A visionary mission

Jeff Megahan | VOLUME 25, ISSUE 2
The mist and passing showers gave the mountainous forest of west Gaua (aka Santa Maria) a haunting, mysterious feel.
A group of Australian volunteers is bringing sight-saving medical help to the people of a remote Pacific nation.

Six years ago, Rob Latimer, a financial planner from Melbourne with an interest in yachting, stumbled upon an article in a boating magazine that changed the course of his life. The article told the story of yachties taking Australian medical volunteers to the remote islands of Vanuatu to offer free health clinics.

Access to basic healthcare for most people in Vanuatu, the article explained, was extremely limited. The story then described how volunteer medical teams from Australia traveled from island to island, setting up make-shift clinics, diagnosing problems and arranging medical treatment.

After finishing the article, Latimer was seized by a new purpose: one day he would captain a ship that would sail Aussie medicos and equipment to the remote islands of Vanuatu and, through his passion for sailing, he would help the Ni-Van (indigenous) people.

But there were three things standing between Latimer and his goal: he knew nothing about Vanuatu, he had no medical background and he didn’t own a boat – at least, not one capable of a trip of that distance.

Located 2500km north-east of Sydney, Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands spanning a distance of over 850km from north to south in the South Pacific Ocean. Over 230,000 people live on the 65 habitable islands, most in remote, rural villages. Although it’s routinely described in tourism brochures as an ‘island paradise’, Vanuatu is poor by western standards, and the geography of the islands – particularly the rocky shorelines and fringing reefs – can be quite unforgiving to sailors unfamiliar with the area.

Being a financial planner and a serious skipper, Latimer was not prone to daydreams devoid of proper risk assessment. But the lure of a mission to Vanuatu soon became inescapable. “It was an idea that wouldn’t go away,” Latimer recalls. “It stuck in my head. It seemed that, at every turn, I was running into Vanuatu.” He’d meet doctors who just happened to be regular volunteers in Vanuatu; yachties who had just returned from the islands and friends who had just been there on holiday.

Things suddenly came to a head when, after years of ‘tyre kicking’, Latimer and his brother Andrew bought Chimere, a 25-tonne, 53ft steel cutter built in 1984. “It was a real ship,” says Latimer. “And, it was ideally suited for the venture.” More than anything else, the purchase of the yacht signalled that the Vanuatu dream was about to gain momentum.

Not long after that, someone put Latimer in touch with Don MacRaild, the founder of The Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project; a group that had been operating for the past 10 years organising Australian medical volunteers as well as training and equipping the locals to run the program themselves.

Since he now had the boat, Latimer decided to get in touch with MacRaild. “I rang the guy up out of the blue and said: ‘I have this idea of using a yacht to help in transporting your doctors and optometrists throughout the islands of Vanuatu’.”

GODSEND

As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better. Having just returned from Vanuatu, MacRaild said the group was on the lookout for a boat to overcome transportation problems. His trip had been marred by cancelled flights and rough seas, leaving him and other volunteers stranded when they could have been looking after patients. Latimer’s offer proved a godsend.

Things, as they say, were taking shape. But since plunging himself head first into the endeavour, Latimer faced a barrage of logistical challenges, both petty and profound. There was, of course, the inevitable paperwork, such as the customs and immigration red tape. Even more pressing, he had to assemble a competent crew, who would work for free. In all, a total of 16 volunteer crew gave assistance, most offering their services for four to five weeks at a time so that a ship’s complement of six could be constantly maintained.

Then there were charts and navigation maps and guides to study. Plus, the yacht he co-owned with his brother required an extensive re-fit befitting the remoteness of their destination. And, as you would expect, there was the fundamental need to pay the bills along the way.

“At the outset you don’t have all the answers,” Latimer later explained. “Some of the time you aren’t even sure of the questions – but once you get underway, and once you set a vision, and focus on achieving it, the answers tend to emerge.”

Most of the answers, he admits, emerged from Medical Sailing Ministries, the group he formed to co-ordinate the mission, comprising dedicated volunteers drawn from the North Ringwood Uniting Church in Victoria. As word got out, other sponsors and supporters, including Club Marine, came forward to provide answers of their own.

