As Hurricane Matthew ripped through southwest Haiti in the predawn hours of Oct. 4, 2016, people did their best to find shelter and protect their families. When the storm passed, 500 people had died. The damage to roads, infrastructure and businesses exceeded $2.8 billion. Aid officials estimated up to 80 percent of some areas were destroyed; one government official described the carnage as “total destruction.”
But even before the last of the storm winds had died, volunteers of the International Rescue Group were organizing a voyage to provide humanitarian relief via their fleet of sailboats: the 50-foot catamaran Rendezvous Cay, the 97-foot ketch Thunderbird V and the 56-foot ketch Tandemeer. Tapping into their network of charities, they coordinated the collection of tons of donated relief goods from around the Southeast United States.
The vessels, too, were donated and crewed with volunteer sailors from Europe and the United States, who did all maintenance, repairs and upgrades. I joined the crew on Thunderbird V in Hollywood, Florida, for a week and got a lesson in the power of human kindness and compassion.
Goods taken on board cover most basic human needs and occupy every stateroom, locker, lazarette and deck space. “For the trip to Haiti, we’ll all be sleeping on mattresses placed on the floor,” said IRG executive director Ray Thackeray. Originally from Liverpool, England, the 62-year-old has an easy smile and a type-B personality that suits this type of work. Almost every day, something breaks, and Thackeray’s glib response is to “put it on the list.”
Looking at the relief items — food, clothing, toiletries, cutlery, lumber, toys, tools, nails, school supplies, flashlights, batteries and child-care goods — gave me a disturbing appreciation of just how bad things were in Haiti. We loaded almost everything the charities brought in their trucks, but we had to reject anything that required electricity. Most Haitians had no access to it.
Haitians were also in great need of clean water. The storm severely damaged wells and cisterns in the Tiburon peninsula and left the population vulnerable to waterborne illnesses, such as cholera, which furthered the misery of the already distressed nation. In some villages, the disease was so endemic that people abandoned their homes, walking miles in search of food and water that wouldn’t sicken them.
Instead of hauling a limited supply of bottled water, the boats ran on-board desalinators, providing potable water directly from the ocean to the people via hoses run to the beach. The desalinators ran off a diesel generator and let the boats produce as much as 2,300 gallons of water per day.
Additional relief came in the form of 75 used sails collected by the nonprofit Sails for Sustenance. Fishermen would use them to increase their range and improve daily catches.
Any boat owner will tell you that working on an old boat is dirty and difficult. Thunderbird V is a steel-hulled ketch built in 1978. (Like me, she has age issues.) The first morning, the bilge pump failed and chief engineer Harrison Richardson scrambled through ankle-deep water to fix it. (We all were relieved that we didn’t have to form a bucket brigade.) The next day on Rendezvous Cay, I threw my back out lifting a 250- pound boom, and fellow baby boomer Joel Kronenberg twisted his knee jumping into the dinghy. We passed around the ibuprofen and cheered when a couple of 20-something volunteers showed up with good attitudes and strong bodies.
Every day was full of surprises. We pulled the dual anchors and discovered that one of them had wrapped around the outboard of a sunken boat. Really. First mate Megan Collins strapped on her scuba gear and gingerly unwrapped it, and we spent the better part of two days raising and removing months’ worth of marine growth from the chain. At the wharf in Hollywood, a truck pumped 1,500 gallons of fuel into our tanks. Thackeray winced at the $3,200 bill, but he knew the diesel would be far more expensive once we reached the Caribbean.
On board Thunderbird V, I could feel the sense of urgency as Thackeray and the volunteers labored to complete repairs, load gear and get underway. We watched the weather forecasts, hoping for a south wind that would carry us over the Gulf Stream quickly.
Time was the most precious currency: Everyone at IRG was aware that lost time meant lost lives. Tandemeer arrived in Haiti on Nov. 23, and Capt. Sequoia Sun said it was heartbreaking to see dozens of people wending around, carrying empty water jugs. That crew unloaded their relief goods and began making 800 gallons of water per day. By May 2017, they were able to build a motorized well pump, piping system and cistern that delivered fresh water to the village of Kaykok on Ile-a-Vache.
But even three sailboats loaded to the waterline could provide only a modicum of relief; 1.4 million people were in need of humanitarian aid, and a thousand boats like ours would only begin to relieve their suffering.
A year after the hurricane, food and shelter remain scarce, especially in the remote areas of Tiburon peninsula. Local produce is being trucked in at unaffordable prices, and the people feel they’ve been abandoned. Other parts of the country are not much better.
Jeremie resident Duvanel Francois recently summed up the long struggle Haiti has ahead of it: “We can spend 30 years, and we’ll never bounce back.”
To learn more about IRG and coastal disaster relief, go to internationalrescuegroup. org. To donate used sails for Haitian fishermen, visit sailsforsustenance.org.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.