Ground Zero: Yacht Operations in Disaster Aftermath

1 May 2020 By Kate Lardy
Courtesy of M/Y Loon

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

“Everything about it was really hard to get a grip on — the smell, the feel, the silence. There was nothing green, anywhere you looked was brown. There was no vegetation left whatsoever, no birds, no fish, no wildlife; it was kind of eerie.” That was the scene Capt. Jeff LaCombe found as he delivered supplies to Hope Town in the Abacos following Hurricane Dorian’s devastating impact. He was part of a flotilla of yachts that had come from Fort Lauderdale with donations because, as he simply puts it, “We cared.”

Many of the islands targeted by these intense storms are yacht crew’s second home, so when disaster strikes, it hits close to their hearts. It might also hit literally close by with off-season chartering in hurricane-prone areas at an all-time high. That was the case with 155-foot charter yacht Loon, which was hunkered down nearby Dorian at Atlantis Marina, so when Capt. Paul Clarke saw a social media post from YachtAid Global (YAG) calling for volunteers, it took him less than three minutes to respond.

It would be his and his crew’s first experience working with YAG, a nonprofit that uses yachts to deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief to coastal communities. Their only frame of reference was the YouTube video the yacht Dragonfly posted in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. “We must have watched it twenty times,” says Clarke. They prepped the yacht like they were going to a shipyard and filled it with supplies donated from Nassau churches. Then they went in expecting their primary job would be to make and distribute water and supplies, like Dragonfly did. But they soon learned that every disaster is different.

M/Y Loon provides aid in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian.
Courtesy of M/Y Loon
First on the Ground

“Medical was the biggest thing,” says Capt. Clarke. “They didn’t need much water, and supplies were secondary.” Loon pushed the envelope following the wind line in, so they beat nearly everyone to Marsh Harbour, even the Royal Bahamas Defence Force. YAG had organized the yacht to carry a team from Global Support and Development (GSD), a nonprofit that provides post-disaster humanitarian relief with ex-special forces kind of guys. Among them were four doctors and 14 paramedics. “They walked into something like three thousand people in hospital, who were being treated by a single doctor and two nurses,” Clarke says. In addition to housing the GSD team, Loon became invaluable as the primary communication hub, with Clarke coordinating critical medical evacuations between the hospital and the U.S. Coast Guard helicopters, which couldn’t speak directly to each other.

As Loon headed from Nassau to the epicenter of destruction, they were uncertain whether they’d be allowed in the area, even though they provided vital relief work. They decided to keep going until they were made to turn around.

Capt. LaCombe felt this ambiguity as well. His yacht, 116-foot Short Story, was one of a group that came from Fort Lauderdale organized through Atlantic Yacht & Ship. “They had contacted, I think, the prime minister of The Bahamas, and we had teamed up with a bunch of airplanes as well. We had an itinerary that had all boat names and tail numbers of aircraft with all approval numbers to enter; those were kind of our clearing papers. But the whole time we were over there, we were never sure if we were clear or weren’t. We were very unclear about a lot of things,” he says. The yacht kept a low profile, turning off AIS and LaCombe used his radio call sign rather than the boat name.

Courtesy of M/Y Loon

He had originally intended to stay and act as a mobile command center, but it ended up being a drop-and-go mission as the situation did not feel safe, despite their onboard security. He and the other volunteer yachts worked directly with the Hope Town Volunteer Fire and Rescue to bring requested supplies. “We tried to only deliver supplies that were in desperate need,” LaCombe says. This included food, water, power tools, generators, extension cords, fuel cans, 24V fuel-rated transfer pumps (communities had fuel but no way to deliver it), hosing, tubing, and plumbing supplies, and even a 26-foot tender for Fire and Rescue.

Capt. Kostas Andreou, who has done this sort of thing a few times since the 1992 Cat 5 Andrew, advises cooperating with the highest level of government to get to an affected area. When on the ground, “Go to the top of each area. (Identify) who is the mayor, priest…teacher and go directly to them to organize everything from there,” he says.
For two months following Dorian, Andreou and his tireless crew on the 220-foot shadow yacht Global made 35 trips back and forth between The Bahamas and Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades, which gave them a free berth to load supplies. Using their helicopter and amphibious car to reach inaccessible areas, they worked with the Global Empowerment Mission and volunteers from World Central Kitchen — an NGO that feeds people in disaster zones — to bring supplies and set up kitchen facilities to cook for the islanders.

As the first boat to enter Freeport following the storm, Global navigated the closed port at its own risk and uninsured to boot, as the yacht’s generous owner had assumed liability. Neither Clarke nor LaCombe (who had the owners on board) discussed their plans with their insurance companies — not wanting to hear “no” or assuming the boat wouldn’t be covered. But Nancy Poppe, North American yacht practice leader for Willis Marine Superyachts, recommends being upfront. “Each insurer’s position will be different,” she says. Some might say that coverage will not apply for the disaster area, “whereas another insurer may affirm that the policy, as written, remains as before.” Moreover, if the yacht would have been covered, not disclosing the trip in advance could cause an issue. “Some insurers might consider traveling to the area a material fact. Not disclosing a material fact could compromise coverage in the event of a claim,” Poppe says.

M/Y Dragonfly discharging fresh water in Vanuatu.
Courtesy of YachtAid Global
Safety Amid Chaos

Security concerns vary for every disaster and location and are also dependent on timing. The worst period seems to fall between the shell-shocked early days and when order is restored. In between can be chaotic, with opportunist crime and people in full defensive mode.

