Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Swept Away – bringing tsunami relief to the west coast of Sumatra

This report was written just weeks after the 2004 disaster.

Like millions of people in Canada and around the world we watched hours of television unable to believe the devastation and mounting death toll caused by the tsunami on December 26th, despite being on the island of Langkawi, off the west coast of northern Malaysia, and south of Phuket.  Langkawi itself was also hit by the killer waves.  One woman in a wheelchair died and a fishing village and two yacht marinas were destroyed.

I’d come to Langkawi after the tsunami to help a friend clean up after she ran for her life and lost her house, yacht and car.  Each evening we watched the reports from Banda Aceh, just 240 miles away across the Malacca Strait, and heard the urgent cry for food and medical supplies.  It was obvious that however much was being supplied by helicopter would not be enough for the thousands of people on the west coast of Sumatra.

However small a sailboat might be, at least we could do something to help, we told ourselves, yet I‘d sold my own boat two months earlier and my friend’s boat was at the bottom of the harbour.  The next day the phone rang.  A group of expatriate sailors in Langkawi calling themselves “Waves of Mercy” was organizing a 125-foot schooner loaded with food, water and medical supplies to go to Aceh.  Would my friend – a nurse and a sailor – go with them?  We both signed on as crew (with five others) on the “Sean Paquito II”, owned and skippered by a retired Dutch fighter pilot.  The steel schooner was built in 1999 yet rigged with all the lines and pintles of a vessel sailing 100 years earlier.  The second ship in our mini-flotilla was a 135-foot Indonesian pinisi “Silolona”, built of ironwood for 5-star charter work and magnificent as a Spanish galleon, with a paid crew of 15 men from Sulawesi.

There was something ironic that, at the start of the 21st century, two traditional sailing vessels were setting sail with volunteers and supplies bought with private donations while Malaysia’s modern navy was sitting in port only a few hundred miles down the coast.

After a day of delays, we cast off loaded with four tons of rice and water, a field kitchen and 12 members of an organization called Global Sikhs, founded for this relief effort and composed of Sikhs from Malaysia, Singapore, Canada and Britain.  Eight Sikh doctors and nurses sailed on “Silolona” along with more medical supplies.  Originally they had wanted to fly to Banda Aceh but air transport was impossible so they hitched a ride with us and became part of the team.

Both ships made all speed under sail and engine west towards Sumatra, though “Silolona” quickly pulled ahead and arrived off Banda Aceh 12 hours ahead of “Sean Paquito II”.

Crossing the Malacca Strait was happily uneventful.  We rotated in 3-hour watches of three persons (though we were only eight crew) keeping an especially vigilant lookout in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world because we decided to sail at night without running lights to avoid attracting the attention of possible pirates.

Next morning we closed with the coast of Sumatra, keeping two miles off, and searched with binoculars for evidence of tsunami damage.  At first it was hard to recognize the devastation; a brown band running along the coastline for miles looked like low tide and it was only when we saw the few buildings still standing in villages that the extent of the damage became obvious.  We passed the Greenpeace “Rainbow Warrior”, a three-masted sailing ship, anchored waiting for Medecin Sans Frontiere doctors to join them.  The east coast of Aceh was officially closed to relief work despite the tsunami because, according to the Indonesian military, the area is a stronghold of the GAM rebels – separatist insurgents who have been fighting the government in Jakarta for twenty years.

The miles and miles of devastation in Banda Aceh became obvious soon as we rounded the most northerly headland of Sumatra and turned towards what was left of this historic capital.  A few fires were burning.  Two bodies – bloated and naked – floated by the ship as we came alongside “Silolona”.  The emptiness of the shoreline was terrible.

No port facilities remained in Banda Aceh so we had to sail 35 miles north to the port of Sabang on the island Pulau We to complete immigration and clearance with the habourmaster.  Sabang is rated as one of the best habours in the world because of its natural protection from the sea and the depth of water – almost 100 feet in the centre.  Only a small area of the town had been damaged by the tsunami.  Officially Sabang was closed to all outsiders, because of the war with the GAM insurgents.  Fortunately, Silolona with her Indonesian crew and Indonesian-speaking American owner had prepared the way for us and we were cleared into the country without fees or delay (a process that still took the best part of a day).

We arrived in Aceh on Day 14 after the tsunami and it was apparent even from the ship that the first phase of emergency relief was over.  Our plans to help people isolated on the outlaying islands was scuppered because all the people had been evacuated to Sabang.  The Global Sikhs too needed to rethink how they could help, now that the “rescue” phase was over.  Those who were not going to survive had already died.  The need for food and supplies was still enormous but less urgent.  The challenge now was to find transport to villages on the west coast isolated by the destruction of the coastal road.  We were all surprised by the lack of urgency in the town of Sabang itself.  Sea-worthy trawlers and naval vessels sat idle at the quayside.

We waited for a resupply ship to come from Langkawi.  In our haste to get to Aceh to “save people” we’d sailed without our full medical supplies that might be needed farther down the coast.  In the meantime, an advance party of Sikhs, with rice and other foodstuffs, planned to go down the coast to appraise the situation.

