Sailing for Humanity


Steve and a couple of health care teams comprised of doctors, nurses, dentists and dental assistants had sailed to a number of villages in south Malekula and the Maskelyne Islands where they had set up clinics.

   You’ve got to love the concept: take well found yachts skippered by decent cruiser types whose sailing itineraries take them to beautiful, remote third world countries. Put aboard those boats caring medical and dental crews who are prepared to volunteer their professional services to help those less fortunate. Add to this a small band of tireless folk who can put the two elements together as well as provide medical and dental supplies and logistical support. Last but not least, find the funds to make it all happen. Taken all together you have the ingredients for a win/win situation- made possible by Pacific Yacht Ministries (PYM).

  While moored in Gladstone Marina in Queensland Australia some years back, we first learned about the PYM program. Aboard his lovely Adams 50 Elvis, Steve Woodward had recently returned from southern Vanuatu where he’d spent part of the winter.

  Over tea and biscuits Steve and his wife Kathy explained how they were able to combine their passion for sailing with their compulsion to do what they can to minimize the suffering among the people of the Pacific Islands. Steve, the program’s manager at the time, is a retired carpenter and keen yachtsman with a long track record for helping people. While previously visiting Vanuatu on holiday, he and Kathy recognized the shocking and immediate need there was for dental and medical assistance. Then and there the seed of a dream was planted: to someday, somehow, be able to fill that need.

Medical services are provided inexpensively to those who almost never have access to proper medical care. The volunteer health care professionals have a working holiday off the well beaten tourist track with opportunities to sail, swim, fish, dive or simply visit with the people they have so generously offered to help. As for the yachties, by hosting and transporting the medical teams, they make a contribution that goes well beyond handing out lollipops, T-shirts and balloons to kids on the beach. Their involvement is much appreciated by the locals, which is reflected in their almost immediate acceptance into village life.

   Steve made numerous trips to Vanuatu after that, to set up mini medical clinics, assist doctors and dentists, deliver medical supplies, facilitate the evacuation of seriously ill patients, and even to build a school. Often, getting to the villages meant relying on inadequate road transport and unreliable or nonexistent interisland freight transport. Teams would have to hike for miles into areas they served, packing the supplies they required. It was an inefficient and time consuming way of doing things.

   For Steve, who has for a lifetime messed around in boats, the solution was clear: do it with sailboats! Sailboats would be reliable and would allow them to come and go freely, safely, and in comfort, independent of transportation foibles. They could pack as much water, food and supplies as necessary and evacuate acute cases. Furthermore, with the team members sleeping aboard the boats, and not in the villages, the risk of contracting malaria would be greatly reduced.

   In Queensland Australia, a small organization called Pacific Yacht Ministries put Steve’s concept into action. They put their skills, time, boats and money where their mouths were and followed their motto: “Sailing for Humanity.” PYM is a non profit, charitable public company that operates sailboats ranging in size from 39 to 62 feet throughout the islands of Vanuatu and the Torres Strait. Their aim is to provide humanitarian aid for the relief of sickness, suffering and distress of the under privileged, regardless of race, religion or creed. PYM has a small corporate membership and operates through a Board of Directors.

   The thrust of the organization is medical and dental care as well as dental and hygiene education. If there is a first aid post in a remote area, it is often primitive and without staff. The PYM program attempts to provide the service needed with the help of teams of voluntary professionals, organizing and co-ordinating each team’s visit and providing transportation, accommodation, and medical/dental supplies and equipment through the use of small yachts.

     The dream became reality with the purchase of the 44 ft. sloop Jacqui in 1999. That same year, 2.5 tons of rice were delivered to Vanuatu, and the first marine based operation began. A small group of Steve’s friends could see the merit in using sailboats and together they started PYM. James Ward, an R.N. with extensive professional experience in Australia, Kenya and P.N.G. became the CEO.

By 2002 they were operational, putting together medical and den tal crews on two volunteered sailboats, the 44 ft. N.Z. registered Regale and the 42 ft. Australian registered catamaran Sidiqui. That season, more than 2,000 patients were treated through the program.

