The Sea Couriers

What Can We Do To Help?

Martha Hezemans

(Martha Hezemans and the Sea Couriers of Las Palmas)

We first met Martha at a pop concert. To be more exact, she was outside the concert, sitting on the grass. Small and skinny, the woman was hardly the sort who naturally attracts attention; but, right now, she was determined to do so. With one hand pressed against her throat she greeted us as loudly as she could – yet all we heard was a hoarse whisper.
“Allo!” Martha croaked. “You are from one of the yachts, yes? Maybe you would like to help me. I run the Sea Couriers.”

You probably haven’t heard of the Sea Couriers. So far as I know, it’s a unique organisation and operates only from Las Palmas. But it shouldn’t be unique to that one place, because it’s the sort of thing that we cruising yotties need.

Why Do We Go Cruising?

Cruising yachts anchored at the end of the rainbow in the Caribbean

When you first set off, cruising is all about seeing some more of the world.
It’s about getting yourself from one side of the pond to the other by your own efforts, in your own craft. And it’s about paddling along a pristine white strand lapped by warm, blue-green waves; it’s about sipping rum punch as the tropical sun sets into the sea.

After you’ve been playing the game for a few months you find that cruising is not really about travelling, after all.
Much of the average liveaboard cruiser’s life is spent in port, and in reality cruising is a matter of lifestyle.
Yes, it really is (or can be) focussed around sandy beaches and too much booze, but it’s also about not knowing or caring who won the World Cup; not knowing the name of a single TV soap celebrity; not recognising a photo of the Queen’s eldest grandson – whatever his name is; and not minding very much whether the Tories topple New Labour.

Cruising is about things which matter – such as how many fish you can buy for a packet of cigarettes.

Cruising is about things which do matter.
Things like, whether crime is on the increase in the Cape Verdes; and which is the cheapest supermarket in Las Palmas; whether one can extend one’s stay in Brazil beyond six months; how to skull; whether Cuban rum is as good as Antiguan; how to play the djembe; whether the local water is safe to drink; what to do with a 55lb tuna when you have no fridge; and how to anchor in a very small space without upsetting anybody else’s hook, dog, or state of mind.

After you have mastered that little lot (about three to five years, depending on aptitude) you begin to ask yourself, “Shouldn’t there be something more?”

There Must Be More to Life than This

For some folks the more consists in stepping aside from the cosy tropics and exploring the higher latitudes. Up here, where the wind is wild and cold, a sailor can be tested to his limits.
But for others, more interested in the sights than in proving themselves, the What-More-? takes the form of a nagging concern: shouldn’t I be contributing in some way?

You don’t have to have spent very long travelling the globe to realise that we Westerners are a chosen few. The world which our forefathers shaped is more than a little unbalanced, and the corner from which we derive is the land of milk and honey. Europe, North America, and Australasia are politically stable and relatively safe from crime, war, and other such ills, and those of us who have the good fortune to be able to claim citizenship of the Western wonderland are blessed with access to good education, state of the art medicine, well-paid jobs, comfortable housing, plenty of nutritious food, and – taken by and large – a very easy life.

I guess there must be more to life than fun…

Setting off to experience other cultures the traveller finds himself confronted by a real, live, walk-in demonstration of How The Other Half Lives.
He meets children picturesquely attired in ragged, over-sized T-shirts. He meets women whose lot it is to spend all day, everyday, picturesquely pounding maize and fetching water. He meets older women, with legs as thin as kindling, who stand with cupped hands outside the picturesque vegetable market. And he meets friendly fishermen, with picturesque rowing boats, who covet his mask and snorkel in order to be able to dive for lobster.

Picturesque poverty on the island of Principe

And after our yotty has taken a couple of thousand photos of all this picturesque poverty he can no longer ignore the truth which screams from each encounter. There is no getting away from it: these people are in need.

You can marvel at the way those kids are able to amuse themselves, for hours on end, with a football made from a pig’s stomach. They can only dream about having arcade fun, although they look happy. You can praise the ingenuity of their uncles and older brothers in making toy cars for them out of cunningly bent and cropped tin cans.
You can tell yourself that these people are perfectly happy – and, generally speaking, most of them are.
But try as he might, even the poorest most hard-up yotty cannot really pretend – to these, his hosts – that “We are just the same as you.”

Just the same as you, only a bit richer?

Just the same as you only a heck of a lot richer, luckier, and more fulfilled?
Yes, that would be closer to the truth.

