Senior Multimedia Reporter
Over the last 20 years, the State spent more than $1.5 billion to purchase five inter-island vessels, hundreds of millions more to lease six others and repair the seabridge.
And during that time, the service has also been full of controversies—some linked to decisions made by political parties who led the Government at the time.
But despite money thrown at it, the problem of a reliable service between the Tobago seabridge has yet to be concretely established.
Many Tobagonian stakeholders believe that seabridge issues, which they believe have continued for too long, have denied Tobago a legitimate chance of developing its economy.
Business owners said they are now forced to import goods and services in lower quantities and at higher costs. Some estimated a 100 per cent increase in transportation costs.
There are concerns that these costs will be likely transferred to consumers on the island as inflation rises, making the cost of living skyrocket and diminishing opportunities to enjoy a more comfortable life.
Last week, the Cabo Star’s temporary replacement, the MV Emprendedora, made its maiden ten-hour voyage to Tobago on September 12 carrying a gross tonnage of 1,321.
Comparatively, the Cabo Star has a carrying capacity gross tonnage of 15 times the Emprendedora. In a recent update, the Port Authority said the Cabo Star should be running again by tomorrow.
However, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan clarified that while repairs are expected to be completed by September 17, that would not be the return date for the vessel. He said the port authority will need to wait until the vessel is certified before it is allowed to return to the seabridge.
An improved inter-island service, stakeholders said, is critical in the island’s attempts to become less economically dependent on Trinidad.
According to them, the seabridge remains undependable and substandard.
Some believe that the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) ought to be given more responsibility for the seabridge by the Central Government, but others disagree, claiming the THA is incapable of assuming such a task.
According to political analyst Dr Winford James, Tobagonians are unhappy with the seabridge and have been for a long time. He said trade between both islands was damaged by the shutdown of the Cabo Star, while trust in the Central Government was further compromised.
“If you have one cargo boat servicing the trade between the two islands, clearly you are suggesting to us that you don’t expect things to go bad. Anybody would tell you that you must have a standby mechanism. We didn’t have a standby mechanism, did we?
“So the Cabo Star breaks down and Tobago, because of this dependency, suffers greatly. Clearly, those from Trinidad who are doing business will also suffer. The point is—why couldn’t you have had matters in place? This thing has been going on by the way for quite a long time. This business of there being one cargo boat has been going on for a long time,” Dr James lamented.
He said the Government was to blame, adding that it is another indication that the People’s National Movement (PNM) is unequal to the task. Dr James described the Government’s political strategy towards Tobago as suspect.
“Tobago ought to be in charge of wharves, ports, and so on. The Central Government has not given it that responsibility and simply has not given the money to make things right … We are not talking about independence here. We are just saying let’s divide up the responsibilities.
“Obviously if you bring a kind of opportunistic kind of intervention—I’m talking about the leasing of the boat from Venezuela—they will come and say, well, it’s better than nothing, right? But we are not satisfied with that level of relief. Let us manage our affairs in this matter,” Dr James appealed.
Maritime expert: These things happen, improve the maintenance programme
Tobagonian maritime expert Doyle McDougall, a qualified harbour master with an MBA in Port Management and experience at the ports of Port-of-Spain and Scarborough, said he has seen the seabridge improve significantly over the years. He believes the service has no problems with the movement of people, but admitted that there are problems with cargo. He also believes the development of a more conventional system to move goods, services and people together—as was done in the past—would likely improve operations.
“In general, nothing is going wrong with the management of the system. What we have to do is continue to improve the system and find ways and means to make it more effective. We are dealing with crafts that from time to time will experience challenges in the challenging waters between Trinidad and Tobago. We have to do proper maintenance. We need to improve the maintenance programme.
“Unfortunately, something happened. If something happened to your vessel then now, you activate other vessels to fill, until you can rectify the problem … It’s not that you can have a cargo vessel parked up as if you expect something to happen. These are things you don’t do. It’s only when something happens, you hear about a contingency plan. Shipping is a dynamic operation,” he said, suggesting that maybe the whole incident was being blown out of proportion.
McDougall said it was important that lessons are learned from the fallout. Stakeholders must assess and do more long-term assessments for future situations, he said.
He also suggested that a younger cargo vessel may need to be acquired before long, as the actual life of a cargo vessel is 25 years.
The Cabo Star is 35 years old.
Six years of controversies on the seabridge
The Cabo Star fallout comes five years after the 2018 seabridge collapse.
The T&T Express, the lone fast ferry operating at the time, was pulled from service ‘in the interest of public safety’. At the same time, the other fast ferry, the T&T Spirit, was out of service in June 2017. This left one available vessel—the Cabo Star. To fill the gap, one of the San Fernando to Port-of-Spain water taxis serviced the route for a week. During one of its journeys to Trinidad, smoke started to emit from the boat, resulting in the passengers onboard being rescued. The T&T Spirit fast ferry returned to the route in April and the Government announced the arrival of the Galleons Passage in July.
The Galleons Passage did not go into service until October. Then after just two weeks of service, the Galleons Passage had to undergo repairs. It was a collapse which left many Tobago businesses with huge losses—prompting the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce to express concern about the management of the Port Authority and the length of time the issue lingered.
“The current situation—which The TTCIC Tobago Division tried to prevent from happening since December 2015—has not come about suddenly; rather, it has been a steady decline. It is abundantly clear that there was an absence of any short- or medium-term planning surrounding the entire inter-island ferry service,” a TTCIC release stated.
Before the collapse of the seabridge in 2018, the Government ordered a passenger ferry owned by Bridgeman’s Services Group–the Ocean Flower II, and it was expected to arrive in T&T in July 2017. However, after an arrival date extension was granted, the vessel failed to arrive in Trinidad into the contractually obligated period and the Government cancelled the contract.
Sinanan insisted that the contract’s termination would not affect the inter-island service, saying that the T&T Spirit, T&T Express and the Cabo Star were available. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley also expressed concerns that corruption may have been present in the procurement of the Ocean Flower II.
In August 2017, businessman Christian Mouttet was appointed to investigate and produce a report on the procurement of the Cabo Star and the Ocean Flower II vessels. The report was delivered to the PM and laid in Parliament.
In April 2017, the agents of the Superfast Galicia cargo ferry, International Shipping Limited withdrew the vessel from inter-island service. At the time, it was the only designated cargo ferry. The Government took legal action against International Shipping Limited for breach of contract and marine attorney Nyree Alfonso for breach of fiduciary duty.
Costs associated with acquiring inter-island vessels since 2004
• The Cat–Lease cost was not disclosed
• The Lynx–Lease cost was not disclosed
• M V Sonia–Leased at $162,000 a day–More than $66 million in total
• Incat 060 (Became The T&T Spirit)–$290 million
• The Lynx (Became T&T Express)–$126 million
• Super Fast Galicia–Around $48 million a year to lease–More than $100 million in total
• Cabo Star–Initially leased at a cost of $152,000 a day. Later reduced to $142,500 a day, then further reduced to $108,000 a day
• Ocean Flower II–Contract Cancelled
• The Galleons Passage–$118 million
• Jean De La Vallette–Leased at $263,580 a day
• Buccoo Reef–$494 million
• APT James–$498 million
Part 2 tomorrow