JAKARTA, Indonesia — Before the tsunami devastated the remote islands of Simeuleu and Nias just off the west coast of Sumatra, they were only known to a faithful group of surfers who came for the spectacular surf.
But it's these same tumultuous waters that have hamstrung relief efforts for the islands, where destroyed docks and washed-out roads have left humanitarian workers with the daunting task of getting supplies to stranded communities.
A couple of experienced U.S. mariners decided to contribute their skills and know-how to the effort, and found a ship -- a sailing schooner from a bygone era -- that could tackle the job in this rough stretch of Indian Ocean.
"She's a very agile ship," Robin Engel of Tampa, Fla., said as he climbed aboard the Maruta Jaya, a 900-ton windjammer being loaded with supplies at Jakarta's Tanjung Priok port.
After the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed 129,000 people and left at least 300,000 homeless in Sumatra's northern Aceh province, Engel and a friend, Ray Williamson of Camden, Maine, set up the Windjammer Relief Effort to provide logistical support for aid groups operating in the region.
Grass-roots fundraising in Camden, a sailing center that is home to dozens of schooners, generated enough cash to charter the Maruta Jaya.
Engel, who operates a marine tourism business in Indonesia, and Williamson, whom Engel describes as a "tall ship freak" who operates schooners out of Camden, are using the windjammer to assist aid groups in getting help to Nias, Simeuleu and other Aceh shore towns that are inaccessible by road.
The waters in the region are considered particularly treacherous for navigation because the prevailing east winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean can generate huge waves and because the earthquake lifted many of the coral reefs near the islands. Those reefs create the long consistent waves that make the area a paradise for surfers.
"The ship has a shallow draft that can get into coastal waters that regular cargo ships can't reach, and she's big enough to safely sail in the very rough waters off western Sumatra," Engel said.
Sailing ships are not uncommon sights in Indonesian waters. Government statistics show that wooden sailing vessels carry about three-quarters of inter-island trade within the 3,000-mile-long archipelago. But most are small and ill-equipped to handle rough seas.
The three-masted Maruta Jaya is a perfect cargo transport for the monsoon conditions soon to prevail in the region.
The cargos have changed from emergency supplies to reconstruction materials, said Fadly Pateha, captain of the windjammer and its crew of 17.
The experience has motivated Engel to pursue the idea of establishing an "Asia Aid Ship" that would be available for rapid deployment to deliver emergency cargos to coastal communities hit by natural disasters.