Friendly farmers in Dominica
Haitian peanut vendor
Cape Verdean family
Cape Verdean youths who latched onto Caesar

You only have to look at the faces of the young men to see that they want more out of life. (Why do you think they follow us around, so hungrily, latching onto this fleeting acquaintance with the better life?)

So – what can we do about it?

What can we do to help to even out the wealth without, ourselves, becoming so impoverished that we have to give up the cruising lifestyle and go home and get a real job?
Yes, stand us up against a Gambian street trader and we cruising yotties are wealthy, but compared to the average Westerner we’re just bums. Back in the UK, we can’t even afford a beer, never mind a portion of fish and chips / a new pair of shoes / a house.
Handing out our own tuppence won’t solve much. So – I say again – what can we do to make a difference?

We can become Sea Couriers!

Los Correos De La Mar

The Sea Couriers is the brain-child of an Italian couple who were sailing south from the Mediterranean to West Africa. Having travelled that way before they already knew what to expect, on arrival, and they had already asked themselves the usual question. The answer, they decided, was to carry other people’s donations to the needy.
The only problem lay in advertising the cause and gathering up those donations.

Enter, Martha Hezemans.

When we first met Martha we thought she had a bad cold. Then we realised that the whispering croak was a permanent affliction. As she speaks, Martha puts her hand to her throat and presses on a bandage.
“Throat cancer?” we asked.
No. Martha’s voice – or lack of voice – is the result of a stroke which she suffered when in her early thirties.
Her windpipe was damaged during surgery, and in the aftermath the injury refused to heal. As a result of this she is considered, by the authorities, to be unemployable.
“But I wanted to do something!” Martha cries. “I wanted to work!”

As luck would have it, it was at just this moment that the Italian yotties arrived in Las Palmas. Having attracted the attention of a local journalist they were able to place an appeal in the newspaper.
“They wanted someone to help them to collect clothing and school materials,” Martha explains. “I had nothing better to do so I got in touch.”
Little did she know that, after just one meeting with their new volunteer, the Italians would vanish off the map forever and leave her running the campaign alone!

“Hoist Your Sails in Solidarity”

The organisation of the Sea Couriers is now Martha’s principal occupation. Throughout the summer, when seafaring visitors to the island are relatively few in number, she spends her time collecting clothing and other donations and sorting the stuff. Her house, stacked on a hillside some distance form the city, is crammed full of bags labelled “Hombres”, “Joven”, “Mujeres”, and so forth. The one-time billiard room overflows with toys ranging in size from a rocking horse downwards, and piles of yachting paraphenalia clutter her small terrace garden.

Potential Sea Couriers in Las Palmas

When the yotties begin to arrive, in October, Martha begins to prowl around the marina, searching for more donors and also for potential couriers.
Every December she organises a jumble sale at which she aims to get rid of anything which is not suitable for shipment. The money earnt from the sale of bric-a-brac, over-sized toys, winter clothing, and yachting equipment is then spent on buying supplies of school materials.
And always, throughout the whole year but especially in the autumn and winter, Martha has a couple of dozen bags of clothes, sorted and ready to go, for any would-be couriers.

Who Can Be A Courier?

Yotties wanting to join the Sea Couriers need only three things.
Firstly, they need to have space for a bag – or two, or three, or more – of clothing or other supplies.
Secondly, they need to willing to make the effort to seek out a suitable, responsible recipient in their destination country.
Finally – and most importantly – they need to be passing through Las Palmas, and they need to be heading for a third-world country where this sort of aid is needed.

Fishermen in Cape Verde

Most of Martha’s supplies are sent to the Cape Verdes, where previous couriers have established a network of contacts. In January of 2010 Martha was able to visit the islands for the first time and to meet the various social workers, priests, and association leaders who have been managing the operation from that end.

It is worth noting here that if you hand over a bag of clothing to one individual man or woman in a third world country, all you are doing is enriching him or her; because unless he is a saint he will sell the clothing and pocket the profit and consider himself a clever chap.
The object of the exercise is to get the clothing into the hands of those who need it most, and the best people to do this are the ones running orphanages, Roman Catholic missions, or organisations such as the Fishermen’s Association in Palmeira, Sal. (This association sells the clothes to its members and uses the money to pay for school materials for the children of members.)

Other suitable destinations for aid include Senegal, The Gambia, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and – of course – Haiti.

