THE NEWS IN FEBRUARY about the sinking of the Rabaul Queen shocked the entire nation. Over two hundred lives were lost at sea. At this present time, a commission of enquiry has been held and the CEO of the shipping company, Peter Sharp, has said he is quitting industry.
In this short article, I would like to talk about my experience on the sister ship of the ill-fated Rabaul Queen - the Solomon Queen.
I am not from a maritime province; hence do not need to travel regularly by ship. I have heard stories about sea travel from many friends from island provinces, many of them quite daunting.
Last year, while completing my pre-ordination studies at my denominational seminary in Rabaul, an opportunity to experience sea travel arose.
The seminary has a program every couple of years to send students and lecturers to other island provinces for a week of studies and interaction with local United Church congregations on certain themes.
The theme for last year related to the care of the environment. I considered the topic quite important in the light of the LNG project and mining boom which, if not monitored well, can bring destruction to the environment and deprive our future generations from enjoying the benefits of their land and sea.
Teams were duly set up by faculty and I found myself in the group going to Kimbe in the neighboring West New Britain Province. I also learnt that we were to travel aboard the Solomon Queen.
There was a sense of excitement in me as I looked forward to my first boat trip, and a quiet relief that we’d be sailing just down the coast to the port at Bialla, rather than crossing the ocean to Buka, Kavieng or even to Lae!
On Tuesday morning 21 June 2011, I was part of a group of 15 students and lecturers dropped off at the Rabaul wharf. I strolled around to the side of the wharf and took a peek at the ship we would be travelling on. The Solomon Queen looked quite impressive, lying majestically at berth. I couldn’t wait to get on board.
Boarding time was 2pm, and we joined a large number of people in a shed-like building. This was where we would sit and wait until check in time, and then we’d move to the departure lounge.
As there were no chairs, we all had to sit on the concrete floor in sweltering heat. The boarding time of 2pm came and went. Then, at 4pm, the call was made to start checking in. Like cattle being herded for the abattoir, we made our way one by one painstakingly through the check point and into the departure lounge. By 5pm, we were boarding the ship.
The deckchairs, maybe around 30 in all, were already occupied by the time we clambered aboard and so we stood around with the other passengers.
The deck was covered with men, women and children. Curiously, I walked down to the cabins below deck to see what they looked like. All were occupied, mostly by women and children as it would be a cold night of travel. I shuddered to think of what it would be like if the ship went down, how these poor women and children would scramble to get out! I quickly brushed that thought aside.
Coming back to the top, I found there was only standing room. I conversed with a few people near me and found that some were from Kimbe and had come to Rabaul for shopping or to visit family. Others were from other provinces continuing on to Lae.
They said they were used to this discomfort because this was their normal mode of transport. They had no choice. The passengers lamented the overcrowding aspect and some complained that the owner was only interested in getting their money, rather than trying to improve the conditions for the benefit of the traveling public.
I was also told the people who paid a bit more got into the ‘first class’ section and enjoyed the luxury of more space, proper deck chairs for all, better toilet and shower facilities and could watch a movie via a TV screen to keep themselves occupied.
The ship travelled at a steady pace throughout the night and the weather was quite pleasant. After standing for about 30 minutes, passengers began to feel tired. They placed newspaper pages to cover the damp floor of the deck as they sat down all around us.
It now seemed impossible to go to the toilets downstairs, except to step over people. (In fact, I used the toilet only once that whole night and the stench was so bad I decided once was enough!)
Soon, some folks began to stretch out and sleep in awkward positions. I stood on the deck with my lecturer and a fellow student, a wantok of mine. We said how, as Motuans from the Papuan coast, we were fortunate to be spared this aspect of life as we only travelled by vehicle from Port Moresby to our respective villages.
We kept standing for a few more hours until about 10pm when our feet really started to hurt. We decided to sit down and so folks near us had to rearrange their sitting or sleeping positions to accommodate us.
Then, at around 11pm, we felt a slight drizzle. The rain fell slightly at first, and then increased in volume. Soon, with the help of strong winds, the deck was thoroughly swamped.
Passengers took out bits of plastic or whatever they could find to shield themselves from the cold rain. I really felt sorry for little kids on the deck who snuggled down near their parents to hide from the rain. Others simply had to move downstairs to the cabins. Finding no more room, they all sat along the stairs and walkways, even in front of the toilets.
A group of women who occupied the first line of deck chairs near where we sat were so drenched and cold they had to leave for the warmth of the cabins. We gladly took over the vacated seats, drying them with newspaper as we sat facing the pelting rain, shielding ourselves with our bags.
We braved the storm until it subsided. It was about 2am when the weather returned to normal, but we now had seats for the rest of the journey! At 8:30am we docked at Bialla.
As we disembarked, I looked back at the ship we had travelled on. All in all, it was quite a nice ship. I thanked the captain and the crew for bringing us safely to port. It was obvious we were well over the load limit and I thought how much better it would be if rules were simply obeyed and adhered to.
My return to Rabaul after the week’s program was by air, courtesy of my hosts, Galilo Village United Church. I was spared another uncomfortable boat trip, however, a glance at my airline ticket made my heart skip a beat.
I was to travel Airlines PNG! After some recent crashes of Airlines PNG planes, I didn’t know whether to accept the ticket or ask for a switch to Air Niugini. Thankfully, however, things worked out well and I flew safely back to Rabaul in one piece!
This little episode spoke a lot to me about how geographically complex our nation is and the need to ensure travel facilities are always kept in optimum condition.
Maybe the loss of lives in the recent boat tragedy and the air disaster near Madang will result in a stronger resolve by service providers to make safer travel by sea and air a priority. Indeed, that is the least we can offer our people.