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Take Cargo Ships to Remote Pacific Islands

Cargo Ships
The cargo ship Aranai in the Marquesas.

There are freighters and there are freighters. (For full information on the intercontinental variety see the May/June 2001 issue of this magazine.) But the fleet of ships that sail among the island groups in the South Pacific and Micronesia—copra boats, island traders, government field service ships, mission boats, and inter-island ferries—are rarely mentioned and are largely unknown to travel agents. They lie ready and willing to transport passengers into the “back of beyond.” So if in your round-the-world travels you want to go where tourists never tread, try hitching a ride on a local cargo ship. It’s easier than you might think. Let’s start in the South Pacific.

French Polynesia

A little beyond Papeete (on Tahiti), where the land hooks out to form the harbor, are the inter-island ship docks. Taxi out there and have a look at whatever ships are in port. Stroll aboard any vessel that looks interesting and ask where they’re going, for how long, the fare, and if you can see one of their cabins. (It helps if you speak a little French, but you can always make yourself understood.) If a certain ship appeals to you, go to their shipping office. This is what you’ll find:

To the Society Islands (the islands to the west of Tahiti—Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Maupiti): The ships of the Compagnie Francais Maritime de Tahiti make 4- to 6-day voyages to most of the islands. Cabin fares are about $200. Deck passage, on a covered deck but with no bedding, is about $100. No food is supplied on most of the ships, so come aboard with a relaxed attitude and plenty of rations (which are easily obtained in Papeete).

Inter-island Ship
A small inter-island ship in the Soloman Islands

To the Tuamotus

The 69 islands of this group of jewel-like atolls lie to the east of Tahiti and cover an immense patch of the ocean. To get there, check with the Compagnie Francais Maritime de Tahiti. Their ships provide cabin class or deck passage and plenty of local color but no food. A week’s voyage will run about $180. Also be sure to check around the docks in Papeete for a copra boat and experience the warts and all of the romance of South Sea cruising. Some ships provide a cabin and meals for voyages of 10 or so days for about $250.

To the Marquesas

These rugged, green, mysteriously beautiful and remote islands 750 miles east of Tahiti bear such magical names as Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva. To get to them—and to the Tuamotus as well—you’ve got two choices: By far the most comfortable one is a cargo ship named Aranui, operated by the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime. Travel agents in the U.S. know about her. She carries 60-100 passengers in both cabin and dormitory class. Fares for the 16-day voyage range between $1,780 and $3,300.

The other option is aboard a ship a bit more Polynesian. The Taporo V of the Compagnie Francais Maritime de Tahiti is a trading vessel that makes a 15-day voyage to the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. Fares, including cabin and meals, come to $750. Look at the ship in Papeete.

The Cook Islands

Rarotonga, with its forested mountains, verdant coastal plain, and fringing reef, is the principal island of the group. Its beauty when first seen will cause a gasp. Sea travel in the Cooks is only for the hardiest and most flexible of voyagers, but the benefits are worth it.

To the Northern Group (Penryhn, Manihiki, Puka Puka, and Palmerston): The Tapi Taio Shipping Company in Avarua, Rarotonga has a ship named the Tai Moana, a small, spartan vessel that makes the 800-mile run to all the islands. Because only one of them, Penhryn, has a safe lagoon and wharf, the ship must stay at sea and use whaleboats to unload cargo and passengers. Fare for the 8- to 10-day voyage, with a crew-share cabin and meals, is about $275.

To the Southern Group (Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro, and Mauke): A somewhat larger ship, the Maungeroa of the Tapi Taio Company, visits the closer islands—150 or so miles from Rarotonga. Fare for cabin and food on the several-day trip is about $160

Western Samoa

This is a delightful destination even if you don’t go to sea. For one elusive but wonderful opportunity write well ahead of time to the Office for Tokelau Affairs, Apia, Western Samoa and ask about the sailing dates of their chartered ship. It carries 12 cabin and 68 deck passengers on a voyage of eight to nine days and stops at each of the three atolls—Fakaofa, Nukumonu, and Atafu. None have ports, so the ship must stand off while whale boats negotiate the openings in the reef to pick up the only export, copra. Good luck to you. I’ve come close but never been successful. I keep trying.

The Kingdom of Tonga

Polynesia’s oldest monarchy consists of three main island groups—Tongatapu, the capital, Ha’apai, and Vavau.

To Ha’apai: This archipelago scattered over a large stretch of the sea about 100 miles north of Tongatapu consists of dozens of low-lying atolls. Lifuka is the administrative center. To get there by sea, check with the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia in Tongatapu and ask about the Olovaha. This ship—more inter-island ferry than cargo ship—sails from Tongatapu every Tuesday and fetches up in Lifuka 12 hours later. Fare, with cabin but no meals, is about $18.

To Vavau

The same ship leaves Lifuka in the evening and arrives at Vavau the next afternoon. Fare with cabin is $18. I’m sure you’ll agree with the yachtsmen who have found Vavau. They know a good thing when they see it.

The Olavaha Cargo Ship
The Olavaha as she sails to Ha'apai and Vavau.

Fiji

The total land mass of Fiji’s 332 islands comes to about 8,000 square miles. By South Pacific standards it’s a big, diverse country, and among her beaches, mountains, towns, and cities there’s much to see and do. The harbor at Suva always has numbers of trading vessels, inter-island boats, and copra ships tied up at the docks. As in Tahiti, it’s easy to walk aboard and talk things over with the captain.

