Buffalo Nickel in Vanuatu

Our first week was spent in Port Vila, making reconnaissance and loading up. The three of us (Brian and Sue of British sailboat Darramy, Brian and Sandie of American sailboat Persephone, and ourselves) were impatient to get out to the islands, but the groundwork was important. We met with what seemed like everybody: World Health Organization (WHO,) Peace Corps, Save the Children, National Disaster Management Office (NDMO,) District Administrators for the various islands we were to visit, Minister of Education, and a variety of other non-governmental organizations (NGO.)

With plans and protocols in place at last, we packed our boats. Some of our supplies we purchased with personal and donated funds: roofing nails, building tools, a chainsaw, calico fabric, fuel and engine oil. Other items were donated: seeds to replant crops, clothing, food, schoolbooks and supplies, tents and sleeping bags, tarps.

Below in the checked shirt is Clive, a logistician originally from the UK, in Vanuatu on behalf of the WHO. He was readying to depart Vanuatu around when we did in mid-June, bound for either Nepal or Antarctica. Quite the interesting life. Here he’s sorting some of the items he sent with us destined for health clinics and outposts in the Shepherds. We were tasked with filling out detailed assessment questionnaires at the health care facilities, and also carried some large water purification units and lighting that we’d have to assemble and install.



The ten 100-foot-long tarpaulins above were offloaded from Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior and onto Buffalo Nickel, but later on nobody could remember who provided them. It was a bit of a frenzy, and reminded me in some ways of an auction, only taking place via VHF radio, SSB radio, mobile phone and random dock encounters:

“They’ve got 300 sheets of corrugated iron roofing at the foundry. Can you take them?”

“Try hailing Dragonfly or Rainbow Warrior. If they can’t do it, then let’s see how many will fit on Buffalo Nickel’s starboard side walkway. But we need to know by this afternoon.”

“Hey, Llyr can take a few if Rainbow Warrior can’t handle them. Anyway last I heard they were going to head south instead?”

“I’ve got a line on hundreds of large knives.”

“Nah, we’ve heard that their machetes are to the villagers as our mobile phones are to us. Never more than an arm’s length away, even for the toddlers. They kept them close during the storm. What we really need are more roofing nails, and some seeds. Somebody supposedly had a load of seeds… has that gotten through customs yet?”

And so it went, until our little fleet was well loaded and we set off for the island of Emae.


We spent a good chunk of time there, in addition to visiting the islands of Tongoa, Tongariki and Buninga.

Though some forests and buildings remained defiantly intact, and regrowth was impressive, there was evidence of Pam’s destruction everywhere. The photo below exemplifies it for me: corrugated metal roofing shredded like paper by the wind, whose raw power then sent it whizzing up high in this tree and twisted it around a branch. Humbling.


A home.
A home.

The reason there were so few fatalities caused by this monster cyclone was the fact that people here are familiar with how to hunker down during cyclones (though never one this bad.) We heard tales of villagers who, when their homes blew away from over their heads, shoved all the children in between boulders to wait out the storm. In another case, a tiny village of fewer than ten people all took shelter together under one bed, with mattresses stacked around them, for the 13 hours the wind spent shrieking through. What everyone we questioned mentioned, though, was the sound. They said they’d never heard anything like it in their experience with cyclones, and they couldn’t have imagined such loud noise. The children were especially traumatized.

There are two vehicles among the ten villages on the island of Emae, so we were able to trade diesel fuel for transport around the island to some of the villages accessible by road. They threw into the deal pumping up the front tire, which had to be done every few minutes along the way.

We three ladies got to ride in the cab.
We three ladies got to ride in the cab.

It was on Emae that we forged the strongest personal relationships.


Joseph, a very bright, resourceful and caring man, is a key member of the island’s Disaster Committee. He also heads up a group that establishes fishing guidelines for the local waters for purposes of protective management of the reefs.


Donald, pictured above with his wife (a nurse,) three children and a nephew, is the primary health care provider for the island. I was never clear on whether he is in fact a physician, but he performs surgeries in the health clinic and visits all the villages.


Above, Donald’s wife is getting ready to cook lunch in their kitchen, such as it is. Their home adjacent to the island’s health center was badly damaged in the storm.

Beyond delivering supplies as needed in the villages we visited and our WHO work, we took note of things requiring repair and helped wherever we could. Other than simply making our boats available for interisland transport, the ‘fixing of stuff’ turned out to be our most valuable contribution. The Ni-Vanuatu (people from Vanuatu) living on the more remote islands are skilled and resourceful in many areas, but not when it comes to machinery and hardware. Though they enjoy the recently available convenience of having a truck or an outboard motor or a generator (often shared,) they don’t know how to repair or maintain these and have nobody to teach them. Cruisers, on the other hand, are virtually to a man (and in many cases woman) very handy at diagnosing and repairing mechanical and electrical equipment, often able to MacGyver things back to functionality with dental tools and duct tape.

Stan and Brian (Persephone) tinkering.
Stan and Brian (Persephone) tinkering.

Of particular importance were systems related to fresh water. Most of the villages have no supply of fresh water other than rain catchment. This is done from rain gutters running along their rooflines, draining into tanks. With better than 90% of roofs damaged by Pam, many gutter catchment systems were in sad shape. The villagers did not have the hardware required to refasten them so that they maintain the correct angles for catchment of rainwater. Many tanks were lost or damaged as well. Large capacity tanks are critical to see the people through the dry season.


