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Sydney Morning Herald
November 14, 2009

Drownings ... a passenger's body is unloaded at Tonga's Lifuka Island. Photo: AP

Pacific Islanders catching ferries are concerned less about arriving on time than arriving at all. The dot states of the Pacific have some of the world's worst boating records.

Passenger and cargo ferries - often bought fourth-hand - are generally old, poorly maintained and ill-suited to deep waters.

The issue again is at the forefront of local minds, of course, because 75 people died when the Tongan passenger ferry, Princess Ashika, sank on the night of August 5. Thirty seven years old, it sank without warning, but it left a plethora of questions.

A royal commission has been overwhelmed with allegations and alternative explanations. Deck freight was poorly lashed, the hull was holed by corrosion, the captain slept through the ordeal, waking in time to issue a last-minute mayday call.

About 40 people drowned off tiny Kiribati when an overcrowded and ill-equipped boat sank in July. On Tokelau, locals know their decrepit commuter ferry is ripe for a disaster but cannot afford a replacement.

''The Ashika is a very sad, very recent, very visual example of things going wrong in Pacific waters,'' says Barry Young, an expert mariner with the New Zealand Maritime School. ''But the problem is far wider-ranging.''

At its root, Young says, is a geographic and financial dilemma.

''Here you've got thousands of tiny little islands scattered across a massive area of ocean. Regular services are absolutely needed to move people and goods, but the quantities are so small that there is very little money to be made,'' he says.

It is in this profit vacuum that corners get cut. Shipping companies, both government-run and private enterprises, typically buy older boats sold by wealthy Western countries to eastern Mediterranean countries. These are then sold to the Philippines or its neighbours before arriving in the Pacific.

''Most of them are fourth- or fifth-hand and you can really tell,'' Young says.

Maintenance suffers. Most countries have strict regulations on boat upkeep but despite the best intentions, money is too tight to go by the book. On top of this, maritime skills are lacking because of funding shortfalls for local training programs, and ''island time'' keeps progress slow, he says.

''They're lovely people, great to work with, but it can be so frustratingly slow-paced getting things done.''

The result is a fleet of 1800 Pacific passenger and cargo boats with what Australian and New Zealand mariners judge ''very average'' standards.

The editor of Matangi Tonga, Pesi Fonua, says it is a problem that must be fixed because islanders are desperately reliant on these maritime services and will use them regardless of danger.

''You might be shocked to know that many islanders would take a boat even if they knew it was sinking, with the thought they can bale it out on the way,'' he says.

Fonua says fixing the system may push fares beyond the reach of locals, who would be forced to find cheaper and more dangerous travel alternatives.

Tamara McLean, AAP

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