In 2003, Steve’s newly completed Elvis was the only boat used. Minimal available funding meant a shortened season but the teams were still able to treat more than 1,800 Vanuatu people.


2008 also saw a shift towards taking NiVan (Vanuatu) medical professionals on board the yachts, which dramatically altered the dynamics. This came as a result of experience in 2007 where a dentist and his assistant joined the team for a tour. With language barriers broken down, and medicos who are accustomed to working with minimal equipment, the patient treatment numbers increased markedly.

  During 2004, two yachts were put into service, the 44 ft. Lavinia and the 39 ft. Windango, owned and crewed by CEO James Ward and his wife Carmella with two six week projects from July through November.

   2007 was the peak year as far as yacht numbers are concerned, with a total of 5 yachts in service, Sidiqi, Another Angel, Drumbeat, Windango,and McDiver.  2008 saw 2 catamarans service the West Coast of Espitito Santo for the first time.  There are no sheltered harbours between the north and south of the island, consequently these were the first yachts to visit this coast in living memory. 

  PYM have established a close relationship with the Northern Health Department and assist with distribution of treated mosquito nets, child immunisation programs, as well as the well established dental, medical and health education programs.

  In 2009, a couple from Busselton, Western Australia, generously donated a sailing catamaran to PYM. ‘Inflight’ is 12.6 Metre (42 foot) long and 6.2 Metres (21 foot) wide, and she is cutter rigged. She has proved herself to be a strong seaworthy vessel.

  A typical project begins in either Port Vila or Luganville where the boats await the arrival of the health care teams who fly in from Australia or the U.S. (at their own expense). After medical supplies and food are taken on board, it is only a day trip to the first village. The work day starts just after dawn. As day breaks, canoes begin to surround the boat. After breakfast aboard, the medical and dental teams head for shore to set up their respective clinics, usually in a thatched hut or on the beach under a coconut tree.

Since toothaches are the most common problem, the dental clinic will immediately develop a long waiting line. Most adults have dental caries and abscesses, resulting in many extractions, as there is little time available for restorative work at this stage. Teams finely timed their procedures to the point that on a good day 200 patients could be treated.

Although the medical teams also treat large numbers of patients, they report some reluctance on the part of the villagers. Cultural issues frequently arise which make it difficult for many women to present their gynaecological concerns to white male doctors. For that reason, the PYM program now makes a concerted effort to include a female doctor in every project.

The usual length of stay in one village is four days, then it’s time to sail away to the next village. The medical teams work tirelessly for a period of two weeks before heading back home. Their selfless contributions are invaluable.

Also, patients needing the facilities of a real hospital often refuse to leave their island homes because they associate Vanuatu hospitals with death. Furthermore, stories abound of patients whom the government transported to the city hospital at government expense, but abandoned after discharge without providing enough money for the return trip. Being stranded and a long way from home, without friends, is an experience the islanders are reluctant to repeat. They much prefer the hospital to come to them.

The health care teams break for mid-morning tea and lunch, which are prepared by the boats’ crews. Fresh fruits and vegetables are supplied daily by the village, and these are given happily, as it is considered a small payment for the services provided. At 2:30 p.m. the professionals are free to leave for the day, to rest or take in some snorkelling, fishing or other leisure activities. But because of the numbers of people in need of care, the teams often work right through until dusk.

PYM is still going strong in 2011, in partnership with the Australian Dept. of Health, with three catamarans in operation in Vanuatu and the Torres Strait. An update to their website has recently gone live, with regular updates posted on their Facebook page (link available on the website). The continued willingness of boat owners and health professionals to offer their help, as well as the generosity of financial donors are crucial to the continuation of the program. At a time of considerable instability among the islands of the SW Pacific, when governments are even less able to provide for their populations than before, the success of this group of seagoing health care providers is all the more critical.

If you are interested in participating in some way, note the following contacts: