- You’ve long been involved with humanitarian relief efforts, what made you decide to buy a boat to continue your works?
Actually the boat came first. We have had Vega for almost 10 years now. It was only after the big tsunami that we discovered Vega’s abilities to assist small isolated communities with educational and medical supplies. Vega was in Langkawi when the tsunami struck and at once volunteered to carry food and medical supplies to Sumatra. At first we were to carry our loads to the island of Pula Weh and off load onto larger phinisis that would take those supplies around to the hardest hit west coast – where the big aid agencies could not or would not go. On arrival with about 28 tons of supplies we discovered that the larger phinisis had already tried to make the trip but both had been so badly damaged they had to turn back. Vega was designed specifically to carry heavy concentrated loads through the North Sea into the Arctic. She is a tough boat very strongly built. So we decided to give it a try with the supplies we had on board. That was a very memorable voyage. The boat was fine fighting her way through the rip tides, whorl pools, and standing waves like thorough bread. The boat was fine, but we were thrown about like ping pong balls in a washing machine. Although tired and bruised when we arrived with badly needed food and medical supplies it was all worth it. That was when we realized Vega and we could make a difference in the lives of small isolated communities.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to remain ‘land based’? Easier? Yes it would have. But this is not about easy it is about helping others in a practical meaningful manner. Last year 94% of the funds we received went directly to the people we assist. That is a very impressive percentage considering that some big well-known agencies are lucky if 15% gets to the people they are dedicated to helping. The rest gets siphoned off to pay for administration, salaries, new land cruisers, workshops and seminars in luxury resorts and the like. By basing our selves form Vega herself our costs are minimal. Our objective is not to become bigger but to be more efficient. We have no salaries or other expensive overheads.
How did you find Vega? That is a very long story but suffice to say she was in the Canary Islands and we were in Tanzania at the time and life became progressively more interesting from then on.
What was her condition when you took possession of her? When we first found Vega she was more like a cross between a barn and a goat shed than a yacht. The fellow who had her before may have been a great butcher or baker but he was not a sailor. It took us almost 7 years just to sort out some of his messes and get her sailing again. Then came the long hard grind of redoing all the accommodation spaces to the standard they now have. Meggi designed the whole interior layout and we did all of the work using re-cycled wood from old houses and boats being broken up in Bali.
What was her refit like and how long did it take? The refit took about 4 years once we started on it in serious. Up until then we had been doing small things to keep her sea worthy. One reason it took so long was that we had to keep ducking in and out with our other work.
Who helped you get her into shape? For labor we used local carpenters from Bali It took a while to find ones who could think in bevels and curves but once did it was just a matter of banging away at it until she was more or less finished.
How has being caretaker of a historical vessel changed you? Not really although every boat impresses her personality on the owner through use. I have always been partial to these traditional sailing boats. As someone once said I am a hopeless romantic. I prefer to see myself as an un-reconstructed traditionalist. At one time in my life I directed restorations of antique and replica vessels for museums. Boats from the 14 – 1700’s that was something I found very rewarding.
How has it changed your work? Not very much at all but it has changed my outlook on what is really important in life. What has real value and what is just gadgetry designed to entice me into wasting money. The old sailors had little time for gadgets. They were interested in things that worked and continued to work. We have a 1960’s Sailor VHF radio that is still in perfect condition. We also have two ICOM radios from 2009 where both of the microphone cables are completely disintegrating.
Do the communities you support with your humanitarian works recognize Vega? Of coarse they do. Usually when we arrive before the anchor is down we have local canoes around the boat and friends calling out welcomes to us. You must understand that for many of these small communities we are there only lifeline to the outside world. Vega brings the educational, medical, and other supplies to help improve the community’s standard of living.
Do they have an attachment to her; do they see her as something more than just a boat? I think it very safe to say that the people we assist see Vega as something more than just a boat. We are considered as friends and Vega as a bringer of hope and badly needed supplies.