When they approached a captain to hire his medium-sized boat (perhaps 50 foot long) he demanded £400 per day plus fuel, about three times the pre-tsunami price.  We could do nothing but pay his price if we wanted the vessel (though once down the coast he refused to take his boat inshore).  Later, after he made two three-day trips and saw the destruction and need of the people, he doubled his price to £800 per day.  This was refused and the captain eventually relented.

Meanwhile, three crew from “Sean Paquito II” (a doctor and two nurses) together with the Sikh doctors and nurses went ashore to visit 4000 people in refugee camps.  The local authority provided accommodation and transport for the medical teams and in two days they were able to treat hundreds of people.  The doctor reported people were undernourished and urgently needing services if epidemics of diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia were to be avoided.  Doctors from the hospital in Sabang had been taken to replace doctors killed in Banda Aceh.

After more delays, at last we sailed down the west coast of Sumatra.  There was little wind but a high swell, the last of a tropical storm off the coast of Sri Lanka thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean, that kept the boat rolling all night and was a warning of the difficulties that will make supplying villages by ship hazardous before the end of March.  The west coast of Sumatra is world famous for its high swell, ideal for surfing, which makes anchoring very uncomfortable and landing on a beach impossible because of the crashing waves.  From April to September the west coast is effectively closed to all but the largest ships and military landing craft.

Even in January there were few places where we could safely anchor and transport supplies ashore by dinghy.  We headed to one bay protected by a headland about 40 miles down the coast from Banda Aceh.

Total silence filled the bay
Total silence filled the bay as we approached.  At another time this would have seemed a tropical paradise — warm clear water, coral reefs and a village amid swaying coconut trees, backed by forest-covered volcanic mountains rising to the sky.  Instead, what we saw was a land destroyed – a dead land cleared of houses, trees and people.

Smoke rose from the beach – signalling the presence of survivors and soon we were meeting the headman of the village of Paro.  More than two-thirds of the people of his village were dead, he reported through the Sikhs acting as interpreters (Bahasa Malaya and Indonesian are very similar).  220 people were sheltering in a makeshift encampment a mile inland.  The headman said he was looking after 22 orphans.
Helicopters had made two drops of food in two weeks and evacuated the people worst injured.  One of the signatures of this tsunami disaster is the relative lack of injured people – the waves either killed outright or people survived.  And on the west coast of Sumatra it is not strictly accurate to speak of “survivors”.  Such was the total devastation that everyone in the villages was killed.  Those who survived did so because they were not there at the time – the men at sea fishing, the women and children in the gardens in the hills.

After the initial 9.0 earthquake, the tsunami hit the west coast as a wall of water almost 40 feet in height moving at a speed of perhaps 50 miles per hour.  The force of the water was such that many trees were torn off at ground level, leaving their roots in the earth.

The Paro headman asked for our Captain’s address.  “We need your help now,” he said, ”but one day we will stand again and then I will write to thank you.”  He said the people in his village were not too badly off and that the people in the next village needed more need.  (Later, when the medical team compared villages, they said Paro was the worst because people were badly nourished and therefore prone to more illnesses.)

The medical team went ashore immediately in a 10-foot inflatable dinghy with outboard engine that was then used to begin ferrying 3000 kilos of rice, canned foods and bottled water in innumerable trips to the shore, where villagers came to carry the supplies home on their heads, watched by three well-armed Indonesian Army soldiers.

Meanwhile, the captain, one of the Sikhs and myself travelled five miles in a second dinghy to visit the next bay south of Paro.

Nothing prepared us for what we saw, though we had all seen images of the devastation in Banda Aceh.  We landed at the southern end of the bay, where a small inlet broken the dangerous surf.  The bay was a mile wide and about one and a half miles deep, backed by forested mountains.

More than two thousand people lived here in two villages.  All that remained on the flat expanse of land were a few palm trees and one mosque with a green dome.  All else was gone.  There was no debris, no rubble of walls or roofs, no motorbikes or cars, no furniture and no bodies.  The waves that killed so many swept all the evidence of its destruction out to sea.

We walked in silence across concrete pads on the ground, which marked where people’s home had stood, and the rice fields submerged under sand and pools of salt water.  Yet even here some rice seedlings were growing once more.

Theories as to why the mosques survived include that they were saved by Allah, that they were built on columns allowing the energy of the water to go through, and that these were the only structures contractors did not dare to cheat on materials.

At the foot of the hills, we found more than 700 people camped in what remained of a third village.  The four teachers of the village school were all dead, the classrooms now homes for survivors, including 80 children under ten.

Despite everything, we were quickly surrounded by laughing children and being greeted by men and women shaking our hands.

The headman of Girek told us they had food for only five days and we promised to supply rice and tinned foods if he could arrange transport from the neighbouring village of Paro along the remnants of the coastal road. (Miles of this road have vanished into the sea, along with bridges and it will be a major re-engineering operation to rebuilt the vital highway without which people have no access to bought foodstuffs or to markets to sell their dried fish, prawns and chillis). The headman moved slowly and in pain, having broken his collar bone in a motorcycle accident after the tsunami.  “Apart from food what do you need?” we asked.  “Mosquito netting, prayer mats and a generator,” he replied.

