As of January 2016 the Tiare Taporo had been in Rarotonga two months, having eventually docked at Avatiu wharf more than four years after its very first estimated arrival date.
Earlier events aside, even over those two short months the boat had already managed to cause a stir, mainly due to the waiving of its mooring fees, despite the fact that owners Pacific Schooners Ltd (PSL) did not possess a domestic shipping licence.
‘Schooner’s free mooring unfair’ declared a late January headline, topping a story in which the Democratic Party questioned the “deliberate favouritism” shown the Tiare Taporo by the Ports Authority.
That same story went on to say that the PSL was “not half-owned by locals” as had been previously reported and was in fact registered with the Business Trade and Investment Board as a foreign-owned enterprise.
“One lot of rules for a locally owned company, and another set of rules for a foreign-owned company,” said opposition MP Tama Tuavera.
By February the boat had been granted its domestic shipping licence however, and plans were being laid for its inaugural voyage as an interisland freighter.
Loaded with close to 300 tonnes of general goods, building supplies and foodstuffs – including motorbikes, fridges, lawnmowers, lollies and 25 tonnes of cement, the Tiare Taporo set sail on February 19, bound for Aitutaki and beyond to the northern Cook Islands.
Also onboard were three passengers and at least 12 crew members, some of whom were described as young men with, “little sailing experience”.
Less than a month later it was back, maiden voyage successfully completed. Stops had been made at Aitutaki, Palmerston, Tongareva, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Nassau and Pukapuka, with 10 passengers disembarking at Rarotonga on the boat’s return, having journeyed down from the northern islands.
Things finally seemed to be looking up for the Tiare Taporo and her owners. “We expect the ship to make a voyage north every six to eight weeks for the remainder of the year,” said PSL director Garth Broadhead in April.
Then, on the vessel’s second trip north, it all started to go downhill again.
Having endured what was described in CINews as “a gruelling 10-day voyage in stormy weather”, the Tiare Taporo pitched up at Tongareva suffering from what Broadhead called “a minor technical problem”, which resulted in the vessel running onto a gravel bank at the end of the island’s Omoka wharf.
This undignified arrival necessitated the use of an excavator to push the ship off the bank, all of which was caught on video and promptly posted to Facebook, leading to rumours that the vessel had hit the reef and was in danger of sinking.
Even worse, it was then reported in CINews that according to an anonymous island resident, more than 60 per cent of the cargo delivered to Tongareva arrived suffering water damage.
By June 2016 the Tiare Taporo had made four trips to the outer islands. It would be almost two years before she would sail again.
Six months later, in January 2017, the Tiare Taporo remained stationary at Avatiu wharf, amidst ongoing complaints from other port users that it was “getting in the way and sitting idle”.
Also complaining were Tongareva residents wanting to know why the vessel hadn’t returned to their island with ordered supplies, or with payment for goods taken by PSL to sell on the island’s behalf.
Then, in February 2017, it was reported that PSL owed several creditors a total of more than $350,000. Liquidation loomed, though no suitable liquidator could be identified locally, “as most capable of doing the job either had conflicts of interest or were unwilling”.
Come May 2017 the Tiare Taporo and PSL were still in limbo, although “arrangements were being made by the company to settle its debts”. The vessel’s inter-island shipping licence also expired around this time.
By September the company had been given a deadline: prove the Tiare Taporo can be removed from the harbour under its own power before 5pm on October 10 or face the possibility of being towed out to sea and scuttled.
Despite widespread doubt regarding its ability to do so, the Tiare Taporo met that deadline, making a successful (if brief), foray out into the ocean on October 8.
Later, court documents filed on November 21 revealed that a plan had been made to recommission the vessel as part of a “creditors compromise”, which also involved the scheduling of partial payments to “priority creditors”. The total amount owed by PSL to its various creditors was said to be more than $2.4 million.
Newly optimistic PSL director Broadhead told the court he expected the Tiare Taporo to resume operations some time before the end of March 2018.
Further hiccups occurred however, not least of which was PSL’s failure to comply with a harbour evacuation notice ordered by the Ports Authority around the time of Cyclone Gita in February this year.
That failure eventually saw Ports issue the Tiare Taporo with a trespass notice, ordering the vessel to leave Avatiu Harbour by February 27.
But trespass notice notwithstanding, it has been back to “business as usual” for PSL in recent months, with the company hiring crew, officers and most recently a new captain, in preparation for a fresh voyage north – and perhaps a fresh start for the Tiare Taporo.