Friday, January 23, 2015

Discharge on Vaitupu

From the air-conditioned comfort of the Powersmart offices in sunny Mount Maunganui, my eyes skim down the program schedule for and casually bypass a line that reads “discharge vessel”. I’m looking for installation period estimates so that I can quantify food supplies for the duration on each island and the magnitude of the task implied by those little words is completely lost on me.

The Komawai set off from Funafuti wharf a little after 7pm on Monday with 5 intrepid adventurers packed in a 20’ container. Departure had been delayed again at the last minute to optimise arrival into Vaitupu for Tuesday morning with a full day ahead for unloading.

The Komawai is not a big ship or a new ship and every inch of rust-riddled space was jam packed with gear. Those brave enough set up makeshift hammocks on top of the battery racks and dosed heavily on travel-calm. Roger disappeared and was found a half hour later in the galley sharing the crews’ dinner. The less forward members of the team had to make do with noodle surprise and hope they didn’t see a second time around.

Komawai II

We sat on the deck and watched the lights of Funafuti disappear into the distance as the sky darkened. With it went our last air connection to the rest of the world.

Noise on deck drew us out of various states of sleep about 6am to the sight of Vaitupu from the deck – a long thin line of lush coconut trees broken by a small concrete harbour and a half dozen fishing boats in front of a grand Church. By 8am the crew had eaten breakfast and we tossed our bags overboard, followed down a rope ladder into a dingy and were motored in to shore. Roger gallantly volunteered to stay aboard to oversee unloading.

Abandoning ship

And then began the process of discharging the vessel.

The size of the task?

The Komawai is 70m long and I would guess no more than 12m wide. It has a large hold accessed from a set of rusty steel doors at the bow of the ship. And a crane that is used to lift cargo into the hold and then onto the closed hold doors. The Komawai is carrying over 500 tonnes of gear and equipment for the solar installation component of the project. Because we are reliant on an excavator that can only lift 1 tonne at a time, there are more than 500 individual crates, pallets and bundles of gear to be discharged (many of them buried deep within the hull of the ship).

What do they have to work with?

Vaitupu is surrounded by a shallow reef that stretches about 100m from the shore. The Komawai cannot risk hitting the reef and must constantly drift or motor in deep water off shore.

Perched on the bow of the Komawai are two small lighters (about 7m x 3m), each with an outboard bolted on the back. These floating platforms are used to ferry cargo from the ship to shore.

Vaitupu has a harbour. It is about 60m wide with a narrow channel blasted through the reef to create a passage that is accessible at both low and high tide. The Vaitupu harbour has a crane that can lift cargo from the lighters onto transport to move it to site. Vaitupu is the only island with this level of infrastructure.

We are lucky to have two tractors with 3 tonne rated trailers and two 1 tonne rated excavators to lift crates from the trailers to the ground on site. When the Komawai leaves it will be taking one of the tractors and one of the excavators on to Nanumea.

How do they do it?

Individual crates or boxes are lifted from the open racks on deck by the crane. Stevedores race about on deck catching hook chains and positioning straps to each load before it is lifted into the air. Everything must be timed so that the weight at the end of the chains is lifted at just the right time so that it swings out over the water and can be dropped onto the bobbing platform below. At the same time the buoyancy of the ship and the lighter don’t match. At any moment the lighter can be 3m from the deck or 10m from the deck. Three brave souls “catch” the cargo as it is dropped onto the lighter and position it for transport to shore. Once a lighter is loaded (a precarious activity that could take more than an hour), it sets off for shore. The small lighter can carry about 7 tonne, the larger once twice that so a round trip, which could take as long as 2-3 hours might only deliver 7/500ths of our equipment to shore.

The bigger of the two lighters

Lifting onto the wharf. Komawai on horizon.

At the other end, a frantic crew position strops through the pallets so the crane can lift them directly onto the back of a trailer. On site, both excavators are lifting pallets off the trailer and carefully positioning the gear on site so that it won’t be in the way when we start work. With both trailers going, and a 1km trip to site, we had a conveyor going yesterday which was keeping up with the flow of equipment off the ship. In a full day we may have managed to unload 100 tonnes.

Our excavator masquerading as a forklift

And then just to keep us on our toes, there is the weather. Today the swell has picked up again and it is too dangerous for this precarious off-shore dance to take place. The Komawai has disappeared over the horizon to a safe distance so the captain can take a break and stop worrying about the reef. We will all be out there at 7am tomorrow morning watching for her return.

In the meantime, we are surviving on Weetabix, tuna, rice and breadfruit as our crates of food are buried in the stern of the ship and are likely to be the last items off. When they do finally arrive it will be like Christmas. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Final preparations in Funafuti

“Fiji Airways have a new plane!”, Alex, our Beca liaison exclaimed as we shuffled out into the muggy air at Nadi airport. From her look of relief, I wonder what the plane she travelled on in October looked like? This is our second to last jump on the trip from Tauranga to Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu.

We make it to Suva with minimal incident. There is thick greenery below and mountains as far as I can see with a few four wheel drive tracks scrambling through it all. I wonder what the mountain biking is like in Fiji? Wet and muddy? The tractor towing our luggage trundles across the tarmac blowing black smoke and delivers our bags to a lazy-Suzan sized conveyor belt. Everyone scrambles to find their bags so they can be loaded straight back onto the plane we just jumped out of. Within 30min of landing we are in the air again.

