A group of a dozen passengers bound for Pukapuka have been stranded on Palmerston Island for almost two weeks now and look likely to be there for at least another fortnight.
The passengers were left in Palmerston on the second of two attempts by Taio Shipping Services vessel the Lady Moana to reach Pukapuka – both times the ship only reached Palmerston before bad weather forced its return to Rarotonga.
The Lady Moana is currently in Tahiti for repairs due to damage sustained during its last attempted voyage to Pukapuka. Taio Shipping Services owner Tapi Taio said it would return to Palmerston to pick up the stranded passengers once it returns to Rarotonga “the week after next”.
In response to reports that freight had come loose on the Lady Moana’s cargo deck during the first attempted voyage to Pukapuka, Taio would only say that “the seas were high” during both voyages.
The passengers on that first voyage included a girl with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair and two school teachers returning to Pukapuka for the new school year.
After their experiences aboard the Lady Moana, the two teachers were subsequently flown to Pukapuka by the Ministry of Education at a cost of several thousand dollars. They were joined by several other boat passengers who chose to pay for travel by plane rather than make a second voyage on the Lady Moana.
Also onboard the flight was Dr Amelia Borofsky, a frequent traveller to Pukapuka who had originally booked passage on the Lady Moana, but pulled out due to the bad weather forecast.
“It is deeply saddening that in this day and age there are no reliable, safe and affordable options for transport to and from the northern group,” said Borofsky, who paid $1800 one-way for her plane ticket to Pukapuka after already having paid $650 for passage on the Lady Moana, which was later refunded.
“Tapi’s promised a new and more passenger-friendly ship will help, but we need more passenger-safe options, competition, Samoa routes opened, cheaper airline tickets, seaplanes, and so on.
“The government needs to step up. The promised shipping subsidy has been talked about for years. This lack of northern group transport negatively impacts the health and safety of our people.”
Agreeing with Dr Borofsky’s sentiments, former Pukapuka community president Tingika Elikana said that “the government has to take some responsibility in terms of looking at providing better transport for the outer islands”.
“This is not a new issue, it’s been there for ages. Even as young people when we come from the north we have to go through the same situation in terms of going through the rough seas to get here.”
“There has to be some solution and government has to look at that.”
Elikana added that while the promise of a $500,000 shipping subsidy to help fund more regular services to the northern group was a good initiative, that would not necessarily ameliorate the hardships endured by passengers hoping to travel north.
“When we are talking about people’s lives, I think the government has to start seriously looking at getting a better boat to ferry people,” he said.
A request for comment on the northern passenger shipping situation from Prime Minister Henry Puna in his capacity as the minister for outer islands was made through his office but no response has been forthcoming.