We were a sombre group at dinner that night on “Sean Paquito II” now that we were in one of the worst affected areas and meeting people who’d lost everything but life itself.

Next morning, work continued transferring all the food from the ship to the shore. and the medical team went to Girek.  Then we waited for a resupply ferry to arrive before taking more food and medical supplies to the shore.  In the days that followed the medical team visited a third village reachable only by walking (or riding precariously on the back of a motorcycle) across two miles of broken paddy fields ripe with the stench of death.

One of the frustrating aspects of the operation was the difficulty of communications (despite satellite phones and HF radio).  Consequently, emergency medical aid donated to a Buddhist temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was still arriving (and had to be transshipped box by box!) long after the need for IV drips, examination gloves and all the other paraphenalia of modern medical rescue was over.  The equipment was eventually donated and transshipped to a fishing boat that arrived from an inland hospital down the coast.

All day, from sunrise until late afternoon, US military helicopters passed overhead in pairs moving supplies from Banda Aceh south to the towns of Meulaboh and Calang.  Reports from Calang spoke of less than 1000 out of 9000 people surviving.  German landing craft were landing food from ships anchored off, there was a German field hospital and the Indonesian Army were reported to have 1000 troops in the town to keep order.

We were warned several times that we were in danger of attack from GAM rebels – though there have been no reports from aid agencies of attacks on people helping in relief efforts.  Although the civil war is real, we came to regard the threat of a GAM attack as a bogeyman created by the Indonesian military to control our movements and to ensure our food supplies did not get into rebel hands.  The tsunami has created an ideal opportunity for the Indonesian Army to destroy the rebels by starving them out.

Two resupply vessels arrived with tons of foods and the beginnings of the reconstruction aid to help people become self-sufficient again — tools, seeds, kettles, pencils, soccer balls, prayer mats, nails and hammers, netting for window and with the promise of corrugated tin sheeting, bed netting, fishing nets and fishing boats.

It is at this stage of an operation, when disaster relief turns into reconstruction and development aid, that gung-ho volunteers intent on doing right and helping people need to step back and reassess how effective they can be working alone.
The medical team from “Sean Paquito II” was in fact the fourth medical team to visit these villages after the tsunami (though they stayed the longest and provided some follow-up care) most of what they were treating where the usual afflictions of Third World villagers, exacerbated by the tsunami — diarrhea, malaria and scabies.  Yet while we were there a doctor from London arrived eager and excited to help though his speciality was emergency medicine.

It’s a cruel lesson to those intent on doing good that after the initial wave of urgent help, it’s time for the more difficult questions and the more delicate tasks that require greater coordination, planning and knowledge of local social structures.  For example, there was talk of providing a sawmill to enable the villagers to turn trees on the hills behind their villages into planks to build houses.  But who owns the land and the rights to the timber?  What fuel will the motor require and how will that be supplied month after month, along with spare parts, when there is no road and sea access is next to impossible.  If the motor is electric — how soon will the supply be restored to the west coast of Sumatra?  Letting go, after being intensely involved is not so easy, nor, for some people, especially welcome, yet there is a big difference between “taking care” and “supporting” the efforts of local people themselves.

People were already building small rooms in which entire families will have to live until materials can be provided for proper houses to be rebuilt.  The first question is where?  If the government wants people to move inland into the hills who will provide the land for such a massive relocation?

And before that, people must regain their livelihoods — growing rice, farming prawns, fishing, growing chillis, and husbanding chickens, ducks and water buffalo.  All the tools, seeds and stock were destroyed and must be resupplied.  This is the next challenge of the tsunami disaster.

After two weeks it was time to change crews.  The Sikhs were organizing their own replacements from Kuala Lumpur, including doctors and nurses who could implement a coordinated programme of immunization under the WHO and the Indonesian Ministry of Health.  Three new crew arrived on a sailing vessel from Langkawi; time for myself, the doctor and one of the nurses to leave “Sean Paquito II” anchored in Paro Bay awaiting further supplies and meanwhile clearing sections of the coastal road.

On our way sailing back to Langkawi aboard Silolona, we stopped in Banda Aceh for half a day to meet UNICEF officials to arrange immunizations and malaria treatments for the villages.  “Silonona” herself was returning from surveying and producing a report for the UN on what parts of the coastline might be accessible to ships, boats, dinghies and landing craft; information the NGOs bottle-necked in Banda Aceh with no transport along the coast were delighted to receive.

How much did our efforts, and the ongoing work of “Waves of Mercy” to supply tools and seed, make a difference?  “Sean Paquito II” is providing aid to about 1200 men, women and children — less than one per cent of the total number of people on the west coast of Sumatra needing help; food, shelter and a means to earn a living.  In the scale of this disaster, this aid is a drop in the bucket, but for the 1200 people whose food supply is now secure and who are receiving supplies to enable them to begin again, the help may be modest but it is real.

© Dennison Berwick 2005.   This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.

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This entry was posted on January 3, 2010 by in Current Affairs, Sailing, Voyages and tagged , , , , .
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