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Beware the force of nature

Verenaisi Raicola
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

FIJI'S professional seamen are so sick of rescuing amateur sailors who get into trouble because they ignore weather warnings that they want them penalised.

Fiji Navy operations officer Lieutenant Commander Humphery Tawake said people were often caught out at sea simply because they ignored weather warnings and the trend, which is proving too costly and time consuming.

"At the moment there are no laws to penalise people who neglect warnings," he said.

"But there should be a law in place, especially for small boat operators, who seem to take it for granted they will safely reach the other side despite the bad weather."

Fiji Islands Maritime Safety Administration director Captain John Rounds supported the call made by Lt-Commander Tawake and said they would review the Marine Act to make sure all boat operators were licensed to help minimise the number of people putting to sea in bad weather.

"FIMSA, as the regulatory body for the register, survey and certification of sea worthiness of vessels, needs to be given more power and resources to register vessels such as fibreglass boats and wooden cabins," said Lt-Commander Tawake.

He and Captain Rounds were reacting after a group of 43 villagers and children almost drowned after the wooden boat they were sailing in broke in rough seas near Vomo Island at about mid-day on Sunday.

The villagers of Kete in the Yasawa group were returning home after shopping at Lautoka.

They swam for about five hours until they were rescued by two boats sent from Kuata Resort.

Police said the group was travelling in a small wooden boat in bad weather.

One of the villagers with a mobile phone called for help while the women, children, young and old were swimming for their lives.

Reports say that the first boat sent three hours after the alert was received, rescued all the women and children who were clinging to objects while the second boat saved the remaining villagers.

Lt-Commander Tawake said the problem was that there were no regulations in place to force someone who bought a boat, to register it.

"There are no laws so anyone can just buy a fibreglass boat today and sail tomorrow without a licence or registration," he said.

"You cannot penalise someone for ignoring weather warnings because there is nothing that forces them to be accountable.

"The way we are going, there will be a major mishap soon because people are just ignoring maritime warnings."

Lt-Commander Tawake said the bigger vessels were registered under the Fiji Islands Maritime Safety Administration.

"In places such as Denarau there are marine checkers with certified captains ensuring the boat is safe and that there are sufficient life jackets against the number of people on a boat," he said.

Lt-Commander Tawake said under the Marine Act, FIMSA was responsible for search and rescue operations.

"On the details about conducting searches and co-ordinating, the Act is not specific," he said.

When there are problems at sea the first contact should be the police because they are strategically located.

Lt-Commander Tawake said Fiji did not have any legislation that specifically covered search and rescue operations.

"It is mentioned vaguely in the Fiji Marine Act," he said.

"But Fiji is a maritime nation and we should have legislations in place to effectively carry out search and rescue because more than 90 per cent of movement between islands is done by sea by registered inter-island vessels and unregistered boats."

Lt-Commander Tawake said Fiji's maritime search and rescue was co-ordinated by the maritime surveillance centre of the Fiji Navy even though it did not have adequate resources at its disposal.

He said the cost of conducting a search in Matuku, Lau for example, was about $22,000.

"That does not include search time because sometimes it takes two to three days and then if there is an aerial surveillance which would mean extra cost," Lt-Commander Tawake said.

"To charter a plane for three hours costs $3500 to $5000, depending on the size of the plane, as well as the search patterns."

Lt-Commander Tawake said in 2005 the Fiji Navy spent $150,000 on search and rescue.

Last year, the navy spent more than $100,000 on search and rescue between January and August.

Former navy commander Francis Kean said of last year's amount, $65,000 was exclusively for administration costs.

He had said in the eight months from January to August, the navy had covered 10 search and rescue cases, of which there was a 50 per cent success rate.

Five cases were successful in the sense that the boats were found and the occupants arrived safely at their destination after sheltering on an island during rough seas.

In the five other cases, the navy found the boats or wreckage without the occupants.

He said there was a lot of risk associated with the job but the navy still took responsibility.

Mr Kean said 70 per cent of the search and rescue missions were carried out during rough and bad weather conditions and while marine warnings were issued by the meteorological office in Nadi.

In a landmark judgment delivered in 2005 regarding the sinking of the MV Ovalau II two hours after leaving Ellington wharf in Rakiraki, Commission of Inquiry head Devendra Pathik found FIMSA, its inspectors and a marine checker guilty of not doing their job.

He found that an underwater surveyor acted unethically when he recommended an extension to the vessel's survey certificate knowing that four breaches in the hull had been secured with sandwich plates.

While it was fortunate that the case was not tragic, there have been other unfortunate incidents.

Perhaps the most tragic of all was the Uluilakeba, which capsized in southern Lau during Cyclone Lottie on December 10, 1973. More than 50 people died in that sea disaster.

In June 1995, 21 people died when an overloaded boat from Cikobia bound for a church bazaar in Labasa capsized.

In March 1997, a fishing boat with a crew of 10 disappeared during Cyclone Gavin and there have been other senseless tragedies in the past because of overloaded punts, ignoring safety practices and a general lack of policing by FIMSA.