrong ? … and the constant reference to “which doctor” (are you referring to) might still be funny after 2 weeks?!   To the point, both doctors have done an amazing job, under sometimes rather trying conditions.  They have shown a deep desire to help everyone that fronts at a clinic and whilst referral facilities, diagnostic resources and medications are obviously limited out here, their main “prescriptions” have included universal respect, understanding and information. Tank yu tumas Doug and David !

Gerry and Annette are what I’d refer to as a “double act” … not only are they both amazing sailors – owning their own large yacht – but Annette is also a highly qualified remote-access nurse.  Both Annette and Gerry appear un-flappable … and I feel qualified to say this given I put them to the test many times, and in many ways.  Thank you for the skills, experience, passion and commitment you have brought to this mission !

Speaking of double-acts, I now turn to Tami and Antonio, both dentists and from what we could all tell both deeply in love with each other – and their profession, in that order I believe.  It’s hard to believe but it’s 2008 that I first emailed Tami – we go way back.  Nothing to do with “winks” on e-Harmony, but about the possibility of her assisting with a dental care program we were thinking of establishing in Vanuatu … the rest is history!  Antonio … what can I say?  What ever it might be it would be in an outrageous, Nino Carlotta Italian accent, with many hand gestures, and louder than usual in case you didn’t quite understand the words being used?!  In this man there are many men … or should I say “a, mare-nee, mare-nee men” (insert hand gestures here) … there is first and foremost the passionate, enthusiastic dentist – the “speed extractor”, all done with no pain.  I know this because in chatting with some of the “blokes” in the village, several said “tut-doctor, he pull-im tut … no pain!”  And there was the lady today who required 11 extractions … yes that’s right 11 … most simply roots at gum level, the remains of what were once teeth, all rotted away; try to image it, I can’t.  Oh, back to the many men of Antonio … there’s the extreme master chef, the musician/guitarist/singer, the … you must meet him for yourself, I know for me … the Tami-Antonio experience has been “Amazing” (insert hand gesture here)

Deb Allen, (whose In-the-field message is below), is truly a one-off.  A sailor who was also employed by Dental Health Service Victoria for many years, Deb is someone I stumbled across maybe 4 years ago when she was participating in a yacht race from Melbourne to Vanuatu and wanting to learn more about the place. Now Debra would be the first to admit  that life’s path  can be many and varied if we open ourselves up to change and being led.  Perhaps not always from the ’burbs of Melbourne, to living in Vanuatu, learning the language etc, but there you go.  As a one-time dental nurse and now fulltime oral health program coordinator, Deb’s approach is to empower, encourage and equip those involved with the program, particularly locals on the ground here in Vanuatu.  With a passion for the National Oral Health Survey, Deb has been the glue between the many components that have been assembled to pull it off – it’s been great to finally get you aboard Chimere Deb !  

Peter Wright is quite that … the right man, at the right time, in the right place.  A reader of the magazine Cruising Helmsman, Peter responded to an article of mine that appeared in the April edition  (just 3 months ago) and as a retired scientist-academic and life-long sailor, he is also a committed Christian from the eastern suburbs of Melbourne – what a fit ! 

Thank you Peter, and also your wife Gigi, for your assistance in getting Chimere away from Westernport on time and for your thoughtful and committed assistance throughout this mission.   Your ability to also consume so many meals from your stainless steel mug with plastic multi-tool-spoon is an inspiration

Martin, what can I say?   You’ve been there since Sydney – the voyage over – you were there for the Port Vila preparation and you were always there whenever needed over the past two weeks of the mission.  Your breadth of experience and cheerful willingness to take on any task has been a constant support to me and the program.  Thank you for writing the Chimere Crew-View (below) and thank you for committing to coming back to Vanuatu someday!

Whilst not technically volunteers, dental care workers Morinda and Bob, plus eyecare worker Dick, are part of the reason all of us volunteers are here.   And it is through you that we gain a window into your country and its people; for which we feel privileged.  We value your friendship and greatly appreciate your leadership. 

Oh my, this has been a long Ships Log entry.  And there’s much more that could be said … but I’ll let Deb and Martin close with their reports below.

It’s now 2:00am on Saturday 8 July, and we are still sailing along towards Port Vila, so it’s technically tomorrow’s blog already, but as the sun rises tomorrow we’ll be gazing on the familiar skyline of … either Port Vila or Noumea … I think …

Smooth seas, fair breeze and the last night …

Rob Latimer


7 July 2017


In-the-field-report from Deb Allen (Oral Health Coordinator)


The Quest For a National Oral Health Survey of Vanuatu

After the many months of Skype calls, meetings, project planning, development, mentoring, risk analysis, stakeholder management, itinerary development, training days, clinical validation, volunteer recruiting, process mapping, budget headaches and sleepless nights, the 1st mission (of 17 in total) of the Vanuatu National Oral Health Survey has been completed.

Thanks to the hard work of many people in Australia, New Zealand and here in Vanuatu, we managed to complete the 153 planned surveys in the remote villages on the Southern Islands of this beautiful archipelago; Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna and Eromango Islands. This was made possible on this mission, by using the sailing yacht Chimere, which in itself was a full-time project for many people who volunteered their time, skills and energy to such a worthy cause.

