Our family volunteer with OceansWatch in the SW Pacific
by Catherine Jackson on 27 Dec 2012
The 2012 OceansWatch team on our foredeck - Volunteer story OceanWatch
Having spent a year or so sailing from Greece to New Zealand with my family (husband Mark, Mia - 9 and Lochy – 8) I was looking for something a little different for the next leg of our journey. Although we had visited several Pacific Islands on our crossing from Panama to New Zealand, I felt that we hadn't really had the chance to connect meaningfully with any of the communities along the way. Sure, my children had had a truly international experience, visiting islands and meeting other cruisers along the way, but I had arrived in New Zealand feeling that something had been missing. But how can you connect with communities when simply passing through? And does it really matter?
Well, yes, it matters to me. We had so many wonderful experiences along the way that we felt we wanted to give something back in some small way. When internet allowed, we would often tap in to Jimmy Cornell's Noonsite website to get valuable information about the countries we visited on the way. I remember reading an article that 'OceansWatch' was looking for yachts to join them in their 2012 projects. We seemed to fit the criteria. We had a boat. We were sailors who wanted to make a positive contribution to the islands we were visiting. So we gave Chris Bone, CEO, a call.
Although we weren't marine biologists, we felt we could at least offer a couple of berths to the project. Given that OceansWatch's mission statement is 'we are sailors who want to make a positive difference to the oceans where we sail and the island communities we visit' we thought we would fit right in.
A couple of months later and we are preparing Pegasus for a three month trip to the Solomon Islands. We have, in addition to our own paraphernalia, 14 boxes of medical aid, an outboard engine, a dive compressor, three dive bottles and a BCD (newly acquired by Mark who has learnt to dive in the past month) We have also installed a small water generator as we have been advised that there will be nowhere to refill our fresh water tanks once there. With two extra guests who will need to rinse their dive gear, I'm not sure how long our 400 litre tank will last.
Oh, and finally, a tonne of various gluten free flours and a couple of recipes for gluten free bread. A requirement for one of our two guests who will be joining us for 6 weeks. I almost got to the stage where I dreaded another SMS from Chris in case he asked us to take anything else!
With the worst passage of our entire trip from New Zealand to Port Vila we were reminded of the difference between sailing for yourself and dancing to someone else's tune! We were feeling the pressure of the expectations of the rest of the team. Anyone who has ever sailed knows only too well that bad decisions can be made when there is a deadline to meet. Looking back, we should have waited for a better weather window, but at the time we could only think that we would be holding the whole team up if we didn't leave New Zealand on that one particular day. Luckily we had a close friend of the family to crew with us. Even though he was an experienced sailor with several ocean crossings under his belt, he left us vowing that he wouldn't undertake any oceans passages again. Ever.
We were rewarded with a glorious spinnaker sail from Port Vila up to Lata, in the Solomons, our only regret that we didn't have time to visit the volcano on Tanna, or spend more time in Vanuatu. But we were promised an experience to rival Vanuatu, if not top it. We weren't disappointed.
As we dinghy towards the village. Lochy asks 'will there be warriors, mum?' Previously, when we have approached villages on Fenualoa, as we tilt the outboard motor to cope with the shallower water, a group of men and boys have charged into the sea and surrounded our dinghy. With charcoal marked faces and naked except for a loincloth, leaves on their legs and arms, they yelled at us, wielding wooden axes, bows and arrows and sticks. In days gone by, this would have presented a clear message to visitors; 'don't mess with us.' In fact the message certainly wasn't lost on us. Had we not been warned by Chris that this would happen, I might have been compelled to flick the engine into reverse.
But in Mola’a, on the northern most tip of Fenualoa, we were greeted instead by two village elders who beckoned the 2 dinghies towards the safest landing on the shore. This time the sand felt soft under our feet, a relief after the sharp coral landings of the last three villages.
With a population of approximately 50, the whole village was involved with our welcome. Dancing in the formation of a dugout canoe, dressed in grass skirts and leaves, they lead us to a line drawn in the sand where we are presented with garlands of flowers. Speeches follow, then singing, more speeches and then hand shaking. With only fifty in the village this doesn't take as long as the other villages, where we have shaken hands with all 500 villagers. Even the music stops momentarily as the band members take their turn to shake hands with us, before picking up their flip flops and resuming beating out the now- familiar rhythm on their pipes.
By now, the islanders know why we are here. The news has passed along the thin island of Fenualoa from the south up. They know that we are an NGO, who is here to provide hands on help for their coastal community. We have come at their request to mainly help them develop a more sustainable way to utilise their marine environment. OceansWatch however has a policy to always help in other ways that the community request too, so on Fenualoa there was a water project, health projects, sustainable livelihood projects and lots of school work too. Their diverse approach means that any yachtsman or woman will be able to find a way to make a worthwhile contribution.
Although Mark had offered to help with OceansWatch's water project, mapping the island's underground fresh water supply, I had been reluctant to take on a project of my own. I was happy to help the others, but I also had to take into consideration the fact that I was still schooling Mia and Lochy and feeding half if not all of the team on a regular basis. I saw my job as being a refuge. A person people could come for a chat, a hug or a chocolate biscuit. In reality, I ended up taking on the education project. Visiting the two local schools and giving presentations about reef conservation and pollution. I might not have been an expert, but my background as a speech pathologist gave me a head start in the art of sign-supported English! Mia became my trusty helper in the schools whilst Lochy tramped through the undergrowth with dad.
Fast forward a week and it's time for the Jackson Four to leave. Having enjoyed an evening of festivities, dancing and singing, the chief is saying his farewell speech. He is in tears as he presents Lochy with a paddle from one of their dug out canoes and his daughter presents Mia with a traditional grass skirt and bracelets. They, along with a bow and arrow Lochy received for his birthday and some other woven bags gifted to us will be treasured forever as a reminder of the time when our paths crossed with those of islanders whose lives teeter on the brink of survival through no fault of their own. We hope we have made a difference.
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