Above, Sandie of Persephone carries some WHO equipment from their dinghy up the hill on Tongoa to meet Brian and Sue of Darramy. They are readying for a long day ashore visiting schools and health centers.


And here, Sandie and Sue stand in a tent erected by UNICEF to serve as temporary school in a Tongoan village. The two women took a particular interest in children’s education, touching base with school principals and women’s groups whenever they could.


The photo above is a favorite of mine, because it speaks to so many aspects of Ni-Vanuatu culture and also of our mission there. The principle of sharing certain resources figures prominently in the local culture. Aid given to a village might be shared with several other allied villages. Supplies donated to a village need to be distributed among the households, typically by the village chief and with the input of the Disaster Committee. So our donating supplies to a single family would have been a big faux pas and resulted in discord in the village. We were already violating the Prime Directive in so many ways, we didn’t need tribal warfare to erupt as well. (If you’re not a Trekkie that last sentence probably made no sense to you.)

The seeds above are being doled out carefully to the small village of Reisu, in proportion to the number of households in the village. Mostly the crops themselves are grown at the family level and not shared. The shells used as small bowls are typical as well. Aside from the fact that most of their plates, pots and pans blew away in the storm, shells of various sizes are routinely used as bowls, knives and other tools. The small pile of rivets represent all we were able to collect for use in repairing the village’s aluminum boat.


The boat had been brought ashore before the storm and covered with corrugated metal roofing sheets, those weighed down with heavy rocks. But it all blew away, carrying the boat crashing through the trees where it got torn and holed in many spots. George, the owner of the boat, trades his catch of fish, making this boat the only source of income for the village. With Reisu being miles from anywhere, it represents their access to the other villages and the health center. A young man in Reisu got a leg wound during the storm for example, and was unable to walk the miles overland to the health center to get it treated. Due to lack of access, this village had received virtually nothing in aid after the storm except for a single tent.


Here is George’s young daughter Niri. Cute as a button. She was one of a couple of children we met who had never before seen a white person. She didn’t show any fear though; more curiosity, especially about my sunglasses.


Stan and the Brians spent a long, hot day repairing the boat. The villagers watched intently, and were eager to contribute as soon as they figured out the techniques involved.


Grateful to the point of choking back tears afterward, George made a stencil and christened his boat ‘Sea Mercy.’


In another village, they had what they called a ‘hurricane house,’ built of heavily reinforced indigenous materials like local timbers and the traditional Natengura leaf and bamboo roof. 50 people crammed into this structure to wait out the storm, and the hurricane house, remarkably, survived fully intact as you see it below.


A communal lunch was often cooked in the village on the days when the boys visited to ‘fix stuff.’ Here they prepared crab, rice, corn, and cassava root.


One of the villages had a damaged fiberglass boat. The three of us didn’t have the supplies needed to patch it, but Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior was in the anchorage with us.


They happily gave us the fiberglass matting and resin, and the boys repaired the boat in the village of Mare. This one got christened ‘Mercy Warrior.’


The boys returning to the beach for a well-earned cold Tusker beer.
The boys returning to the beach for a well-earned cold Tusker beer.

At one point, we took leave of our two buddy boats in order to scoot north to the larger island of Epi and pick up food and water supplies from the NDMO for distribution back on Tongoa and Emae. Buffalo Nickel gives us the ability to bash back against the trades and associated steep seas quickly and comfortably. (Gee, have I mentioned lately how much we love our boat??) There was no reason for the two sailboats to endure the rough ride, especially since we can carry far more cargo.

That said, we were a bit nervous about the 4,000 lbs of bottled water we took on. We stowed as much as possible low in the boat, but still ended up with a disturbing amount of weight up on our flybridge. It did exacerbate our at-anchor roll just a bit, but the seven-hour ride back to Emae was comfy and uneventful, especially once we accelerated into the head seas. I know, right? It’s a counterintuitive move in many boats, certainly in trawlers; but it works like a charm in our FPB.

It’s a shame about the bottled water on several levels. Large tanks and fresh water fills are preferable by far. Sergey Brin’s Dragonfly (which we often just referred to as ‘the Google boat’) with its monster watermaker, and physician with paramedical team, was brilliant at delivering both medical care and huge volumes of fresh water to numerous outlying islands. But their time was up and they had to depart to pick up charter guests or whatever it is they do. And with the dry season upon Vanuatu, fresh water shortage was going to become critical for some of the villages. Actually, since they have no grocery stores and don’t run into bottled things as a rule, the villagers were likely as excited about the bottles as they were about the water. They treasure all forms of lidded glass or plastic containers.

Back at Emae, the Brians and an assembly line of villagers were there to help, as all the water and tinned fish had to be offloaded onto our dinghies and ferried to the beach.


Another long day for us. But quite rewarding.

Bottled water, tinned fish, clothing and miscellany for the villages of Emae.
Bottled water, tinned fish, clothing and miscellany for the villages of Emae.

Our time in Vanuatu was a unique learning experience in many areas. But what touched our hearts and our souls the most was getting to know these people, who, when faced with this…


… still managed to look like this:


4 thoughts on “Buffalo Nickel in Vanuatu

  1. Buffalo Nickel and the crew did wonderful work for the island people.
    Thank you for being inspiring ambassadors for us all.

  2. Fantastic work guys. BTW the new Capt. Kirk does violate the Prime Directive in one of the latest films!

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