THE recent sinking of the Yavu Youth vessel was just another in a long list of maritime disasters that have happened in Fiji waters.
The vessel sank in waters off Wakaya Island while travelling from Levuka to Batiki last week and four of the seven crew that were on board are still missing.
Through interviews with two of the three survivors, it was established that there was only one life jacket on board the vessel with one of the men was able to survive by clinging to a 20-litre plastic container.
And it is this apparent lack of safety equipment - on the Yavu Youth vessel and other fibreglass boats travelling between islands - that has caused concern among seafarers and authorities alike.
However the cost of procuring life jackets as well as other equipment for use during emergencies at sea remains a stumbling block in maritime safety.
With a full load of safety equipment expected to cost the average village boat skipper around $1500, the math does not add up.
High Cost of Safety Equipment
And this is a point that experienced seaman Captain Johnathan Smith wants to see changed. Cpt Smith who has 21 years experience at sea says that maritime safety needs to be made affordable for the average villager in the outer islands.
"To own a 23-foot fibre boat, buying the vessel not including the fuel that you use because that's another separate cost altogether - you need to spend at least $1500 on total safety things," Cpt Smith said.
"And what villager can be expected to pay these costs, they are not poor, they are of course rich in their own way.
"But they will not have the means to purchase all this equipment," he said
Cpt Smith explained the breakdown of the costs of all the safety equipment that included life jackets, secondary propulsion and pyrotechnics.
"For safety equipment, you want a good life jacket that's compact - you don't want big bulky things that take up most of the space in the boat, and so that's going to cost you $85," Cpt Smith explained.
"And the regulated amount of people that can travel on a 23-foot boat is seven - that's the captain and the six passengers - so that will set you back around $595 right off the bat," he said.
"So those life jackets should practically last you a long time if you look after the life jackets carefully and keep it clean - and then there are the flares," he said.
"For flares - the required amount on a 23-foot boat is one rocket flare, one hand flare and one smoke signal, these are called pyrotechnics - so one rocket flare costs about $157, one hand flare is $113 and the smoke signal is $96.
"That's $366 for pyrotechnics."
He said pyrotechnics had an average life of three to five years before they would need to be replaced.
"Of course that is only if the captain takes good care of the flare like sealing it in a watertight bag," he added.
"Then you need some form of secondary propulsion if your engine breaks down. If you can't afford a 15 or 20 horsepower engine to go with your forty then you need oars or sails."
Safety Equipment saves lives
Cpt Smith said having these on board any vessel would greatly increase the chances of them being found or seen by search and rescue parties.
"If these were on board that vessel that sank for instance, the rocket flare would have been seen clearly from Ovalau or Wakaya and the alarm would have been raised.
"Then the boats could have been dispatched and then whoever has the hand flare can light it up and alert the boats that are searching.
"If it's in the day then you can use the smoke signal and let it float next to you downwind, the smoke is very bright and aircraft or boats can't miss you if they are searching during the day," he explained.
However, Cpt Smith said the high cost of safety equipment meant that villagers in the outer islands did not invest in them.
He said one possible solution to the problem was to remove the import duty slapped on the safety equipment and the life jacket foam, used to make life jackets locally.
"One remedy would be if government removed duty on imported safety equipment for boats and make it affordable for the villagers on the islands," Cpt Smith said.
"Search and rescue will take only hours if the right safety equipment was affordable," he explained.
However government has taken steps to address the safety of passengers at sea.
In the 2013 budget, the government announced that life jackets would be made available to the public through the Maritime Safety of Authority of Fiji (MSAF).
The Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama said life jackets made in Fiji would be listed duty-free and would be made possible for purchase through MSAF.
But with MSAF placing strict regulations on the qualifications needed by fibreglass boat skippers, Cpt Smith and Fiji Islands Voyaging Society (FIVS) president are adamant that there is a need to decentralise training for boat master licences.
"We really can't expect the villagers to leave their farms and come all the way to Suva in order to take part in this training, they need to work their farms, and they can't stay away for one week," Cpt Smith said.
He said Fiji could not follow the examples of Australia and New Zealand in terms of centralising education for its mariners.
