Before my wife Frances and I started full-time cruising we wondered if sailing around the world was enough to satisfy us.
On the face of it this may seem like an odd thing to say but, in fact, after nine years of full-time cruising we have encountered many others who have found themselves in exactly the same boat, figuratively speaking.
There is no doubt that the face of cruising is changing and the concept of being a traveller as opposed to a tourist is becoming a less common approach to the life. For us, being travellers means having a different relationship with the communities we visit and we are lucky enough to have found a way to allow us to do just this.
A few years before we departed Darwin in 2008 Frances had worked as an optometrist’s assistant. So an idea formed to take spectacles we had collected, the prescription for which we did not know and see if we could find people along the way whom they would suit. A great idea but it needed work. To cut a long story short, we became involved with the Lions Club ‘Recycle for sight’ program and we now carry thousands of pairs of spectacles with us on our travels.
Up to the time of writing this article we have conducted our program in twelve different countries and have provided over 7,000 pairs of spectacles, as well as sunglasses, without cost or obligation to the people who receive them. Carrying many spectacles on board over a diverse range of strengths means we are able to conduct our ‘Eyeglass assist’ program in small to moderate-sized villages and help almost everyone who needs glasses.
The majority of people that do need glasses require them for reading and some people may ask what reading material people living in such remote localities have? The answer is generally very little and anything new is often shared around the community, however a common book is the Bible.
Perhaps more importantly, people need glasses for sewing, weaving and other handy crafts, repairing nets, fixing tools as well as many other important daily tasks. We ensure that everyone knows we are not doctors and are not able to assist with any medical related vision issues other than providing sunglasses, which often provide relief.
As you could imagine we have many stories. At one very remote atoll off the north coast of Papua New Guinea eight months prior to our arrival, a naval patrol boat had brought an optometrist with them and tested everyone’s eyesight and people were given a piece of paper with their prescription written on it.
However, the people had no access to glasses, nor did they have any money but they still had their pieces of paper, which we found helpful in supplying them with the spectacles they needed.
Whenever we arrive we speak to the chief, mayor or other community leader and tell them who we are and what we want to do. It has often been the case that our initial approach to a community is greeted by suspicion. People in general find it difficult to believe that someone can come into their community and give them something they need but cannot afford and they are free!
We then set a time and place to start and although we prefer to have the use of a table and chairs, we will sit on a grass mat on the ground under a tree if necessary.
Once we have set up our test kit and charts one person is ‘volunteered’ as the guinea pig. Within a short period of time people start to realise they can trust us and start lining up to be fitted.
On more than one occasion we have been told “thank you for helping my people” and let me tell you it is a truly humbling experience.
Along the way we have invited many other cruisers to help us and whose lives have consequently been enriched by the experience and we have become life-long friends. Some have since gone on to incorporate this work as a part of their cruising experience.
But what we do is not unique. Many people in the cruising community do what they can to help others. Often, after major disasters, yachts are the first to return and provide assistance to devastated villages.
We know one yacht, Kevin and Trish on Auspray, who raised money to sail to the Solomon Islands and provided assistance in rebuilding after a tsunami devastated one island community in particular. Cherylle and her late husband, Geoff on Sub Zero carried all manner of equipment such as plumbing supplies and even a portable sawmill to help improve the lives of people in Vanuatu. Another yacht, Retour, provided valuable surgical equipment to hospitals in Vanuatu.
We know of more than one dentist who has provided their services without charge.
After a three year circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean via Japan and the Aleutian Islands we are on our way back to Australia to undertake our most ambitious project yet. In mid 2018 we plan to take 10,000 pairs of spectacles as well as sunglasses to the Solomon Islands and supply and fit them to people who live in remote villages.
It will be extremely challenging and a huge amount of work but also it will be a fantastic adventure and, for us, that is what being a traveller is all about.
If you are cruising under sail but just enjoying the riches of experiencing foreign lands and cultures is not enough for you then maybe we have started you thinking.