Non-profit organization Okeanos Foundation for the Sea recently joined the Yap State Health Crisis Task Force in combating the spread of dengue fever and leptospirosis that are now prevalent on Yap Island.
“We are grateful to Okeanos for their help with the emergency…because one big problem is the transportation of supplies and medical personnel to our remote communities,” said John Gilmatam, chairman of the Yap State Emergency Health Task Force.
Days after the Yap State government announced a monthlong closure of public schools due to the dengue pandemic, Okeanos crew members were loading boxes of medical supplies provided by the Yap State Health Department onto their open-ocean sailing canoes.
On Sept. 4, two Okeanos vaka motu fossil fuel-free sailing canoes, Okeanos Ambassador and Okeanos Waa’qab, departed Yap Island to transport much needed medical supplies to remote neighboring island communities. More than a dozen local crew who have been trained to sail the vaka motus safely across the open ocean delivered medical supplies to all of Yap’s neighboring island communities over the course of three weeks, along with food provisions the crews prepared for their families.
“It was a very successful trip in my opinion,” said the Okeanos fleet commander, captain Peia Patai. “Our Okeanos vaka motus successfully delivered medical supplies to 17 islands which had no other way of being serviced as the state cargo ships were not operating at that time.”
“I’m really proud to be taking part in helping out our people,” said Okeanos crew member Nelson Chipelmal, who grew up on Lamotrek atoll sailing traditional Carolinian canoes. “The vaka motus are not here to replace our local canoes. They came here to encourage sailing and help transport people to wherever they need to go, especially in times of emergency.”
As of Aug. 25, Yap has had 406 suspected cases of dengue fever and 91 confirmed cases, according to a situation report posted by the Yap State Government Public Information Service.
Children are the most vulnerable to dengue and the outbreak has overwhelmed health care workers in Yap, who are also contending with the re-emergence of hand, foot and mouth disease.
Recent scientific publications suggest that the infectious diseases like dengue are expected to increase further in many endemic and non-endemic regions due to the increasing global temperatures brought forth by climate change.
It is the mission of Okeanos Foundation for the Sea to support vulnerable island communities on the forefront of climate change by providing traditionally-based, sustainable sea transportation and professional open ocean sailing training. Okeanos’ vaka motus provide a traditionally-based and environmentally-friendly solution to the lack of transportation facing outer islands in the Pacific, as some communities wait months to be serviced by cargo ships to deliver day-to-day essentials like food, cargo, or in this case, medicine.
The two Okeanos vaka motus currently operating in Yap are among the six 50-foot, single-masted, open-ocean sailing canoes built to meet day-to-day sea transportation needs in the Pacific islands. The vaka motus built since 2012 joined the eight Vaka Moana, 72-foot double-masted vessels previously built by Okeanos and now operated by voyaging societies in Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa, New Zealand and Hawaii to revive traditional culture.
In August, the crew of the Okeanos Marshall Islands vaka motu completed medical runs to Arno Atoll for the Ministry of Health to help combat a tuberculosis outbreak on Majuro’s neighboring island.
“I hope that we can look into ways that Okeanos can continue to help with healthcare to Yap’s outer islands perhaps providing regular transport to those communities up to five times a year,” said task force chair John Gilmatam, who is also the executive director and CEO of Wa’ab Community Health Center.
The Okeanos Foundation was invited to Yap State by Gov. Henry Falan. Okeanos was asked to imagine a partnership model for a vaka motu public transportation system to provide regular, safe and reliable transportation to Yap’s remote neighboring communities.
An initial proposal for an Okeanos-managed vaka motu bus system was prepared with Yap’s Executive Branch and submitted to Legislature for consideration but Okeanos has since requested that other organizational models be explored.
At this time, all parties and elected officials supporting the use of vaka motus to provide regular service to Yap’s outer islands are requested to join the discussion for imagining the best model for traditionally-based sustainable sea transportation, capacity building and independence for the Yapese people.
For now, Okeanos continues training the local crew to be professional open-ocean sailors to safely and reliably meet their communities’ urgent sea transportation needs.
“It was a good training trip for our local crews as we encountered many different kinds of weather” said Patai. “As we delivered medical supplies as part of the Emergency Task Force, we encountered some fierce winds that are typical this time of year but the crew knew how to seek shelter and properly anchor the vakas in the lagoons ‘til the squalls passed over. I was very proud of how professionally our crews performed during this trip.” (PR)