LIFT-OFF

A little over a year later, on May 2, 2009, Latimer was standing on the bow of his vessel in Sydney Harbour, looking east as he embarked on the 2500km voyage to Vanuatu. Joining him on the voyage were a couple of thousand pairs of glasses, a lot of optical equipment and four volunteer crew members.

Together, Latimer and his crew, which included his second-in-command Bob Brenac, would take the ship on a 12-day passage to Tanna Island, at the southern end of the Vanuatu island chain. Once there, they would rendezvous with the first of three teams of Australian medical volunteers and spend the next three months sailing them to the most remote reaches of the archipelago.

Eleven days after setting sail from Sydney, Latimer caught his first glimpse of Tanna and its looming peaks, a moment he says remains etched in his memory. As he wrote in the ship’s log: “Having thought and dreamed about doing this sort of thing for around five years, there has been a surreal feeling to these last few days. Our planning and dreaming is becoming a reality and the medical transport work we have come to do is about to begin.”

The key objective of the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project is to visit places rarely serviced by others. Don MacRaild, of course, took care of the medical side. With 10 years experience, MacRaild had built a solid infrastructure of indigenous health care workers in Vanuatu eager to work with the capable and enthusiastic teams of visiting Aussie medical volunteers. The pressure was therefore on Latimer and his crew to convey the medical teams, their gear and their equipment to villages barely shown on the chart, let alone the Admiralty Pilot or any of the popular cruising guides of the region.

NO EASY TASK

As he would soon discover, getting to, and anchoring off, some of these remote places was no easy task. “Because the islands are volcanic, you’ve got rocky headlands and coastlines,” Latimer explained. “Occasionally there were beaches, but they were mostly steep and battered by heavy waves.”

When he found himself literally ‘off the charts’, he relied on local knowledge. Which is just another way of saying he would sail up to an island and wait until someone came out in a dug-out canoe to tell him where to anchor.

Although the population centres in Vanuatu, like the capital Port Villa, offer all the amenities familiar to Aussies, the remote villages looked like, well, remote villages. “Straight out of the textbook,” is how Latimer recorded his first impression of a Ni-Van village in the ship’s log. “Huts on wooden stumps with bamboo frames, woven mat walls and thatched roofs.” Clearly taken with the beauty of the place, he added: “The surroundings looked like the tropical plant section of the botanical gardens.”

Typically, after dropping anchor, the medical teams were ferried ashore, where they would meet the village chief and confer with a local health worker. They would then set up their clinics and receive their patients.

True to their unofficial motto: ‘We do more than just eyes’, the medical volunteers handled several emergency cases. In one, a woman presented a gangrenous finger that had to be amputated. In another, a young boy, who walked for three hours across an island, had a broken arm treated. In Mere Lava, one of the most isolated and remote islands in Vanuatu – an island without electricity or roads – a pregnant woman requiring a caesarean delivery was assisted onto the yacht and evacuated to an island further north, where she was then bundled onto a plane south to the regional hospital. Happily, her baby was delivered without incident.

HOME AGAIN

On Saturday, August 29, more than four months after its initial departure, Chimere returned safely to Sydney. The mission was complete and by all accounts a resounding success.

In all, the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project conducted 48 clinics on 18 separate islands, with 4221 patients examined. More than 2500 pairs of glasses were dispensed, with close to 300 surgical referrals made for more serious conditions that were followed up on later at hospitals on the larger islands.

When asked, finally, what it was that drove a financial planner with no medical background to undertake a mission of this scope, Latimer provides an answer which reveals that, if nothing else, the experience has rewarded him with a rich sense of perspective. “I suppose I’ve always wanted to do some good in the world,” he says. “And when I asked myself ‘what can I do?’ the answer was: ‘Well, I got a boat, I can sail. And while I’m here, I can do these things’.”

Postscript: Medical Sailing Ministries is currently recruiting volunteer sailors to work aboard Chimere as it sails back to Vanuatu from April to August, 2010. If you’re interested in getting involved or donating to the cause, visit: www.msm.com or e-mail Robert Latimer at: info@msm.org.au for more information.


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