By Hazel Kutkue
I live in Finschafen, Morobe, where the only way to reach Lae is by watercraft.
The Lutheran Shipping Services have their ships which have a set schedule and pass through Finachafen at least once or twice a week. The LHS ship MV Ialibu does runs to Maneba Wharf here. The only downside is the time it takes to travel here. The new shipping schedule has shown that the older MV Momase is now doing runs to Finschafen. It is a whole lot faster to travel by banana boat and this is the only reason I travel by boat.
I have traveled to and from Lae on irregular visits and everytime I do, I get on random banana boats at the boat stop in Gagidu and at Voco Point in Lae. It is quite the struggle to choose which boat to get on when young men will forcefully grab your bags, and shout at you to get on boats that they recommend because it belongs to someone they know, or because they get to make a couple of bucks for getting a passenger. It bothers on harassment and no matter how you try to argue otherwise, you will be a passenger on a boat you did not choose.
My last trip to Lae was last week Thursday. I needed to visit my bank because my bank did not have a branch in Finschafen.
Just past Butaweng on the Mape River, there is a boat operator who I get in touch with for travel arrangements. I have never traveled with him before and I decided to call him for pick up. We call him Manus.
Manus told me that he would pick me up at seven am at Butaweng River. At first I figured he would be a bit late, but for the other persons he had picked up before, he always arrived on time. I was surprised, but pleasantly so.
Thursday morning met me with heavy rains and a downcast sky. I knew Manus always came on time so I hurriedly got ready and was at the boat stop at seven.
Manus did not show for the first twenty minutes after seven, so I called him and enquired if he was still going to make a Lae trip. Turned out he was. Due to the rain, he was a bit delayed. I was soaked thoroughly by that time so I had to run back to the house and change into dry clothes. I had lost my umbrella a while back.
At seven thirty, Manus arrived at the mouth of Butaweng and glided up to pick me. I hopped on and hoped for the rain to stop as we made our way to the boat stop at Gagidu. Manus always maintained that he had to leave before 9am. I figured it was just talk as most boat crews wanted at least 5 or six people to be on board before they start out. At that time, we were only two passengers. The rain let up for a bit and then started coming down again.
Manus walked over to me and informed me that we would be leaving the boat stop at between eight thirty or nine. True to his word, at eight thirty he called out to me and I walked over and hopped on. He told me the rain would not be letting up so we needed to leave early.
After being on our way for 15 minutes, the rain came down in bucket loads and we could not look more than 3 meters away. It was very grey and dreary. However, the sea was kinder than I thought it would.
Needless to say, I arrived in Lae safely and went about my business.
I was delayed by the bank and had to spend the weekend in Lae. I planned to return on Monday. I called Manus to check if he was in Lae and sure enough he was. His schedule was ruined because of some miscommunication with the SDA church wanting to use his services.
As usual, Manus planned to leave before 10am. The weather was cloudy and there was a strong wind blowing in. The boat was almost full by the time my luggage was loaded. A man approached me and asked me for my name to put on the bag. This was the first time asked me. I looked at him puzzled and he told me he wanted my name so he could tag my bags incase they got lost. I gave him my name, and he did just what he promised, except instead of writing Hazel, Butaweng, he wrote A.J Butaweng. I didn’t mind though. I was quite impressed by the tags.
Once I was seated in the boat, the same man who tagged my bag started doling out life jackets to all the passengers. Even a six year old on board got to put on a small one.
Eventually when we were about to leave, Manus addressed the passengers in a way very similar to flight attendants. He gave a small talk about not smoking or drinking on board and his weekly schedule. After which, owing to his Christian nature, he said a prayer.
The tale of my latest trip to the city was a round about way of bringing a point across of how sea transport could be revolutionized for even the smallest boat operator.
What if the National Maritime Safety Authority does more than only registering every small craft through the Small Craft Act? In Morobe, the Small Craft registration office was established in 2016 and was mainly used to insure and register small crafts due to the ongoing issue of pirate attacks. Newspaper showed the first registration to have been done in 2020, but I may have to verify this. However, this office could do so much more than simply registering and insuring boats.
