Government ship on aid mission

BLOWING HARD: A satellite view of Cyclone Ian lashing the Tonga Islands.
BLOWING HARD: A satellite view of Cyclone Ian lashing the Tonga Islands.

A ship sold to a Tongan government agency has started delivering cyclone aid, with its previous owner saying it is perfect for the job.

The 35-year-old MV St Theresa was sold to the Tongan Government for $936,000 by an Auckland-based Tongan family with longstanding business ties with the Tongan royal family.

The ship, renamed the Niuvakai', will be operated by the Friendly Islands Shipping Agency (Fisa), which bought the 42-year-old Fiji ferry Princess Ashika that sank in 2009 with the loss of 74 lives.

The group is using the Niuvakai' to carry containers of aid donated by the Tongan community in New Zealand for victims of Cyclone Ian on Ha'apai.

Cyclone Ian hammered the group on January 11, prompting New Zealand to give $1.9 million in aid. China gave $600,000.

Expatriate Tongans have donated food, clothing and building material for Ha'apai, but much of it has been left decaying on wharves in Auckland and Nuku'alofa.

Fisa chairman Tapu Panuve said Auckland's Dunsford Marine surveyors had examined the ship.

It had been laid up until 2011, when it was bought by Vanuatu-registered Pacific Royal Shipping Group Ltd.

Fisa acquired the ship from Pacific Royal through its local agent, Jaws Shipping Ltd. Jaws is owned by Auckland brothers Joseph and Soane Ramanlal.

The Ramanlals were closely associated with the late King George Tupou V's businesses when he was crown prince.

He worked with the Ramanlals, especially with the Shoreline company that took over the state's electricity generator and a cellphone company.

Pacific Royal's Wayne Harris-Daw said an earlier Stuff report on the ship could be seen as "either politically driven or negligent".

He said the ship had been used in military operations in the Falkland Islands and had been upgraded in 1992 in Scotland.

It was internationally classified at the highest rating, had the latest navigational equipment and could transit internationally.

Harris-Daw said that when the ship was surveyed in 2012 it was found the steel thickness of its hull had minimal deterioration "and the comments were that below her water line she was far superior to vessels that were built in China that were five years old".

He said Tonga Port Control had inspected the ship and found no faults. It was well suited to the shallow harbours that were a feature of many Pacific islands.

Harris-Daw said Fisa had no staff connected to the Princess Ashika tragedy.

"From my observations, the new management is very professional and extremely attentive to safety," he said.