LaCombe experienced this when attempting to bring water to the pigs at No Name Cay. As they docked their tender, out of the debris of what had been a new restaurant charged three Haitian men, who he later learned had been hired as security by the restaurant owner. They were so aggressive that LaCombe feared they were going for a gun when one man dived behind the rubble. He took off quickly, while his passengers, including his wife and son, ducked below the gunwale.

Andreou also experienced aggressive behavior early on and used security on board for the initial weeks following Dorian. Thanks to the support of GSD, Capt. Clarke says they felt safe, but no crewmember was allowed to go anywhere without a GSD team member. They kept Loonanchored out until the Defence Force showed up and he didn’t let his female crew on shore for the first five to six days.

M/Y Dragonfly unloading aid and water in Vanuatu.
Courtesy of YachtAid Global

While things on the ground may seem lawless, it’s important to remember that laws still apply — a lesson that the security team on LaCombe’s flotilla learned when they attempted to stay on Elbow Cay. They were hired by a wealthy islander to help the Fire and Rescue guard the donations and supplies — the Defence Force attempted to detain them for not having work permits and for carrying weapons.

A longer time had passed since Hurricanes Maria and Irma, when the 60-meter Slipstream arrived at Dominica and Barbuda in late 2017 and 2018, respectively, bringing supplies requested by FHG Marine Engineering in Fort Lauderdale partnering with Yachts du Coeur, a French humanitarian organization that helped the yacht amass supplies in Antibes and Palma. “The islanders were very happy that they were not being forgotten,” says Capt. Phil Stevens, one of two rotational captains on board.

While security concerns may have lessened at that point, corruption had not. The experience in Dominica left a bit of a sour taste as, “We felt as some of the authorities clearly had their eye on certain items. Impossible to prove, but you knew!” says Stevens. Despite this, they knew they were transporting much-needed aid as their supply list, vetted by FHG, which was broken down by schools and hospitals. Stevens’ advice to others wanting to help is to contact someone on the ground who can identify the best way to donate.

M/Y Dragonfly providing aid in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam.
Courtesy of YachtAid Global
The Right Stuff

Bringing the right supplies at the right time is the crucial bit, says Mark Drewelow, founder of YAG. He cautions against cleaning out the garage or bilges and donating stuff you don’t need. “Pushing that into a pipeline is just going to clog things up and make a mess,” he says.

“These communities are sometimes fragile even in the best of times. If they get oversupplied, it can cause more trash, more pollution, and more problems than they can manage,” adds Zoran Selakovic, YAG’s director of operations. YAG has a cross dialogue with agencies and partners so efforts aren’t duplicated. They often don’t need yachts to supply anything at all; the global nonprofit community has aid staged in warehouses so when YAG has a verified need assessment, they reach out to their network and get a response within 24 hours. The problem is the aid can get stuck at commercial ports and that’s where yachts come in. In addition to being “the mule,” as Slipstream’s captain described their job, there are other ways yachts can be of assistance, especially considering their state-of-the-art watermakers and communication systems.

“The impact is enormous with just one yacht acting as a floating communication center,” says Drewelow. It doesn’t need to cost the owner a cent. Bandwidth providers will open up the pipelines to move more data faster at no charge, he says. In Loon’s case, “e3 bumped all our Internet up to the absolute max, no questions asked,” says Clarke.

Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian
Courtesy of M/Y Short Story

“Engineers, being jacks of all trades, were probably the most valuable people there,” Clarke recalls. Flooding had taken critical generators out of commission in Marsh Harbour, and the chief engineer got the hospital’s and airport’s running again. In addition, Loon’s crew dived with the GSD team to clear the channel and put markers back in place. It was hard work, but, as Clarke says with a laugh, “We are a charter yacht so it’s business as usual. We started every day at 4 a.m. and [the] last tender back was at 1 a.m. It felt like we were on charter but running water and medical supplies to shore instead of Champagne and caviar. I cannot say enough about how awesome the crew was.”

Andreou’s crew kept up a nonstop schedule without complaint, sometimes dropping supplies and leaving straightaway back to Fort Lauderdale to reload and other times helping out on shore with the food prep alongside the World Central Kitchen volunteers and at churches and hospitals.

Courtesy of M/Y Short Story
Charitable Work

Charity is in Slipstream’s DNA. The crew puts 2.5 percent of their gratuities in a fund that they used to purchase some of their donations, including generators and building supplies. “We donated $7,000 to a lady called Rose in Barbuda, to put a roof on her house and start the rebuild. Her husband was living in what was left of the house, as they were scared of losing their property rights if he left,” says Capt. Stevens. “In my opinion, we are a very privileged group that work on yachts. We visit these places year in, year out, and it’s so rewarding to be able to give something back to people that have little.” Following Dorian, the crew donated $2,000 to YAG to go toward the rebuilding of schools. Using 100 percent of cash donations for support, YAG also needs funds to fulfill specific needs that community donations can’t.

Loon’s captain says they will volunteer again. He is planning to acquire enough fuel bladders to carry 2,000 gallons of gasoline on deck for their very thirsty tender. The crew is having “Loon disaster response team” T-shirts made so they fit in, because “...people were looking at us like, ‘Who are you guys and why are you here?’” Clarke says.

YAG’s Selakovic points out boats don’t need to wait for a disaster. “Reach out in advance if you want to be involved,” he says. “Even though it’s [early in the year], we are working on disaster preparedness, trying to find out who is interested and available and training them. It’s all about being ready.”

Courtesy of M/Y Short Story

This feature originally ran in the May 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


More from Dockwalk