| Sipikriva Girl | Edited
FINSCHHAFEN - I live in Finschhafen, Morobe, where the only way to reach Lae is to travel the 80 kilometers east by watercraft.
Lutheran Shipping Services has scheduled boats which pass through Finschhafen once or twice a week.
The only downside is the time it takes to get here. The new shipping schedule doesn’t improve things. The older MV Momase is replacing MV Ialibu on the run between Lae and Finschhafen.
It is a whole lot faster to travel by banana boat, and on my irregular trips to Lae this is how I travel, boarding random banana boats at stops at Gagidu near Finschhafen and at Voco Point in Lae.
It can be quite the struggle as young men forcefully grab your bags and shout at you to get on a boat that belongs to someone they know or because they make a couple of bucks for getting a passenger.
It borders on harassment and, no matter how you argue otherwise, you get to be a passenger on a boat you did not choose.
My last trip to Lae was last Thursday to attend my bank which does not have a branch in Finschhafen.
I decided to call Manus, a boat operator just past Butaweng on the Mape River five kilometers west of Finschhafen, with whom I’d never travelled before.
Manus told me he’d pick me up at seven in the morning. I figured he’d be late, and I was pleasantly surprised when people told me he always arrived on time.
Thursday morning came with heavy rains and a downcast sky. I hurriedly got ready and was at the boat stop at seven.
When Manus did not show up after 20 twenty minutes, I called him and enquired if he was still going to make the trip. He was but had been delayed by the rain.
By this time I was thoroughly soaked so ran back to my house and changed into dry clothes. I had lost my umbrella a while back.
At seven thirty, Manus arrived at the mouth of Butaweng and glided in to get me. I hopped on and hoped for the rain to stop as we made our way to the boat stop at Gagidu.
Right now we were only two passengers. The rain, which had let up for a bit, started coming down again.
Manus maintained he had to leave Gagidu before nine which I figured was just talk as most boat crews want at least five or six people on board before starting out.
But, true to his word, at eight thirty he called to me and I walked over and hopped back on board. He told me the rain would not be letting up so we needed to leave early.
After being underway for 15 minutes, the rain was so heavy we could not see more than three meters ahead. However, the sea was kind.
I arrived in Lae safely and went about my business.
Now I was delayed by the bank and I had to spend the weekend in Lae, planning to return to Finschhafen on Monday. I called Manus to check if he was in Lae. He was, he said his schedule had been ruined because of some miscommunication with the SDA church.
Come Monday, Manus planned to leave before 10am. The weather was cloudy and there was a strong wind blowing. The boat was almost full by the time I arrived with my luggage.
A man approached me and asked for my name to put on the bags. This was the first time I’d been asked to do this and I looked at him perplexed.
He told me he wanted to tag my bags in case they got lost. I gave him my name, and he did what he promised except instead of writing Hazel, Butaweng, he wrote A.J. Butaweng. I didn’t mind. I was impressed by the tags.
Once seated in the boat, the same man started doling out life jackets to the passengers. Even a six year old 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 also promoted his weekly schedule. After which, owing to his Christian nature, he said a prayer.
I got thinking about how sea transport could be revolutionised for even the smallest boat operator.
In 2016, the National Maritime Safety Authority introduced the small craft registration office after a number of pirate attacks. However, I believe this office could do much more than simply registering and insuring boats.
Each provincial small craft team should also be responsible for scheduling trips so no business owner misses out on passengers. For instance, there should be weekly as well as daily schedules.
Boats should leave departure ports at set times. Passengers would not have to worry about when they should be at the wharf because they would know the departure times. Boats could start leaving port from as early as six am with intervals in between.
This body could also introduce ticketing systems so customers can purchase tickets for particular times. Surely that’s not too much to ask? Anything done for larger vessels can be replicated for commercial small craft.
Despite load restrictions, no official supervises this. Officers should be assigned to do safety inspections and check crew and passenger numbers. This would account for all passengers in case of mishaps at sea.
All boats should carry basic safety gear and provide precautionary talks before every trip. Life vests, flares and maybe even radios should be on board.
There are eleven mandatory items listed in Schedule 4 of the Small Craft Act but most operators only have one or two of them. On recent trips to and from Lae, I have only once been given a life jacket.
On other trips, in place of the oars specified in the Act, there was a long pole.
On a recent trip to Lae my sister was on a boat that met with several mishaps. It twice ran out of fuel and drifted until passing boats came to the rescue. Nor was there a single life jacket on board.
Experienced travellers might not see this as a big deal, but finding out about this made me realise the potential for things turning nasty.
If each maritime province’s small craft team did their job strictly, like in the airline industry, efficiency and safety would be much improved.
To improve things further, proper docks should be constructed instead of passengers and skippers wading through the water to get on board.
And similar improvement should also be made for land transport, I thought as I struggled to get on a bus in Lae last Friday. The previous night a bus crew member had been murdered and as a result all bus operators staged a protest.
Most PMVs in Lae are owned and operated by people originally from the Highlands where the crew member came from. There was talk that something could blow up into fully-fledged tribal warfare.
So I resorted to hailing a taxi. On one trip the taxi driver was a large, friendly man, probably from the New Guinea Islands.
Offering me his opinion about the bus operators’ protest, he mentioned that certain buses should be operated by people that represent all regions. Maybe 20 buses by Highlanders, 20 by the Morobe people and so for the other regions.
It would prevent events like this, he said. I could only vigorously nod at in agreement. I never figured someone would think like that.
Who knows, maybe one day a better regulated public transportation system will be in place. Maybe passengers will not be harassed and be able to choose how they want to travel.