MV Niuvākai stalled repeatedly during sailing test, but government still bought it for over $1 million, claims first mate

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku was allegedly on board MV St Theresa to check whether or not the old ferry was fit to be purchased, a member of the crew has claimed.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku

Despite repeated mechanical failures during the voyage from Nuku’alofa to the Ha’apai group, Hon. Hu’akavameiliku and his delegation still recommended that the government purchase the vessel about 10years ago, which was re-named the MV Niuvakai

The vessel has now been anchored near Pangaimotu island opposite Queen Sālote wharf in Nuku’alofa for about a year.

It is understood it is no longer operational, but there are staff working there as security guards.

The accusations came after the Prime Minister was accused of abusing his power.

He has been accused of corruption after he gave top jobs to two of his Cabinet ministers who had been dismissed after a court found them guilty of electoral bribery.

He had also been accused of disobeying the rule of law by failing to submit to Parliaments financial statements about the Lulutai airlines for which he is chairman of the airlines board of directors.

He has also been accused of falsifying the government’s annual budget to hide millions of pa’anga being allegedly invested in the airlines as well as increasing his overseas traveling budget without first submitting it to Parliament for approval.

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Ngalo’afē ‘Ulupano said he was the St Theresa’s First Mate in 2014 when Hon. Hu’akavameiliku and others from the government’s Friendly Islands Shipping Agency (FISA)  came on board to ensure the vessel was right for all the agency needs.

‘Ulupano said he thought at the time the government would not buy the vessel because they had been struggling to get the engine to work after it repeatedly stalled before they made it  to Ha’apai’s Pangai wharf.

He said the mechanical faults forced the captain to make changes to the ship’s schedule which was intended to call into various ports in Ha’apai before reaching Pangai.

He said a final decision was made for the ship to travel directly to Pangai because of the number of stalls they had experienced.

Ngalo’afē ‘Ulupano. Photo/Supplied

‘Ulupano said when they arrived at Pangai Hon. Hu’akavameiliku, who was not the Prime Minister at the time, and his colleagues returned by plane and left them there to return the ship to Nuku’alofa.

He said he wanted to come forward now and speak up after Kaniva News recently ran a story about the concerns Tonga’s Ombudsman raised about the purchase of the MV Niuvākai recently.

In that story the Ombudsman said a New Zealand-based marine surveyor identified 17 deficiencies in the MV Niuvakai before Tonga’s national shipping line paid three times what the 34 year- old vessel was worth.

The Ombudsman said the Friendly Island Shipping Agency’s board had failed to conduct a proper evaluation of the vessel.

Ombudsman ‘Aisea H. Taumoepeau said that in February 2014, Pacific Royale Shipping sold the St Theresa to FISA for NZ$936,500 or TOP$1,379,572.19.  The vessel was then renamed the MV Niuvākai before it was launched by the king.

Found wanting

Dunsford Marine inspected the vessel on January 21-22, 2014, during which it identified 17 deficiencies. MV St Theresa was found wanting in most capabilities.

The purchase went ahead despite these findings.

On April 5, 2017, three years after the purchase of the vessel, New Zealand Marine Brokers inspected and evaluated the MV Niuvakai as worth NZ$350,000.

The Ombudsman said there was no evidence that the vessel was independently valued before it was purchased by FISA except for the comparative exercise made with the MV Baltic.

The MV Niuvākai has been anchored near Pangaimotu island opposite Queen Sālote wharf in Nuku’alofa for about a year now. Photo/Kaniva Tonga

“It was not clear whether FISA wanted a further valuation or were satisfied with information presented to them,” the Ombudsman said.

The Dunsford Marine report said: “It is noted that even if the MV Theresa complies with the criteria that FISA requires we would still need to conduct a thorough due diligence to ensure that the proffered information is verified.”

The report expressed deep concern about the viability of buying the MV St Theresa.

The Ombudsman said a later report from Dunsford Marine, carried out after the agreement to buy the vessel had been signed, clearly showed deficiencies about the vessel, which were not revealed by her owners. The report from New Zealand Marine Brokers, made in 2017, highlighted more problems.

Controversy

The vessel was owned by the Ramanlal brothers, who were close friends of the late King George V while he was Crown Prince and then when he became king.

In 2017 Kaniva news reported that the Niuvakai had been put up for sale.

The vessel became a financial liability after it became clear there were not enough goods to export.

The vessel was unable to lift the 20 foot (six metre) containers typically used for shipping with its deck crane and was deemed to be unprofitable on voyages lasting more than three days.

FISA created a new company called Tonga Exports Shipping Agency Limited (TESAL) to operate the MV Niuvakai.

FISA Former chief executive Vaka Utapola Vi told Kaniva News in 2014 that FISA only bought the former St Theresa because the price of  other ships they looked at, including one in the Caribbean, were  either too high or because it would have cost too much to bring them to Tonga.

Vi denied FISA bought the ship to help the Ramanlals with their struggle to pay back their loan for the ship.

When he was told a company in Auckland had turned down an offer to buy the ship because it would lose money on voyages lasting longer than three days, Vi said FISA had tested the ship and he had recommended it.

Troubled history

FISA has regularly updated the public since last year, saying the MV Niuvakai’s schedules had been either delayed or cancelled due to mechanical faults.

In 2015, about a year after its purchase, it was anchored in Vava’u for months because of a mechanical failure.

It also became stranded on a reef in 2016.

In March 2016 Vi was suspended and later resigned.

Neither FISA nor the government has revealed why he was told to resign.

We have contacted the Prime Minister for comment.

We have asked Hon. Hu’akavameiliku to confirm whether ‘Ulupano’s claims were true.

We also asked him to tell us whether it was true that the test voyage they conducted was only made up to fulfil the purchasing procedure and that the government had already decided it was a done deal.

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