In Nadi, on the other side of the island from Suva, everyone knows about the glamorous cruise boats that sail off to the dozens of idyllic islands of the Yasawas and Mamanucas. Fares for these 7- to 8-day trips run about $800. However, the better and much less expensive choice is the Kaunitoni, from Suva to the Lau Group (east of Fiji, towards Tonga). On its 10-day run the Kaunitoni makes something like 12 stops at green and volcanic islands to deliver cargo and pick up copra. Fare for the voyage, with cabin, is about $200. While no food is provided, the ship does offer cooking facilities and utensils.

Vanuatu

In Port Vila on Efate Island, the capital of Vanuatu, the harbor is right in the center of town and the vessels tied up there are available for examination. Ask around the wharves about the Konanda, the Lali, and the Onma II. These and other ships like them are on the elemental side, but for $14 a day, simple meals included, you’ll be taken to remote outer islands—places such as Malekula, where they were killing and eating each other as late as 1930, and Pentecost island, where men tie vines to their ankles and leap out of trees. You’ll be taken ashore by canoe to other islands where you’ll be stared at, smiled at, and given the chance to buy some good carvings. The outer islands of Vanuatu will stay in your memory forever.

The Solomon Islands

Honiara, on Guad-alcanal, the capital of this independent nation, offers visitors all amenities but few tourists are seen. If this is the capital, think what the myriad outer islands are like.

Go to the Coral Sea Shipping Company and ask about the sailing of the Iuminao. This ship, carrying 50 deck passengers, also has two first class cabins, but meals are not provided. Think of it as camping in an air conditioned cabin with a small refrigerator and a full bath. Food is easily purchased at Honiara shops. On its 3- to 4-day voyage to Gizo in the Western Provinces it makes 11 stops—all picture-postcard quality.

For other ships to remote areas visit the local yacht club in Honiara and talk to some of the members about other destinations. Maybe, as once happened to us, you’ll be invited on short cruise.

Papua New Guinea

The eastern half of the second largest island in the world includes a cluster of islands off its north coast—New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, Manus, The Trobriands, and scores of smaller islands. These areas, as well as the north coast of New Guinea, offer everything an adventurer or escapist might want, and one can expect a good meal, a cold drink, and a fair bed every night.

Ships can easily be found. We’ve sailed away on several of them just by approaching the captain. Ask about trips up the Sepik River, to the Trobriands, New Britain, Samarai—almost anywhere they go. Fares are reasonable, and some of the ships are quite comfortable. So it goes in the South Pacific.

Micronesia

The 2,100 “tiny islands” of the Pacific, mostly north of the Equator, are scattered over three million square miles of the sea between Hawaii and the Philippines and make up four new countries: The Republic of the Marshalls, The Federated States of Micronesia. The Republic of Palau, and The Northern Marianas Islands. Accommodations and food are good. People are friendly. English is spoken. There are no unusual health problems. And American currency is used.

Some seasonably comfortable Govern-ment Field Service ships sail to some of the most remote, often exotic, islands in the world. Pohnpei, Yap, Majuro, and Palau are the best places to find the ships. You’ll sail away with a collection of island administrators, doctors, a judge, or maybe a dentist, on working voyages. Check with the Field Service Office in each of these places. Expect to pay, with cabin and meals, about seven cents a mile plus $8 a day. You just have to be on hand when a ship is in port. Shipping offices rarely reply to people requesting space or information.

Sailing Free as Crew on a Yacht

On a Yacht

In any city of the world where land touches the sea there’ll be a yacht club or marina where visitors who show signs of enthusiasm will be welcomed by boat owners—some of whom may offer more than just conversation.

Of equal importance for traveling visitors are the bulletin boards of yacht clubs found all over the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Micronesia—from Honolulu to Hong Kong.

At the Yacht Club in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Guadalcanal, we met an Englishman who, over a welcome cold beer, announced that he was running his 35-foot power boat down the Guadalcanal coast to Marau Sound and he would welcome company. The sea was blue and placid, Marau Sound was a multi-hued place of beauty, and on the 2-day passage our new friend provided unlimited measures of island lore. Nothing could have been better.

In Penang and Langkowi—islands off the west coast of Malaysia—yacht club bulletin boards are rich in both commercial and private sailing offers for trips to nearby Sumatra, up into Thailand, and down to Singapore.

But it was in Hong Kong that a bulletin board notice paid off most handsomely.

We had been invited to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to celebrate a friend’s birthday. At one point midway between festivities and facilities (the men’s room), I came upon the club’s bulletin board and was struck by a prominent notice: “Newly constructed Twin Diesel Trawler 40 requires crew for voyage to Singapore. Contact George Harriman, 5-68724.”

Foregoing the men’s room, I hastened to fetch my wife, Virginia, who guardedly agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to look into the matter. A few days later, over eggs Benedict at the American Club, the youngish American owner told us that his voyage would take him to Singapore, where he had permanent crew waiting to help him continue the trip on to Penang, Colombo, Aden, Jeddah, Suez, and finally Greece—all of them 1,500 to 2,000 miles apart.One purpose of the voyage, he said, was to test the theories of Robert P. Beebe, a yacht designer who maintained that with well-functioning diesels and a good hull one could go anywhere—on schedule and in comfort. Beebe, according to Harriman, spoke with admiration of the purity of sailing, but felt that sailing imposed a certain tyranny upon the crew.

Harriman required two warm bodies who could stand wheel watch, do some cooking, and share expenses. He said we’d do, and after a short pause we agreed to go.

To make a long story short, Mr. Beebe was nearly right. We did complete the 10-day voyage on schedule—but not without a measure of high seas and discomfort. Still, this is what the sea is all about, and I continue to recommend yacht club bulletin boards as a source of adventure.

One final thought: Do not blindly accept any offer for going to sea without quietly checking it out. Some boats are unseaworthy and some skipper-owners can be scoundrels. I’ve always been lucky.