"The situation here in Fiji is different because we are a group of around 300 islands and we have people who are unable to come all the way to Suva in order to get certified."
He said the classes for becoming certified boat masters included training on first aid, survival at sea and other topics, each of which were useful in order to survive complications at sea.
Cpt Smith explained that he was aware of courses run by MSAF but was unaware of whether these courses were taken to outer islands.
Subsequent questions sent by this reporter to MSAF on the issue remained unanswered.
FIVS president Colin Philp echoed the sentiments of Cpt Smith saying that there were actually young men who wanted certification but could not make it to the mainland to enrol in the courses offered at Fiji National University's School of Maritime.
"If we can bring the training away from Suva and to some of these outer islands, it will mean that the boat captains will understand the need for proper procedures like having enough life jackets, spare parts for the engine and flares," Mr Philp said.
"They will also understand the importance of loading correctly and they will be confident in their abilities, most of these young men want to learn but they have no means of doing so," he added.
Mr Philp, who also runs Leleuvia Island resort, said while the Yavu Youth sinking was one such incident that hit national headlines, there were similar incidents every week in Lomaiviti waters.
"These are normally unregulated and unlicensed vessels and skippers who are not certified, but if these young men are able to get licences, it empowers them and gives them confidence," he said.
Reducing duty on safety equipment saves money for all.
Finally, Cpt Smith says the high costs spent on organising search and rescue operations could very well be mitigated by making lifesaving equipment affordable.
"Practically, we have to make it affordable in order to get the safety equipment for ourselves," he said.
"Like for the SOFI if they have got a trip from point A to B but they need to divert to go for a search and rescue operation you are using up fuel to go there, you are inconveniencing the passengers who need to catch flights and the navy and other authorities.
"As a captain, if you are the closest vessel you have to go and conduct the search, you can actually be charged, so if they make it affordable for some then it becomes affordable for all of us," he said.
"Disasters do happen - they cannot be avoided, but if these vessels have the appropriate safety equipment then it will be easier to find them and more lives will be saved," he said.
Meanwhile, earlier comments by navy Commander John Fox about the large amount spent conducting search and rescue operations corroborated statements made by Cpt Smith.
"This is a rough estimate but the amount spent by the navy when conducting a search and rescue exercise is around $7000-$10,000 per day," Cdr Fox said.
These figures, however, do not take into account the lower end estimate of $2000 per hour spent on hiring planes for a search.
"This figure is a lower estimate. Sometimes the smaller planes that do charge the $2000 per hour rate are not available so then the larger planes must be used and obviously this will cost more," Cdr Fox said.
With the tragic loss of lives involved in maritime disasters and the subsequent high cost of sea search and rescue operations, Commander Fox pleaded for the travelling public to exercise caution while out at sea.
"We just want to advise people to keep an eye on weather reports and ensure that they have the appropriate number of life jackets and other equipment," Cdr Fox stated.
Police and MSAF are working together to cut down on illegal operators.
With illegal operators in the country forming the larger part of distress calls, police have also got in on the act to cut down on movement of unregulated operators in ports around the country.
"The force had signed a MOU with MSAF earlier this year and just last week we had another meeting to discuss how to step up surveillance and monitoring of the movement of vessels at our various ports," police spokeswoman Ana Naisoro said.
"This has begun at ports of call and we will keep a lookout not only on large inter-island vessels but the small operators as well. Police officers will assist wherever they can especially during this busy festive season," she stated.
She said those who were operating illegally needed to understand that they were taking the lives of others into their own hands.
"If you know that you don't have the authority to be ferrying passengers especially in open waters then don't as you're breaking the law and putting your own life and the lives of others in danger," she explained.
She also made similar statements to those of Cpt Smith regarding the plight of larger vessel owners when faced with having to divert from their courses because of smaller illegal vessels.
"However the challenge remains on monitoring the operators of small fibreglass boats who operate directly from villages.
"Majority of the cases of overdue boats are from these operators and arise when they encounter engine problems.
"Mariners must always ensure they conduct a thorough check of their boat and engine and also have some means of communication," she said.