Unloading MV Liahona at first stop - Kabara Island

Route Close-up: Southern Lau Group (pt 3)

Once underway, my sea legs came back to me and I was loving the ocean breeze and gentle waves. However, as soon as we made it past the reef and reached the open seas, the motion proved too rough for most passengers. On the first leg of the trip, nearly all passengers were sick, lying down on whatever deck space they could find. As it turns out, deck space was a first-come commodity. The ship is not equipped with cabins, bunks, or even seats for the passengers – just two open spaces with decks to roll out mats and blankets for the duration of the journey. The 11-member crew, however, had two berthing compartments, and the grey bearded, quiet, and stern-looking Captain had his own cabin.

Entrance into Fulaga Harbor

Entrance into Fulaga Harbor

Without going into any of the specifics, I’ll briefly mention the cargo, passengers, and operations of MV Liahona.

The cargo from Suva consisted of everything a small community would possibly need: 44 gal oil drums (for the small boats that were the ONLY means of transportation), kerosene containers, 50kg sacks of flour, sugar, and rice, and various personal belongings and construction material – such as children’s bikes, chain saws, water tanks, and PVC piping. The cargo onloaded from the islands consisted of empty 44 gal oil drums, a variety of woodwork (the specialty handicrafts of Kabara, Fulaga, and Ogea), pigs, copra (the only real export from Vatoa) and a variety of seafood (Ono-i-Lau has an amazing assortment of crabs and fish, not to mention the sea cucumbers that fetch a high price for the Chinese community back in the Suva market).

Passengers ranged from teachers, Methodist ministers, farmers, and fishermen to old men, mothers and newborns. A large number of passengers from Suva went to either see their children off at secondary school or visit the hospital for medical attention. The final leg of the voyage from Ono-i-Lau back to Suva, however, felt more like a refugee ship as an entire team of Cricket players embarked, bringing the total number of passengers to 84. Although the ship is nominally rated for 150 passengers and crew, the lack of accommodation and abundance of personal belongings made deck space a luxury. Many passengers slept on the weather decks or passageways – any horizontal space they could find.

Offloading cargo to locals coming to meet the Liahona on small boats

Offloading cargo to locals coming to meet the Liahona on small boats

As for the operation, the deck crew was highly effective at making do with the available resources – namely, one crane, one small boat, and a lot of physical labor. The onload and offload of cargo occurred simultaneously – loading and unloading small boats that they transferred passengers and cargo past the reef to the beaches nearest the villages. On all five islands, the ship could only come to a safe distance outside the reef, so the boats were essential in connecting the ship with the islands themselves.

Several tons of cargo passed through these boats, with the Chief Mate doing his best to track the receipts and cargo (nonetheless, at each islands disputes on the onload/offload arose). When the steel cable of the crane broke, the crew quickly rigged a line around the pulley system to create a makeshift, functional lifting device. The Greenheart Project is most suitable for this route and the operations it demands, provided that both a cargo hold and appropriate passenger accommodations are included.

View from Vatoa Lighthouse

Route Close-up: Southern Lau Group (pt 2)

Around 1400 on Sunday, March 22nd, I arrived at Narayan Jetty in Suva to embark on MV Liahona for the scheduled 1500 underway time. The lack of activity did not alarm me, as I figured not a lot of cargo and passengers travel to these islands. As true as that might be, the wharf was essentially a ghost town. A man on the ship moseyed his way to the quarterdeck and, no doubt wondering who I was coming to such a place, greeted me with the friendly Fijian “bula.” I reciprocated the greeting, then introduced myself and began to grab my belongings to embark. He slowly told me, “the ship is getting underway tomorrow morning at 1000.” At first I thought, “All this way for that!?” But then we chatted a bit, and I took note of the first challenge in any shipping operation – weather. They had decided to delay the underway for one day to allow a slight tropical depression to pass. Understandable, albeit frustrating. Well, another night with my hospitable host family was not a bad thing.

The next morning, Narayan Jetty was as busy as a beehive. Cargo being manually hauled on board, families saying good-byes, passengers paying for their fares. A swarm of activity that made this trip more exciting. I quickly made friends with Sunil, a 54-year old Indo-Fijian man who was on his way to Vatoa to survey the sole lighthouse in the southern Lau group. He proved to be a generous companion on the journey, often serving as my translator and promoting agent (he seemed to enjoy talking to the other passengers about my life and my purpose on this journey). The 1000 departure turned into a 1220 departure. No worries. After all, as many passengers pointed out to me – this is Fijian time.

Passenger payments and cargo onload prior to departure in Suva, Fiji

Passenger payments and cargo onload prior to departure in Suva, Fiji

Once the cargo was loaded, a quick safety brief was conducted with an official from the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji and another official from the Transport Planning Unit. The latter, Kinijoji, was the most important ally for my entire trip, as he was a mentor and gatekeeper of sorts to the research information I was seeking. He helped me conduct interviews with the passengers, gather data from the Chief Engineer, and taught me a whole lot about the reality of shipping within Fiji.


View of Kabara Island

Route Close-up: Southern Lau Group (pt 1)

This is the first of a series of four posts from Taylor Searcy, a master’s student at Ritsumeikan University, former US Navy officer, and Greenheart volunteer, who is writing his thesis about small island developing states (SIDS), transportation, and renewable energy. Taylor recently spent some time in Fiji, working with the Oceania Centre for Sustainable Transport to do fieldwork studying some of the least serviced, most “uneconomical” routes in the country – exactly the kind of routes where Greenheart ships are most needed and could be most transformative. Taylor shares his experiences below:

With clear skies and seas of various hues of blue, I eagerly looked out on the horizon as the 27-meter MV Liahona steamed towards the lower southern Lau island group. How did I end up on such a vessel, headed to some of the most beautiful islands in the world? Just a few months earlier, I was at my university in Japan struggling to narrow down my thesis to something that suited my interests. Thanks to the good people at Greenheart and the extremely spirited and helpful team of Dr. Pete Nuttall and Alison Newell at the University of the South Pacific, I had my mind set to study the most “uneconomical” route of Fiji in an effort to understand the struggles of sea transportation in a Pacific island country. With a few meetings, phone calls, and emails, the trip to the islands was set.

Lau island map (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FijiOMCmap.png)

Southern Lau Islands Group (Ono-i-Lau further south off map)

This particular route – a 416 nautical mile journey to the five sparsely populated islands of Kabara, Fulaga, Ogea, Vatoa and remote Ono-i-Lau – is the only means of mobility for villagers and cargo between these islands and the main port of Suva.* A one-way ticket is 165 FJD – a hefty sum of money for most islanders. The freight rate for various cargos, which has been unchanged since 1992, is too low for the shipping franchise operators such as South Island Shipping – the owner of MV Liahona. For example, the South Island Shipping franchise charges double the official cost of 3 FJD to ship a 50 kg sack of coconuts. This, however, leads many passengers to complain of the high cost of shipping cargo between Suva and their home islands.

For me, as an observer and passenger invited by the Transport Planning Unit of the Ministry of Works, Transport, and Public Utilities, I did my part in recording the operational, logistical, and engineering matters and interviewing passengers and crew throughout the voyage. With a focus on my thesis, I always kept in mind the concept of Greenheart Project and its most appropriate service among small islands such as these.

-Taylor Searcy

* I have been told that there is a small flight to a small airstrip on Ono-i-Lau every two weeks, but it is prohibitively expensive for nearly all locals.