One week with the Sea Mercy team….
On Saturday after the morning’s work session and the village feast Kevin and I decided to stay another week. Doing some manual labour makes a change after so much sailing which often involves long periods of doing nothing but watch keeping and volunteering here in Makogai has been hugely rewarding. We are enjoying the change from the usual routines of sailing, exploring, laundry, boat maintenance, food shopping and house work. Anyway the weather forecast for the coming week is horrid with contrary winds and more rain until at least Thursday.
It’s almost seven in the evening and has been raining almost none stop since yesterday morning, there were a couple of hours this morning when it was just a drizzle but mostly it has rained heavily. The long boat trip back from the village this afternoon was a soggy one, tomorrow I intend to wear my oilie salopettes in an attempt to keep dry and warm. Kevin reconnected the power supply to the eberspacher, Temptress’ diesel powered hot air central heating system akin to those used in lorry cabs. It’s the first time it has been turned on since the boat was launched in January; back then it was merely to test run it after a year or more if sitting in a boatyard, tonight we genuinely need its dry warmth. I dug out a cardie to wear too after my hot shower, we had become colder than we realised on site. At least we have a dry boat to go home to, many of the villagers are still living in tents over six months after the cyclone.
Yet more heavy rain most of the day though there was a short interlude in the morning allowing the grass around the school buildings to drain a little but by mid afternoon it was one big puddle again. The villagers brought over the grass cutters (petrol driven strimmers) from the agriculture station and have made a start on clearing the grass and undergrowth encroaching on the school. Some are knitted in wellies and blue oilies, others in t-shirts, shorts and flipflops. I spot David (the local not the skipper of Anahata) wandering past moving discarded wood in a long sleeved shirt, swimming shorts and diving bootees, soaked through to the skin but still as usual grinning cheerfully! Apparently before Winston the land behind the school was clear through to the beach, a shady coconut grove. The sea is now unseen a few hundred yards away through a thicket of banana and other tropical shrubs growing in waist high grass. With the school reopening scheduled for the end of August it will bring important visitors to the village and they want the village and its surrounds to look as good as it can.
Everyone has been too busy rebuilding their homes to mow grass in the months following the storm except to clear that land needed to grow vegetables like taro, aubergines, beans and squashes which form an essential part of their diet, there are no shops here. They catch fish daily and on special days kill a pig to roast in an underground oven heated by hot stones known as an umu. Rice and flour come from the mainland when needed in large sacks, cooking is over an open fire. The ladies regularly supply us with herbs like sweet basil and coriander and today they also gave us a huge green squash, some aubergines and long beans from their vegetable garden so the building team had curried pumpkin for lunch as we failed to catch a fish on our morning commute. Tiko also showed Wendy and Hannah how to cook aubergine fritters in a light batter of flour and curry powder, they were very tasty.
Tatty and Dora, the medical students together with their helpers from the village have abandoned mural painting on the second building, the underwater scene can wait for warmer, drier weather. They also postponed a planned baby clinic though the fish weighing scale is left hanging from a walkway beam between the school and the little building that houses the school toilets, the camp shower and the tool store. This concrete block building with its recycled tin roof has sinks for washing laundry/pupils hands/paint brushes at one end, a lean-to kitchen at the other, a row of toilets, some used as storage and a shower in between and is a social focal point for the team and the villagers alike. The green doors have hand painted yellow signs in two languages hung from nails and string like shop signs which adds character. The kids play here under its wide roof and mums come for a chat. Today there was no school in the tents due to the weather so a handful of kids join Sadie here to play cards out of the rain.
Work was slow the weather not only humid but out of the breeze the temperature was a surprisingly high thirty degrees. Lunch was eaten in the almost complete schoolroom, Tom has been working hard cutting glass to glaze the louvred windows which helps keep the wind and rain out. He hasn’t used his stained glass skills for over twenty years! The wind had turned to blow the heavy rain under the covered area near the kitchen that we usually eat in, normally we are fighting to squeeze in the shade of the overhanging roof of the row of outdoor school toilets!
Kevin and I have been cutting and fitting plywood panels to fit the upper walls inside the second building. We are not skilled wood workers but the standard of fit is improving as we progress along the long front wall from right to left, cutting the top at forty five degrees to a length (usually 89cm if over a window or door, 83cm otherwise, but always measured) then scribing in the fit around the roof beams at the top and if necessary the lower wall panels. Every panel is slightly different as nothing in this hand cut timber framed building built by volunteers is exactly square despite Ian’s efforts to ensure plans and measurements are followed. It is painfully slow but we can see progress. Every panel is glued and nailed in place once the cut edges have been painted to seal them. We are up and down the big double sided step ladder several times an hour as it takes two to hold the heavy panels in place as we try the fit. We can now cut 45 degree angles with both the power saw and a hand saw as well as use the jigsaw; a generator provides power for the tools. No ear, toe or eye protectors, our work bench is the diminishing pile of interior ply in the centre of the floor with a couple of lengths of two by four to raise the sheet we are cutting, tools and nails are stored in a “bucket” that once held paint.
