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Denis Solomon

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The fleet's in

By Denis Solomon
December 27, 2004

Cecil Caruth, former head of the NAR, says that the arrival of the MV Sonia on December 21 was a gimmick designed to help the PNM's chances in the upcoming THA elections. THA Deputy Chief Secretary Cynthia Alfred says no. But of course it was a gimmick-anyone who doubts this has only to ask himself why the ship went to Tobago before being put in service, when all pre-service checks have to be done in Port of Spain. Technically, the arrival in Tobago and the "welcoming function" held there have deprived the people of Tobago of the service for at least another 24 hours.

There is no harm in a little electioneering if the outcome is good. But is it? In the short term perhaps. But how much closer is the present government than all its predecessors to a long-term solution of the problem of a viable passenger and cargo link between the islands?

Gimmick or not, the arrival of the Sonia taken together with recent statements by the Minister of Works about the government's plans for the service suggest that genuine efforts are being made to avoid repetition of the errors of the past. These have been multifarious. Ever since the infamous John O'Halloran arranged the purchase of the MV Tobago, the ferry service has been dogged by avoidable shortcomings. No member of the team that went to Venezuela to buy the Tobago could read the engine logs, which were in Spanish, and so its bent main shaft wasn't discovered until it was too late. The Condor fast ferry was unsuitable for our waters, so that apart from its manifold mechanical problems the wildness of its movements quickly earned it the nickname of the "Vomit Comet".

The MV Panorama, at present still in service together with the Beauport, became a symbol of T&T inefficiencies of every kind, from procurement practices to maintenance to passenger discipline and even seamanship.

The company that built it had never built anything bigger than a launch, and went out of business before the Panorama was even off the slipway. The ship hardly ever operated on all four engines, and would often leave port on three or even two, with the others being worked on under way. As a result, its vaunted voyage time of five hours usually increased to seven or more

On one occasion it even broke down at sea on its return voyage from dry-docking in Curacao! A couple of years ago the upper car deck collapsed and killed an officer, and has not been in use since. An officer who served on it up to 2003 told me flatly that it was "unseaworthy": the bow doors, he said, did not seal properly (shades of the Herald of Free Enterprise!), and only one lifeboat could be launched because the brakes on all the davit winches but one were seized. On its inaugural voyage almost everything not bolted down was stolen, and on one trip I made on her there were faeces all over the toilet floor. The bedsheets in the cabins were about four feet square, having obviously been cut down to alleviate a shortage. "The passengers and dem does tief dem" a stewardess told me. Perhaps not only the passengers. On one voyage the ship encountered rough seas and a number of the trucks on the vehicle deck capsized, the crew having omitted to secure them.

So what seems to be changing? Except for the two or three statements made by the Minister of Works just before and since the arrival of the Sonia, information available to the public has been fragmentary and at times inaccurate. As for debate in Parliament, forget it.

There have been the usual irresponsible accusations of fraud and corruption from the UNC and its supporters, which no doubt would have been forthcoming from the PNM if the roles had been reversed. So it would be as well for me to sum up the situation.

The MV Sonia has been leased for one year, with the possibility of renewal for a further year and an option to buy. It joins the Beauport and the Panorama. The Beauport makes the run in about five and a half hours, and the Sonia will do it in about four, making two return trips a day possible, assuming adequate turnaround times.

Both the Divisional Manager (Marine) of the Port Authority, Mr David Hackett, and the Executive Manager of the Government Shipping Service, Mr Leon Grant, assure me that since its last docking in August of this year the Panorama is in good condition. The upper car deck is still out of use but tenders are out for its repair; the bow doors are sound (though the stern doors are still used for boarding vehicles because it is easier) and all four engines are running, with the result that the Panorama often beats the Beauport's time for the run.

The government's plan is to have two passenger/vehicle ferries and one cargo ship operating in the new year. Tenders are out for the cargo ship and a vessel has been sourced. One of the ferries might be a fast ferry, capable of doing the run in two and a half to three hours. A story in the Sunday Mirror stated that the fast ferry idea had been dropped in favour of the Sonia. The GSS boss informs me that the fast ferry idea was in fact revived, and a vessel will be leased for a six-month trial period, with the usual options. Fast ferry technology has changed since the "Vomit Comet". "Half the industry tells us that fast ferries are the way to go" Mr Grant says "And the other half boosts conventional ferries. The only thing to do is to see for ourselves".

Mr Grant also says that leasing/time charter is the way to go in the shipping industry at present, and he thinks that the cost of US $24,000 a day plus fuel is reasonable for what the Sonia provides. A final decision on acquisition versus leasing is yet to be made, though it is pretty certain that the cargo ship will be purchased.

The biggest piece of politically-inspired disinformation came in a UNC release parroting the Sunday Mirror's claim that the Sonia was not new but had changed owners, flag and name several times since 2001.

The Minister himself said it was "less than five years old". But Mr Grant assures me that the vessel is brand new, her keel having been laid in 2001 and building completed in June 2004.

Even if the story of the changes is true, the obvious explanation is that the ship may have changed hands, names and flag while it was still being built, a procedure quite common in the shipping industry.

To be continued next week.

Copyright © 2004 Denis Solomon