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Yachts bring aid to remote South Pacific islands

Richard and Stephanie Hackett began chartering sailboats and yachts to travel the South Pacific more than 20 years ago. Seeing the problems of getting health care to remote islands, Richard Hackett, past president of the Rotary Club of Fern Ridge (Veneta), Ore., came up with the idea of charter sailboats helping to provide health care and disaster relief. Sea Mercy, the nonprofit he and his wife founded, started with one volunteer vessel in 2013 and now has more than 100 yachts on call, with initiatives to address health care, disaster response, education and training, and economic development.

Sea Mercy has more than 100 yachts on call, ready to deliver health care and aid. 

Monica Garwood

Q: How do you get the vessels and the volunteers for Sea Mercy’s programs?

A: The people with the vessels are either private owners or the captains who represent private owners. Most are people who have chased the dream of sailing the South Pacific or sailing around the world. For the medical personnel, it’s a working vacation: Doctors, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, dentists, and optometrists come out and join us. Even some medical students want to participate. It’s a two-week period. We travel to anywhere from five to nine remote islands. We set up a clinic onshore, and they treat patients throughout the day or over a two-day period. When we’re all done, we start sailing to the next remote island.

Q: How did disaster relief fit into the original model?

A: We thought once every five years we would be responding to, perhaps, a cyclone. Cyclone Ian hit Tonga in 2014, and we sent two vessels. We were the only vessels that could reach these remote islands; big merchant ships can’t get in, because of the narrow entrances and shallow lagoons. Then Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015, so we sent eight vessels to Vanuatu. We realized we had to get in front of this and created our first response league. We contacted owners of small yachts and the superyachts, and built a network just in case something else happens. When Cyclone Winston hit Fiji in 2016, we had 60 vessels that responded. We were the first on the scene and the last ones to leave.

Q: How did this expand into economic development?

A: It started with diabetes. The rate of diabetes in the South Pacific is one of the highest in the world. A lot of the health issues are either directly or indirectly a result of diabetes. The [Western] diet that we have introduced to them has changed their whole culture. On the remote islands they don’t have access to the drugs to treat it. And the farmers are moving away, and they’re sending money home. Instead of working and farming and fishing, people are buying sugar and processed flour and rice and noodles. In our health clinics, we realized, we’re treating the symptoms but not the underlying causes. So we are shifting to more of an economic development, agriculturally based program. We’re budgeting it, gearing up, meeting with the leadership, and getting the approval. It’s been a really amazing journey, but we’re very excited about seeing the impact it’s going to have on these remote islands. 

–Nikki Kallio

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