Overhead but along the other half of the length of the building, David and Craig spent yesterday cutting and fitting battens over the joins in the plywood sheets that form the ceiling working from planks thrown across the ceiling beams and supported between by two tall metal trestles and some scrap wood stand screwed to the floor and to the planks. Today with Il Sogno heading off to Suva, David is alone, painting the ceiling and it seems himself! At some point tomorrow we’ll swap sides. This building also needs the exterior panelling completing at one gable end and a part of the rear but it’s too wet to do that at present meaning soon work will have to stop on the interior too unless the weather improves. Ian is busy cutting wood to complete the window surrounds, Wendy and Hannah when not cooking for the crew are in the other building painting the frames ready to be put in this one. James assisted by young Joshua is panelling the room divider in the other building.
After supper Emma and Owen from Dulcinea come over for some assistance with setting up more advanced features in Open CPN the navigation software we both use. They get soaked in a downpour trying to coax their outboard engine to start. They and their crew have spent the day diving the local reefs and discovered as they swam past earlier that Temptress’ anchor chain has wrapped itself round a bommie or coral head, a job for the morning but it is causing us to swing very close to Outsider as she has her full scope to swing on and we are limited to the length of chain between the bow and the coral its wrapped around. Both Ian and Kevin are aware but hopefully there won’t be a meeting of boats if the wind gets up overnight.
Another grey day, the cloud hanging low over the hills but it rained less in the night, parts of the cockpit are drying out. Sunday’s laundry is still damp, even the few items hung up in the aft heads by the heater outlet have not yet completely dried the air is so humid. The heater is on again for an hour before we leave for the village. Kevin and Ian decided that swimming shorts are more appropriate attire for what promises to be a rough and wet commute this morning, with rain jackets over the top and in Ian’s case his usual wellies to keep a tropical ulcer dry.
Any sore or blister in this humid, insect ridden climate can rapidly become a serious ulcer that is difficult to heal. Kevin has been carefully tending sores rubbed by his damp sandals last week, mindful that Ian is not the first person we’ve meet recently whose blistered foot has become a troublesome tropical ulcer. Fortunately Kevin’s red broken skin appears to healing well, he is wearing socks even with his sandals to prevent more rubbing, ensuring his feet are dried well and applying antiseptic cream regularly. We have tend every scratch like this to ensure they heal. There is antibiotic cream and tablets in the ship’s medical supplies in case anything gets worse.
During the day however weather wise things improve and we even manage to get a couple of exterior plywood panels in place on the back of the second building before more rain sends us and our tools scurrying indoors again. With the help of young David from the village our panelling efforts go faster and with practise the fit is improving, the second long side of the interior is almost complete. Both interior and exterior gable ends require ladders and scaffold that is currently deployed to other tasks but we hope that their panelling might be completed before we leave.
By late afternoon there are a few blue streaks in the sky and the grass is beginning to dry. The air feels warmer, less damp and everyone is more cheerful. The trip back in the long boat is a wet one again as the seas even within the lagoon are lumpy. The kids are excited, there is another yacht in the bay. Does it have kids onboard asks Sadie always on the look out for new playmates. The boat in question is large and flying a Swiss ensign, the crew wave a welcome to us as the long boat turns into the bay. It seems vaguely familiar to Kevin and I from Panama or French Polynesia but then we’ve seen so many boats in the past eight months. There is an older couple on board so Sadie and her brothers are unlikely to have more children to play with; maybe we’ll meet them tomorrow.
Back in the anchorage the skipper goes snorkelling to check on the anchor vs coral head battle and decides we are loosing with the chain well and truly caught up; the anchor must come up. It takes forty five minutes to retrieve and re-lay in a different spot, our first attempt at re-anchoring fails with the hook skipping over what seems like rock so we move Temptress across the bay and try again. At least most of the laundry has dried.
So much for forecasts of improving weather, another night of rain and gusty winds gives way to a grey overcast morning. After three days of hefting plywood, saws, ladders and tools around our bodies are beginning to complain. Last night I fully intended to make bread but the lure of the sofa was too great; tonight perhaps?
The day remained grey but apart from some light drizzly interludes fairly dry. Work cracked on, with most of it focused on the second building – window frames and surrounds being constructed by Ian, louvres fitted by Tom, panelling the interior gable ends which requires some careful templating by James to get the the angles right.
