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Back to the future

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE days of waiting patiently for ships on outer islands can soon be over if a proposal for sailing canoes to operate between our islands is endorsed.

The plan — a joint venture between the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, Sustainable Sailing and the Greenheart Project — will be put forward when the three-day workshop on sustainable sea transport, held in collaboration with Australian Aid, IUCN, WWF, The Honour Fiji Journey and University of the South Pacific, starts at USP today.

FIVS president Colin Philp said with transport making up the Pacific's largest energy use, consuming 48 per cent of Pacific fossil fuel imports, it was critical that the cargo and people movers in the islands return to sailing.

"Our ultimate goal is to have a network established to increase direct trade, between the islands in Fiji and the Pacific region, at low cost," he said.

"Boats would run fossil-free. The only costs will be just the crew and maintenance. It'll reduce cost of travel by more than 50 per cent. The biggest thing is it will open up transport in areas where they is no transport. It's either fibreglass boat or you wait once a year. A lot of places are inaccessible. There is no jetty and there are no deep-water lagoons in these places. We are opening up areas that are remote and hard to access."

FIVS and Sustainable Sailing conducted a research — The Drua Files: a report on the Collection and Recording of Cultural Knowledge of Drua and Associated Culture — and plans to use the drua concept as its model for travel between the islands.

This, Mr Philp said, would improve travel and trade and improve livelihoods. Using wind and solar power, the drua could relieve the total dependence on ferry boats and fibreglass engine boats in the outer islands

"The hardest part will be the design and then deciding on the method of manufacturing," he said.

"Plywood is the first option. It is affordable, cheap and easy to do. The skill level is not as high as you would need in fibreglass or aluminium. If we do fibreglass, we could get cost per unit much lower but your initial set-up cost could be much higher. The advantage of fibreglass is durability and this is for just the hull. The rest of it could be like the Uto ni Yalo, from local material. We can go back to using vesi or use semi hardwood, plantation hardwood, mahogany. That's the key to getting the mix right."

Mr Philp said it would be ideal to have a hull that could be modified and customised for each location.

"Some location might be more cargo, less passengers and in some more passengers, less cargo. So we have to have a design that is modified to suit each route."

For the sail, the proposal is a hybrid sail based on the drua design.

"We'll have a fixed mast. We don't have to have shunting rig, shifting the rig from each end of the canoe."

The drua concept will link up with the Greenheart Project, which is building a prototype in Bangladesh that can carry 75 tonnes and 12 passengers.

"The Greenheart project is a larger concept and is a link to the drua. It will link the larger centres, Vunisea, Suva, Vanuabalavu and Lakeba. They will do those routes and the smaller canoes will then connect to the smaller villages, villages that are hard to access. "

The plan is for the Greenheart boat to also do international routes — Rotuma, Samoa, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tonga — for direct trading.

"The global shipping industry is slowly starting to realise that there is a future in alternative need of propulsion. All the cargo vessels sailed in the old days. It is usual trend that we start looking at our past to learn the benefits from our ancestors."

While the local shipping industry has been sceptical of the idea, it has had to deal with high fuel bills which Mr Philp said would eventually force it to seek alternative energy sources.

"This proposal is not a threat to the shipping industry. It is an addition. It will actually open up areas that the shipping industry is not targeting right now and I think this will open up more opportunities for the industry. It will also prove to them that it can be done using different vessels so they can start to invest in this type of vessels than diesel-powered, fuel guzzlers."

Mr Philp said it was possible to retro-fit sails on some diesel-powered vessels to help ship owners cut costs.

"It has been proven in the past with the Mataisau and Cagidonu. It's getting over that mindset. Talking to ship owners, it's faster and bigger that is better. But the fuel bill is going up so they are not actually going any faster. As the fuel price goes up, they throttle back, they slow the boat down and it takes them longer to get from point A to point B."

Mr Philp said the sad stories of the holidays and Christmas time when people are camped at the wharf waiting for the boat to come could be a thing of the past when the drua and Greenheart project comes alive.

"When they talk about speed, it's reliability that's more important than speed. For one large vessel that they're using now, 2000-3000 tonnes, we could have eight or ten of these smaller vessels, 150-200 tonnes, with more frequency, more reliability and we won't have people sleeping on the wharf."

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