After more than 2 hours of continuous blue ocean below, something light blue and then green appears. The outer ring of the Funafuti, Tuvaluan atoll. We are 1,000km north of Fiji surrounded by ocean. This is our last plane flight. It will be a boat from here.

Outer rim of Funafuti atoll from the plane

Funafuti is the most populated island of Tuvalu with just over 6,000 regular residents. There are two regular flights a week from Fiji. And it’s a big event. A siren sounds 30mins before the plane is due so that the volleyball nets and soccer goal posts can be moved off the runway. Everyone is out to greet new arrivals and farewell those going away to work or school (in Fiji and beyond). We are warmly greeted by Tuvalu’s MFAT representative, Mati Afelee and the Tuvaluan Electricity Corporation GM, Mafalu Lotolua.

The heat is noticeable but it’s probably only 31 degrees. The humidity is something else. We are all sweating after the 50m walk to the hotel and elated to find the air conditioners in our rooms blasting cold air (set at 17 degrees for the visitors). We progressively adjust the temperature setting up to 28 degrees over the next few days as there will be no such luxury on the outer islands. We need to acclimatize.

And it’s been a busy acclimatization period!

Shane has been fostering our network of important contacts. These are the people we are going to rely on for support over the next 5 months as we juggle people movements, shipments of equipment, access to port real-estate, customs and quarantine, food and fresh water supplies and cultural sensitivities with our fingers forever crossed that the internet will work today.

And Roger already has a “coconut man”! A friendly fellow at the end of the island who makes model houses and boats to sell at a craft stall when the plane comes in, but whose job this week is to climb trees and collect coconuts for Roger. I think Roger has made more friends so far than the rest of us combined!

Roger and friends playing with his new iPad

And there has been plenty of time to frantically scour the local shops for last minute forgotten items. But it’s not shopping as we know it. The shelves in the small stores are loaded with tinned and packaged goods, the freezers filled with suspicious packages of meat which may or may not be still frozen. Onions were the only “fresh” food available. We did find a hardware store which had a tarpaulin (for shade on site and to catch rainwater). And after traipsing through at least 6 stores I found a spare can opener to take with us on the boat tomorrow and an extra pair of sunglasses. If we are missing anything else on the outer islands, Funafuti is the closest source – a 3 week ferry delivery away.

Supplies available inside the local stores

But it’s not all networking and shopping sprees. We spent a day at the port trying to marry up our equipment lists and understanding of the shipping schedule with the crates and containers of PS gear which are sitting at the port. Despite the clutter and confusion, a missing (borrowed!) strap, and the fact that the fork-lift has been out of action all week because of a flat tyre, it all seems to function somehow. It impresses me that anything makes it to the end of the journey but it does.

Some of our equipment weathering the elements at Funafuti port

The boys spent yesterday making timber braces for shifting the batteries (each pallet weighing almost 1 tonne) and crates of panels. Experience from the Cooks left us with a number of damaged batteries which were crushed by the strops used to lift them from the open container onto the small lighters which are used to deliver them to shore. We will get to test out their handiwork on Monday.

We’ve also had some time to understand what other projects are underway at the moment and the context in which some of this aid work is taking place. There are 2 other solar projects happening – another funded by MFAT on the Government building and a UAE funded project next to the TEC building. Each has its own challenges – the steeply sloping 12m high rooftop of the Government building which requires everyone to operate on harnesses with edge protection, and the tidal water which keeps filling the footings next to the airport. We will have our own.

There is another solar project here on Funafuti which we explored on Thursday. In 2007, a Japanese project installed a system on the grandstand of the sports field. Containers were used in place of buildings to store the inverters. In a too short time, the containers have rusted shut, the cabling under the panels is hanging loose and some of the panels themselves are damaged. The containers were silent. As far as we can determine, the system is no longer operating. It is a reminder of how harsh the environment is but also demonstrates how key the maintenance schedule for our project will be.

The Japanese system constructed in 2007

There is another project underway to remediate the borrow pits – dug out by the Americans to construct the runway during World War II. Over the intervening years the pits have been treated as rubbish dumps with pig pens and peoples houses crowding in along the edges leaching effluent. When the tide rises, so does the level of the water in the pits leaving people clambering to stay out of the gunge. It will be an immense project to clean these up.

Borrow pits

Tomorrow afternoon we board the Komawai II, the PDL shipping vessel which arrived this morning with all our solar equipment for Vaitupu on board. It will be far less crowded than the ferry would have been (left this morning) and we will be able to leave 2 team members on board when we get to Vaitupu to help coordinate unloading. We are frantically trying to make or source fishing nets (hammocks) to sleep in tomorrow night. There are bunks in a container on board for us. But the crew seemed more than happy to relinquish these for the team? Could be that lying on a narrow bunk having your head constantly lolling from side to side and bumping against the wall or the rail isn’t recipe for good night’s sleep?

We are all anxious to begin. But just being here makes everything feel more possible than it did trying to make plans and anticipate events from New Zealand. From here on out, we must learn to work on island time.

 Every evening in Tuvalu