With the drier weather Kevin and I restarted the exterior panelling which posed some interesting challenges for us novice carpenters – the bolts attaching the wooden bearers on which the building is constructed to the posts sunk in the ground protrude beyond the bearers which required cutting circular holes in the lower end of the panels with a drill. Further on, tomorrow’s challenge will be bearers protruding beyond the building itself, James has provided a method for us to try. The full size exterior panels of are extremely heavy requiring a team of three, two to hold in place and one to attach the initial couple of nails. And we are running out of “clouts” as the 40 mm flat headed nails are called, so from tomorrow every panel will be screwed in place until either we finish or the ordered supplies turn up.
Back in the bay some familiar boats were anchored including Stephan and Ilja’s blue hulled Sabir, Matin d’Or who we’d met in Savusavu and Elas. The latter is a Swiss flagged yacht we came through Panama with, they are heading to one of the marinas on the north of Vanua Vitu to be lifted out so a rudder bearing can be replaced. Matin d’Or has brought building supplies and mail for the Sea Mercy team from Savusavu and will be joining us tomorrow.
Dream Catcher couldn’t stay but generously donated a big box of school supplies like packs of rulers, note books, pencils etc as well as some food stuffs. It is spontaneous, generous gestures of cruisers like this that has continued to amaze us ever since we set off on this voyage, wherever we have been yachties who are often living on very tight budgets are frequently volunteering time, tools and supplies to help both fellow members of the sailing community as well as those who live in the remote places they cruise.
Sabir, Elas and the other Swiss yacht departed. The sun made a watery appearance after breakfast, perhaps today the weather will improve, though we have heard next week will also be rainy. This is our last full day of work at the school as Temptress must move on towards Suva the capital where we plan to provision and checkout before making the short four or five day crossing to Port Vila in Vanuatu.
Today a lot of outside work was done as it was mostly dry if a little grey. A frame was made for the concrete to complete a water tank base by the second school room, the huge roofs make excellent rainwater catchers and rainwater is the only potable supply on the island as the well is brackish. The cement has arrived with Matin D’Or so the concrete will be done tomorrow. The remaining outside panelling on the second building is under way, it hopefully should be finished early next week along with the windows and inside panels, then it will be battened and painted. Tatty and Dora are racing to complete the underwater mural, a diver in red shorts being their final piece of art, their three weeks here are almost over.
At the camp Kevin and I both check on the weather for the coming week and decide departing Fiji at the end of the week would not be prudent with 30 plus knots of wind forecast for mid week across the ocean between here and Vanuatu which will make the seas very rough indeed. Yet another pressure trough is crossing the area, it seems this season has been an almost continuos succession of them. The four or five day passage needs to end on a weekday to avoid overtime charges from customs and immigration in Port Vila so in turn that means a departure on a Thursday or a Friday from Fiji. Neither of those days next week would be great as the seas will still be rough even if the wind has subsided a little. It looks like our delay will be the volunteer team’s gain, another eleven man/woman days of work.
The final morning’s work of the week and the day is dry and sunny. The first building is almost complete, just some trim to fit around the big windows high in the gable ends when the scaffold towers are finished with in the other building. The last touches of paint are applied, the floor has been swept and the pile of mason board (hardboard to us Brits) has been moved to one end ready for laying next week; pale creamy yellow vinyl tiles will be glued on top to complete the classroom flooring.
Butoh (not certain of the spelling but Bu means grandmother and Toh is my phonetic spelling of her shortened first name, everyone calls her Butoh) says they will hold their church service in the building tomorrow sitting on the floor as there are no chairs yet. Her husband Philli has been a cheerful stalwart on the construction team and ensures too that his several sons work hard alongside him, his daughter Tiko and daughter in law Lumo are often to be found welding paintbrushes or hammers whilst Butoh minds her many grandchildren and cooks for the whole family. They seem to be the largest family in the village and are a close knit group, may be over half the school children are Butoh and Philli’s grand children!
After work villagers and Sea Mercy volunteers sit down to a lunch preceded by farewell speeches for David who is flying to New Zealand as his Fiji visa has expired and the medical students Tatty and Dora whose three weeks volunteering here are up. David and Philli brought tears to everyone’s eyes as they thanked each other for the experience and friendship of the last three or four months, David presented Philli with a photographic biography of Nelson Mandela who he said Philli reminded him of with his concern and care for his people.
David, Tatty and Dora together with Philli junior are sailing Anahata tomorrow around to the north of Viti Levu (the mainland) to a marina near the airport where David will leave his boat and the girls will catch a flight to Taveuni the island just to the east of the other big island Vanua Levu north of here; they will spend their second stint of volunteering there before flying back to Medical School in Leeds in September. Even though we have only known all three for a short time we said farewell over supper on Outsider on Saturday evening with moist eyes, we will miss them.