Volunteer Sam George with Sumatran kids. c Tony Litwak
You won't find the villages on a map. They're barely visible even from ships offshore. Last Christmas, the tiny fishing villages that dot the remote northern islands of Indonesia, in the Indian Ocean off Sumatra, were a tropical paradise of white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, where perfect waves attracted a few intrepid surfers. Then, the tsunami struck, claiming 280,000 lives throughout Indonesia and creating the deadliest disaster in modern history. These islands were closest to the epicenter and among the hardest hit.

Everywhere you turn are visions of overwhelming suffering and loss: a young father whose wife and newborn were swept away moments after the birth; families whose homes and possessions were destroyed, leaving them with no food, water, or livelihood; young children stricken with malaria, tuberculosis, and myriad post-tsunami ailments, caused by poor sanitation; traumatic memories of hundreds of bodies floating offshore.

Since last January, these battered islands, initially overlooked by the major rescue operations, have become the focus of a most unusual collection of healers and volunteers who are helping to rebuild homes, medical facilities, schools--and lives.

Dr. Ulya Fasrini and actress Nia Peeples help a young patient. c Tony Litwak
They're a disparate crew of 15 volunteers, including three California surfers, several young Muslim women--medical professionals from the mainland Indonesian city of Padang--an American TV actress, an 18-year-old Indonesian translator, and several other brave souls. They arrived in a 85-foot diesel-powered yacht dubbed the Mikumba, which was loaded to the gunwales with rice, dried fish, potatoes, fresh fruits, tools, medical supplies--and even live goats and dugout canoes. All these items were absolutely essential for the survival of the Sumatran island villagers.

The voyage of the Mikumba was spearheaded by an unlikely field commander--Matt George, a 46-year-old San Francisco journalist and contributing editor for Surfer Magazine. George had known of these islands from previous surfing trips. Surfers are always seeking the perfect wave, and in Simeulue, Indonesia, he had found it.

Last December 26, George recalls, "I woke up to the horrific TV reports. I realized the second the tsunami hit that, as a surfer, I had suddenly become an expert at something. I knew those islands, and I realized that if I didn't head out there to help, I could never forgive myself. I've always been bothered that I couldn't do more to help after 9/11."

George headed out to Indonesia in January and later recruited some of his surfing buddies, Tony Litwak, 35, Peer Court Program Director for The California Community Disputes Services, and David Lupo, 36, an organizer for Carpenter's Union Local 22 in San Francisco, as a SWAT team to deliver supplies to these remote locales. Their rescue efforts were officially dubbed "Surfzone Relief Operation." Back home in San Francisco, the trio are volunteers who teach surfing to the young (and the young at heart) through a group they call The North Beach Surfers' Union.

Last January, George walked into the University of Putra in Padang and asked university administrators for the names of medical students who might be interested in volunteering for the trip. Two young female doctors, Ulya Fasrini and Wati Aziz, as well as biologist Patra Dewi, answered the call and joined the Mikumba. The small team moved in swiftly--the first aid to reach the shores.

Then, in March, George brought along his surfing buddies, his brother Sam (also a Surfer magazine editor), and Sam's wife Nia Peeples, an actress who has appeared in the TV show Fame, among other programs.

The surfer guys wore bandanas and shades. The women wore hijab (head scarves) and the modest clothing of their Muslim faith. But on this adventure, cultural and religious differences did not create barriers. They worked together as a team.

For two-and-a-half weeks, the Mikumba team traveled from island to island, delivering 70 tons of food, water, and the other desperately needed supplies and medical services to the more than 4,000 isolated survivors.

Also stacked on board were more than 60 dugout canoes, carved by Indonesian from one of the other islands.

This time, the surfers weren't hoping for offshore winds and nice-size swells to lift their boards. Instead, they were praying for smooth sailing to the hardest-hit islands of Nias, Simeulue, and the Mentawais, where the Sumatran villagers needed the fishing canoes just to survive.