The surveys, which consist of a questionnaire then a clinical assessment for each participant, were conducted on random people in 5 different age groups; 6 years, 12 years, 15 years, 35 to 44 years, 65 to 74 years. This was developed based on World Health Organisation (WHO) methods to enable world comparison, base data for future surveys in Vanuatu and scientific analysis.

This 1st mission was always planned to be a trial and evaluation time and we only ended up with a few issues that we hadn’t foreseen as being a problem or risk. Our main concern was always going to be accessing a random sample of people that would pass the scrutiny of scientific research. This did indeed pose a few problems but the survey team had brainstormed alternatives which came in handy.

The survey development team had trialled both the questionnaire and clinical assessment times but in practice the clinical assessment team were able to conduct 12 assessments to one questionnaire. This posed a problem with the assessment team wasting valuable time waiting for the assessments to be completed. One of the ‘willing’ sailing crew members was recruited and trained as an assessment recorder which allowed our planned recorder to conduct the questionnaires. In the end, we had two questionnaires being conducted which were then passed onto the assessment team.  

While the main focus was always to conduct the survey, the decision was made very early on that it would be great if we could include a separate dental, eye and medical team to provide well needed treatment to these remote areas while the survey was being conducted. 

Unlike previous years where the medical team were able to spend more time in each village to provide the treatment to the many that line up each day, this year’s hard-working treatment teams were under pressure with limited time. As well as acting as survey data recorders, Chimere’s hardworking crew were commandeered to work clinically scrubbing instruments, taking water samples from each village and supporting the teams in what-ever way they could. Their support proved to be invaluable in being able to achieve what has been achieved. This was often done after the crew had done hours of sailing watches while sailing overnight, so a big Thank you is due to Chimere’s hardworking Skipper and crew.  

Personally, I feel incredibly lucky to be working in a job that combines two of my passions (sailing and oral health) and feel honoured to be part of the planning, development and implementation team on the project. I look forward to the possible outcomes the data can provide in improving the oral health of this small nation, that has stolen my heart.    


Deb Allen


7 July 2017


Chimere crew-view from Martin Burgess


49 days on Chimere.


That’s how long I have been on this boat, Chimere, and on this mission. What an experience!

I have spent time with 17 different people spanning two separate crews. I have sailed from Rushcutters Bay in Sydney to Port Vila in Vanuatu and then around the southern islands of Vanuatu.

I firstly had the pleasure to share the boat with skipper Cam and fellow crew members Rob (Lott), Bruce and Josh. A better bunch of Christian blokes I could not ask for. We sailed across the Pacific for 10 days straight. We were occasionally sick but more often having a great time above and below decks sharing food, stories and lots of laughs. The weather, winds and currents were kind to us. A following wind, plenty of sun and a smallish swell. We saw whales, flying fish an occasional vessel and lots of beautiful blue ocean. A couple of times we took the opportunity to drop our sails and swim in an ocean that was deep (4000 metres deep) and as blue as far as you could see.

After 10 days we arrived in Port Vila and were warmly greeted by Deb Allen and Nicola Young, two outstanding ladies from Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu whom we would be working with on our first mission.

We quickly settled into Vanuatu life. Fresh fruit and vegetables, an abundance of fresh seafood, smiling happy Ni-Vans (the local Vanuatu people), beautiful waters and landscapes and soooo many things to see and do. I could so get used to this lifestyle!

But we were here for a reason. Chimere and its volunteers had been engaged to help with a survey across the islands on what the oral health of the population was like and how it could be improved, so there was some work to be done.

I then had 2 weeks in Port Vila as we transitioned from the delivery crew to the Mission 1 crew. Over the space of that 2 weeks our new crew arrived, Skipper Rob (Latimer) and fellow crew members Peter, Gerry and Daniel. We spent the time, apart from swimming, playing and being tourists, tidying the boat, painting the decks and generally readying the boat for the first mission.

By now I had been on the boat for about 30 days and was having an amazing time in and equally amazing country.

The time came for mission 1. On Wednesday 21st of June our crew along with some of our medical team of Debra, Annette, Dick, Bob and Morinda left Port Vila for Tanna Island. On arrival in Port Resolution we were joined with the remainder of the medical team in David, Doug, Antonio and Tammy. 14 people on board was fun and interesting at the same time, but it worked.

Over the course of the next 2 weeks we spent time with people from 9 villages from 4 islands. We conducted over 150 oral health surveys, saw and treated hundreds of patients needing medical assistance, provided optical glasses for many  and treated again hundreds of people needing dental help. We ate in the local villages, shared stories, showed movies at night and immersed ourselves into the culture of the people of Vanuatu.

On top of all of that we had the opportunity to rescue our new German friends who ran their yacht aground at night and began sinking when entering Port Resolution. That in itself was a mission and not something you experience everyday. Credit for that rescue must go to our more experienced crew members in Rob, Gerry, Annette and Deb who were faultless in their efforts to save ship and crew.

It is now day 49 for me and time to go home. Mission 1 is over and has achieved its objectives. I personally have sailed hundreds of nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean and around the southern islands of Vanuatu. I have spent time in close quarters with 17 great people, many of whom I now call friends and I have an experience deeply embedded in my heart and mind that I will never forget.

I give my thanks to everyone involved in this experience, my skippers, my fellow crew members, the medics who bring their experience and the Ni-Van people of Vanuatu.

I can say with little doubt that one day I will return to this magical place.


Martin Burgess

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