Helping Haiti

The most recent Haitian earthquake occured in January of 2010, while the Mollymawks were in the Cape Verdes. We had already handed over our cargo of clothing, but we still had a rucksack full of school materials on board.
In April, three months after the earthquake, we found ourselves in the adjoining territry of the Dominican Republic. Haiti was pretty much out of bounds – an aid worker showed us photos of dead bodies littering the streets and told us that to go there by yacht would be suicidal – but we still wanted to do our bit to help.
Our first instinct was to rummage the lockers for more clothing – we Westerners always have far more clothing than we really need – but we were advised that the Haitian people had clothing in abundance. Clothing donated there was being brought over the border into the Dominican Republic and sold at the side of the street. (The money gained from the sale of the clothing was then being spent on food; so, in fact, clothing donations were still serving the purpose, albeit indirectly. Having learnt this we could not resist going along and buying some of these donated clothes, thereby providing food-money for the vendors – and increasing our own over abundance of clothing…)

Rox befriends a baby in the Dominican Republic

Although our offer of clothing was rejected by the aid worker the school materials which we had carried all the way from Las Palmas were accepted most eagerly.
Aid does not end with clothing the body or filling the belly. If people in the Third World are to improve their lot they will have to improve their minds first. Much as we might like to think that they are better off living lives of innocence – hoeing their fields of maize, milking their goats, and generally carrying on with their ancient, picturesque, pastoral lives – the reality is that they want to climb up and join us; and they can only do that by ascending the ladder of education.

We Have a Dream…

The Italian couple who founded the Sea Couriers did not mean for the organisation to begin and end in Las Palmas. They envisaged a global network of associations and volunteers all working to share out the milk and honey; all seeking to enrich the lives of people who weren’t born with the Western silver spoon in their mouths.

Perhaps we could be doing a bit more.
Cruising yotties anchor en masse off Mindelo, Dakar, and Salvador. Perhaps while we are there we could be doing something useful.
We could be organising the local street urchins to operate a bread delivery service amongst us; or getting their older sisters to do our laundry; or encouraging the teenagers to run worthwhile walking tours of their city, or even of their shanty town.
(How do you fancy dinner in a genuine corrugated-iron-and-plastic-bag-built squat? Tourism with a difference, hey? A chance to really experience another culture…
It isn’t a novel idea. Various tour operators organise visits to some really dangerous shanty towns on the Cape Flats, in South Africa.)

Could the cruising community be doing something for kids like these?

If we can organise the kids to do something worthwhile we can change them from beggars to self-respecting workers, and that, surely, is a very worthwhile first step on the ladder.

We can also offer our services as teachers, for the cruising community contains a vast wealth of knowledge (more fashionably known, nowadays, as Human Resources). We’ve got accountants / mathematicians, mechanics, doctors, computing experts, builders, plumbers, carpenters, journalists, artists, professional cooks… And pretty much all of us speak the world’s lingua franca and could be teaching basic English.

Shouldn’t we be finding a way to share our expertise?

Cruising yotties, by definition, are just passing through. But if we can manage to establish contacts ashore, and set up a network, then others, following in our wake, can slot into the scheme and do their bit.


Imagine a school whose teachers welcome help from itinerant speakers of English…
Imagine an orphanage supported, in part, by a constant chain of passing seaborn-tourists who could contribute clothing, school materials, and actual physical help where needed. Picture yourslef joining in and meeting the youngsters; chatting to their carers…
Imagine yourself taking half a dozen street kids sailing for the day… Wouldn’t that open their eyes… and yours?

And isn’t that what we really want, when we go travelling? To see other places, and other people, and to really get to know them.

Well, the only way to start the ball rolling is to kick it ourselves.

Going somewhere? Could you carry a a cargo of clothes and school materials?

If you happen to be in the right part of the world then the best place to start is with the ball that is already in the air: with Martha Hezeman’s Sea Couriers.
Even if you won’t, yourself, be visiting Africa or South America – even if you are heading for the well-to-do Caribbean isles – you can still help: if you are heading for the Canary Islands from Europe you might like to consider finding space aboard your yacht for some of that stuff that you planned on taking to a car boot sale or a boat jumble.

Let’s show the world that cruising folk are more than just a bunch of idle rich!

For more information – in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, or German – contact multi-lingual Martha.

One Comment

  1. Margaretha Burnett

    Thanks for this well written, well presented, compelling argument for taking the next step.

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