Apart from every single passenger boat that goes to and from two single ports can being accounted for, each province’s Small Craft Team should also be responsible for scheduling the trips of all the watercraft so no one business owner misses out on passengers. For instant, schedules should be made for each week as well as for each day. Boats should leave the ports of departure at set time periods. Passengers would not have to worry about when they should be at the Wharf because they know the departure times of the boats. Boats could start leaving ports from as early as six am with intervals in between.
This body should also introduce ticketing systems where all boats scheduled for the day can have customers purchasing tickets for the boat that leaves at a particular time of the day. I mean that is not too much to ask, right? Anything done for larger vessels can be replicated for commercial small craft.
Despite load restrictions in place a, no official from the Small Craft team actually inspects passengers boats that travel to and from boat stops. To be more effective, it would be a good thing if officers are assigned to do safety checks, including checking the number of passengers so that no one boat gets too much passengers or is overloaded and a minimum number of crew members. Passenger numbers would also be more easily regulated because of the ticketing system in place where people purchase tickets for a particular boat that leaves at a certain time. This also is a safety net as all passengers would be accounted for in case of disasters or mishaps at sea.
Safety wise, all boats, should carry basic safety gear and offcourse give precautionary mandatory talks before every trip. Life vests, flare-guns and maybe even radios etc. There is a total of eleven items listed in Schedule 4 of the Small Craft Act 2011 that should be on any small craft but most times operators have only one or two of them. On my recent trips to and from Lae, I have only once been given a life jacket. On all other trips, I did not see any on board the boats except a long pole carried in place of the specified oars in the act.
My sister on a recent trip to Lae was on a boat that met several mishaps. Running out of fuel twice, they were forced to drift until passing boats came to their rescue. They were adrift without so much as a life jacket. Now frequent travellers might not see this as a big deal, but finding out about this from my sister made me realize the potential this event had of turning nasty. Such risky events could have a safety net, with the safety apparatus on board that should be a requirement for all boat owners.
If each maritime province’s small craft team actually did their job in a more strict manner like the airline industry, a whole lot of good would be achieved. Instead of people struggling to choose which boat they should be traveling on at a particular time and getting hareased in the process, the entire hustle can be avoided. There will be no scuffle amongst business owners who offcourse will be able to participate much more equally in a well regulated setting. Passengers can purchase tickets and depart at the right time, and be accounted for in case of disasters at sea. Passengers can also have their safety guaranteed with basic safety devices in case of any mishaps.
To improve further, proper docks should be constructed instead of passengers and skippers using the old age way of wading into the water to get on board. Simple things for better traveling experiences is possible but in this day and age, these are deemed impossible, comparable to building a rocket in Port Moresby.
Systems like this should be in place even for land transport, modified accordingly to suit the area the transport services are in.
While on this same visit to Lae, Friday saw me struggling to get on a bus. The previous night there had been a murder of a bus crew member and as a result, all the bus operators staged a protest. Most PMVs in Lae are owned and operated by people hailing originally from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and the crew that was killed was also from the highlands. We were looking at something that could blow out into a fully fledged regional or tribal warfare.
I resorted to hailing a taxi on Friday for places I needed to go to but was quite far away. In doing that, I got in a taxi driven by this large, friendly man most probably hailing from the New Guinea Islands. In giving his opinion about the bus operators’ protest, he casually mentioned something I could only vigorously nod at in agreement because I never figured someone would think like that.
He said that a set number of buses should be operated by a set number of people that represent all regions. He gave an example of saying that maybe twenty buses should be run by Highlander operators, twenty by the Morobe people themselves and so forth for the other regions, saying this would prevent events like this. The general public with no private vehicle and inability to afford cabs took to walking everywhere will not have to do so
Maybe one day a better regulated public transportation system would be in place. Maybe then passengers would not be harassed and be able to choose who or what they want to travel with or on.