Financially, a historic vessel on its own is a serious commitment and then there are the costs of the various programs and supplies you provide for the communities you serve. How do you keep Vega continuing on her mission? Meggi and I are not rich. We are often scraping along looking for the next fuel top up or food shopping money. What we can do is volunteer our boat and ourselves to help others. We then spread the word among our friends and ask them to help out with the supplies we need to deliver. Mind you the way we work is very different from the way the big aid agencies work. We do not pretend to know what the people we help need. What we do is politely ask what they need and make lists of those needs. We them take those lists back to our friends and supporters and try our best to find the items needed so we can deliver them. That way we know everything we load is wanted and needed by someone along our route. It is very much “from the hand of someone who wants to help directly into the hands of those needing help in the form of the things they need to do their jobs” Running costs are always a big problem. Fuel, food, spare parts, lines and sails, and the like are always a worry. We have yet to find that one “big” sponsor who can take us under their social responsibility program and help us manage that aspect of our work. For now we just muddle along as best we can, often not knowing where the next fuel or food will come from but trusting that by doing the “right thing” something will turn up. So far it always has.
You enable others to take part in Vega’s mission by essentially signing up for a working holiday? What we do is share the dream, the excitement, the hardships, and the adventure of sailing a traditional vessel on a mission of mercy. Along the way there are some pretty great moments and a lot of boring hard work. But we do eat well thanks to Meggi’s culinary talents. What transformations have you seen in people who choose to do something a bit more profound than merely sailing in a beautiful location? Vega tends to attract dreamers. Some of them are really interested in sailing an old boat and helping others. Many are just chasing an image of a dream and forget that living a dream requires the work to make that dream happen. Some fit right in and are back again and again – others can’t wait to jump off at the next port. Life on Vega is reality at the sharp end. Right out there with only you and nature. There are no social safety nets, no traffic lights, just you and reality. When a wave comes thundering down on you it could care less if you hold on or not. You might say Vega is a lesson in reality. Some manage to learn a lot and grow with those lessons. Others cling to the illusions of there iphone and facebook reality.
How can people who are not able to crew on Vega help her on her mission? There are so many ways to take part in our missions. Some of the people who help the most never have the chance to sail with us. Gathering school or medical supplies, donating to our running costs, helping out when we are in port, the list goes on and on. The thing is we share the dream and so anyone who really wants to be a part of what we do is not only welcome but also needed for the success of our missions. Most charities always ask for money then never let you know where your money went. We prefer that our friends provide the supplies we need to make our deliveries. Then we carefully photograph when we deliver those supplies and send back those pictures so our friends can see exactly how and where there help was applied. When we receive cash we purchase supplies and send copies of the receipts as well as the photographs. When someone takes the time and makes the sacrifice to help out others they have a right to know exactly how and where there help was applied. As I said above we are not trying to be bigger just more efficient – or perhaps I should say effective – and that includes efficiency in bringing our supporters closer to the people they are helping. .
What would you suggest to cruisers sailing on their own boats that want to use their travels for humanitarian works? Do not take old clothes. They take up lots of space and are not that useful to the community as a whole. Educational supplies, basic medical supplies, antibiotics, vegetable seeds, fishing or farming supplies. These are the things communities need to advance their standard of living. We have lists of the “standard” things needed and will be happy to share those lists and we have good contacts on the islands we visit that will help by insuring things are distributed to those most in need. We visit many islands during our yearly trips. Some of them we do not suggest for the average small yacht. For some the anchorages are non-existent or bad. Often we must send things ashore in the launch then Vega makes large circles at sea until the shore party is ready to be picked up again. In some cases that can mean several days of waiting offshore. In East Timor we are fortunate to have the Darwin – Dili race that brings supplies from Australia helping to top up our supplies and allowing us to reach out to more communities.
Built at Olve, Norway in 1893-94, for over 100 years VEGA carried cargos of bricks, building stone, pig iron, and cement through some of the world’s roughest seas. Built for the North Sea and certified for Arctic trade, VEGA was famous for her strength and ability to carry loads other boats her size could not. Baltic traders like VEGA made some very impressive voyages including immigrants to North America and cargos to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Caribbean, some rounding Cape Horn to trade with Chile.