HEATHER Sutton and her yacht La Quilta have returned to Airlie Beach after an epic voyage to Vanuatu, to distribute aid to the communities struck by Cyclone Pam.
It took the all-female crew of La Quilta four attempts to set sail from Australia, before finally leaving from Bundaberg and arriving in Port Vila on July 15.
After the 11-day sail across the ocean, the La Quilta crew visited 20 different islands and 25 villages distributing aid.
Prior to leaving Australia, Ms Sutton had modified La Quilta, with the aim of making the yacht as self-sufficient as possible. Modifications included a generator for power and a water desalinator so fresh water would be readily available to the crew at the regions they visited.
The boat carried four tonnes worth of aid collected from the Airlie Beach community, including fishing gear, bags of rice, soap, tools, school books, toys, clothes and first aid supplies.
Before leaving Australia with its bounty, La Quilta had to clear customs and pick up some extra crew members, and unfortunately the crew ran into several hold-ups including the shredding of a jib during a storm, and drive-shaft problems in the engine room.
The crew eventually arrived in Vanuatu four months after Cyclone Pam had devastated the island nation, where Australian Aid and UNICEF workers were still in place.
"No matter which village we went to during our time in Vanuatu, we always felt they really needed everything we had on board to make a real difference to everyone," Ms Sutton said.
"We really wanted to show that we cared and understood what it was like going through a devastating event like a category 5 cyclone."
"Because of the generosity of our local communities here in Australia, we were able to show that we cared with the small contribution we made to each village, which was always graciously accepted by their chief."
Ms Sutton said the water desalinater came in particularly handy in the southern islands where water sources had been compromised by the cyclone, as well as the especially dry weather.
"We would fill 20 litre containers with water to all those who appeared in their canoes alongside with their containers," she said.
According to Ms Sutton, the experience was extraordinary, in fact she said that skippering La Quilta during its voyage to Vanuatu was life changing. "I owe an invaluable debt for my crew's very loyal support, and also for the generosity of the people who gave their time, money, and generous donations from the beginning and right through until the end," she said.
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