Monday, February 18th, 2013
By Kate “Bob” Addison
A few days ’till Papeete and all aboard are looking forward to the sophisticated delights of Tahiti and a proper Polynesian city – fine food, black pearls, movie theatres and pretty dresses will all seem even more luxurious after so much basic living aboard the ship and longboat camping expeditions from Mangareva to outer motus.
Seeing the supply ship Nukuhau come into Mangareva last week has been making me think too of the delicate network of islands, people and ships that we are lucky enough to be exploring. Most of the islands of the South Pacific are very remote and their populations incredibly isolated. The Pacific Ocean is almost unimaginably vast, and the islands mostly tiny, on the chart they look like a handful of miniscule dots, strewn by a careless hand across the wide Pacific Ocean. It took us all of three weeks to sail from the Galapagos to Pitcairn Island, and while it’s true that we only average 5 knots or so, 2.8 thousand miles is a long way to go to the grocery store by anyone’s standards.
In all of these far-flung islands, the supply ship is incredibly important, both for getting essential supplies and consumer goods in, and for providing an external market for getting goods out, from fish, fruit and honey to wood carvings and black pearls. And maybe the cargo carried inter-island isn’t always as virtuous as bags of rice or boxes of toothbrushes, and maybe the islanders don’t actually need crates of soft drinks, potato chips, beer or whatever, but then hasn’t international commerce always been built on want as much as on need? Sugar from the West Indies, silk and tea from China, wine, dried fruit and olive oil from the Mediterranean. We never did really need any of this stuff, but it’s still rather wonderful to have.
So what would happen to an island if it was no longer supplied by ships? The standard of living would fall drastically of course. Like it or not, to live well needs stuff, from medical supplies and imported staple foods, to building materials for houses. And with no income from trading with the outside world, life might conceivably revert to something close to subsistence. The lack of transport for passengers would also have a huge impact should the inter-island shipping stop tomorrow. Imagine not being able to get off your island to get medical care at the nearest hospital, which might be several hundred nautical miles away, or having made it to the hospital not knowing when you will be able to get back home again. Imagine not being able to get off the island to get to your daughter’s wedding, or being an ambitious young person who wants to go off into the world to study or to work at a city job, but knows that it might be months or years before there’s a ship to get home to your family again.
I suppose it’s much the same situation in isolated communities on the mainland. Here in the Pacific the ships are simply the highways that serve the communities of the islands, and regular shipping is the infrastructure that allows the economy to function, and hence for people to live well, far away from the big cities of the world. Imagine if your road to a small town in Nova Scotia, Vermont, Cornwall or Devon was gone overnight? Well, that is just what happens to these islands when a ship is unavailable.
On our recent visit to Pitcairn Island we saw first-hand the growing role of cruise ships as auxiliary supply vessels. On Pitcairn the passing cruise ships are a source of trade and income for the islanders as well as providing freight for goods and supplies from New Zealand and beyond. This in addition to transport to and from this magical island for the islanders. It’s interesting to me to see how in the remote places like this, the line between cargo and passenger carrier blurs – what could be more fascinating for Western passengers than to join in first hand on an inter-island cargo run, with the genuine satisfaction of bringing stuff people want and need and can’t get any other way? And what better way to subsidise the cost of shipping, than by finding a ship that was going that way anyway? Maybe this is a backlash against the global and the over-simplified. Think global, act local they say – well what could be more globally minded but locally active than running a small inter-island supply ship?
And then we can talk about auxiliary sail, and how adding sails to a diesel cargo ship further blurs the status quo of shipping. By using auxiliary sail on a diesel freighter, the economically feasible range of the supply route is extended, while shipping becomes significantly less environmentally damaging but still acceptably reliable. The other nice thing about carrying cargo under sail is that it helps to keep alive ancient skills in seamanship that would otherwise be relegated to the leisure activities of amateurs who play at boating. It seems to me there is something intrinsically valuable in the sort of competence that only comes through professional work, day in day out. I also think that there is also something deeply satisfying in the hands-on physicality of sailing, and that sailing with a purpose that transcends the ship and her crew is even better.