When a huge earthquake struck the remote, reef-fringed islands off Indonesia's western coast this week, a small group of surfing doctors...
ABOARD THE SARANYA — When a huge earthquake struck the remote, reef-fringed islands off Indonesia’s western coast this week, a small group of surfing doctors was already working in this region famous for its waves — and it was among the first to provide help.
SurfAid International is a mostly volunteer group started five years ago by a New Zealand physician after treating sick children during a surfing trip to the islands.
The group has been working even more since the Asian tsunami. And when the magnitude-8.7 quake hit Monday night, collapsing hundreds of buildings and killing hundreds of people on a string of small islands off Sumatra, its doctors and nurses quickly switched from doing inoculations to providing emergency first aid.
“We have to be ready for anything,” said Ricky Waruwu, an Indonesian nurse on a SurfAid crew that diverted its charter boat from Banyak island to nearby Nias island when they heard about the quake damage.
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The group was among the first to reach Gunung Sitoli, the biggest town on Nias. Now that U.N. agencies, foreign militaries and other relief organizations have arrived, SurfAid is moving on.
Waruwu, another nurse and an Indonesian doctor plan to set off today carrying antibiotics, vaccinations, suture kits and painkillers up Nias’ western coast, looking for villages not yet reached by outside help. A second SurfAid charter boat will head the other way along the coast.
The effectiveness of SurfAid has attracted the attention of bigger agencies. AusAid, the Australian government’s foreign-aid arm, is sending an officer with Waruwu’s crew.
“These guys have the experience and the boats,” said AusAid’s medical coordinator, Mike Penrose. “They know the place and have people on the ground. It’s a great thing to have.”
SurfAid has worked in the region since 2000 helping malnourished children and educating villagers about malaria and other diseases, but a rush of donations after the Dec. 26 tsunami has allowed it to expand operations.
The group got $2 million in the two months after the disaster, compared to less than $500,000 during the preceding two years. That let it charter two boats to take doctors to places in need, instead of wasting hours or days waiting for local ferries.
Monday’s quake did the most damage on the islands off the west coast of Sumatra, which recorded at least 126,000 deaths in the December disaster.
The islands are a paradise for adventurous surfers. Big waves break over the coral reefs offshore, and the tropical climate and remote location keep away all but the most dedicated board riders.
SurfAid was started by Dr. Dave Jenkins, who first came to the Mentawai islands with only one thing in mind: catching perfect waves.
He was staying on a luxury yacht with all the modern conveniences, living a life most surfers only dream about. That changed when he hit the beach one afternoon and found villages filled with hungry and sick children.
“It looked like paradise, then you go on shore and it all changes,” the New Zealander said. “I was optimistic. I thought if [surfers] are coming here in big numbers, maybe there’s a way of coming and creating something unique and leaving a legacy by the surfing world.”
Jenkins, now 45, quit his job as a corporate doctor, sold his house and moved to the Mentawais to set up SurfAid. When not doing medical work, he and other volunteers surf.
“There’s no reason why you can’t combine the two, and that’s why SurfAid works,” said Dr. Ben Gordon, 35, who divides his time between being a general practitioner in Fremantle, Australia, and surfing around the world.