Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Saw Three Ships

MV Otuanga'Ofa, MV Ajang Subuh, MV Pulupaki @ Queen Salote Wharf

The big event in Tonga this week was the arrival of the long-awaited MV Otuanga'ofa, the new passenger and freight ferry built by Japan to meet Tonga's critical need for reliable transport between its far flung islands.  It was greeted Friday afternoon (October 15) by an ad hoc flotilla and escorted to a berth at Nuku'alofa's Queen Salote wharf.  This ship was originally commissioned in 2005 when the Tongan government realized that the MV Olovaha, its workhorse ferry since 1981, was at the end of its useful life.  Since then construction delays (which have been blamed on the operator of the competing private ferry, the MV Pulupaki, who is also a member of Tonga's parliament) and the resulting ill-advised purchase and subsequent sinking tragedy of the MV Princess Ashika have underscored the urgent need for the new ship.

Tonga's only port usable by freighters is here in Nuku'alofa.  Most freight and all passengers wishing to travel to the other major islands and a few smaller islands rely on ferries.  The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, the government owned operator of the Olovaha, has provided the bulk of the freight service, but because the Olovaha was slow, uncomfortable and reportedly "bobbed like a cork" most passengers preferred to ride the MV Pulupaki, operated privately by Uata Shipping. 

The Olovaha was damaged in a hurricane in 2003 and required major repairs.  Since then her operation became increasingly problematic, and in 2005 the government began planning for her replacement.  The government of Japan offered assistance, and planning for the construction of the Otuanga'ofa began.  The Olovaha was finally removed from service in late 2008.  She has sat in port since then and is slowly being dismantled for scrap. 

The government then began its search for a temporary replacement and ended up purchasing the ill-fated Princess Ashika.  After serving less than a month it sank in August, 2009 taking 74 passengers with it to a watery grave (see previous post:  "Remembering August 5").

 Since that time until just a few months ago the only ferry service has been provided by the MV Pulupaki, but its service has also been plagued by seaworthiness issues. Last Christmas it was ordered berthed after a marine survey indicated the need for repair.  So for several months there was no freight and passenger service except for the airline service provided by Chathams Pacific.  Outer islands had to scramble for ways to get needed provisions students were late getting back to their schools on Tongatapu after the summer break. No one knew for sure when the Pulupaki would return to service, but she was suddenly determined to be fit for service after her owners defied government detainment orders.  In the meantime the Peace Corps reassigned five volunteers serving on outer islands, whose only transportation at the time was the Pulupaki, for safety reasons.

Meanwhile the government continued its search for a temporary replacement for the Olovaha, finally finding a new Indonesian ship, the MV Ajang Subuh, which it was able to lease for a year.  With financial `help from Australia and New Zealand, the Ajang Subuh arrived in Tonga in April and began service in May.  With a capacity of only 70 passengers and 200 tons of cargo it has been only a stop gap measure.  But since many Tongans refuse to ride on it (remembering the government told them the Ashika was safe, too) it has served very nicely.

Which brings us to the long anticipated arrival of the Otuanga'ofa, which will carry 400 passengers, 400 tonnes of cargo, and promises to be the reliable transportation option the country has sorely needed.  Dock upgrades are in process in all her ports of call, but the government is still looking for an operator.  If interested contact the Ministry of Transportation ASAP!.

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