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Sabbath laws and 'who will pay' hampers search for missing sailors

by Lee Mylchreest on 18 Jun 2012
Navillus - now ’shredded’ on a reef on Late Island, Tonga, and her crew missing SW
Tonga's 'sabbatical laws' against Sunday trading and a question about who will pay the fuel bill for the rescue have hampered the ongoing search for two sailors - one British/Australian and one Australian - whose yacht broke up last week on the Tongan Island of Late. (See http://www.sail-world.com/CruisingAus/Search-underway-for-two---English-and-Australian---shipwrecked-sailors/98549!Sail-World_story)

One motor launch owner, Ross Knutson, who has taken part in the search says he needs 1200 litres of fuel for the day to reach the uninhabited island and keep the search going, but was not allowed to refuel on Sunday owing to the strict laws.

Searchers still hold out a glimmer of hope that the men may have reached the rugged coastline of the uninhabited Late Island where their yacht 'Navillus' was reportedly 'shredded' after becoming grounded on Thursday night.

'We think there was smoke seen definitely on the island during the last two days and that's possibly the only hope left,' Knutson, the skipper of the motor launch 'Escapade' that was searching the waters around Late Island on Saturday, told Matangi Tongaonline.

'We need to take some good strong men out to Late to conduct a ground search,' he said.

Ross is frustrated that he was unable to refuel his boat after arriving back at Neiafu's wharf late on Saturday because the fuel terminal was closed for the weekend.

'On Friday we did not know this search and rescue operation was going to happen. We went out on Saturday knowing that the fuel could be a little bit short. Today we could not go out because the fuel was not available, and we are told that the earliest time the BP tanker can refuel us will be sometime between 9:00am and 11:00am on Monday, so we will lose another day.'

An Orion had made 'a thorough grid search', but there was no sight of a dinghy that was thought to have been on the yacht, he said. Tonga's domestic airline Chathams Pacific had also flown over the area.

While the Tonga Defence Services patrol boats were out of range in southern Tongan waters, two foreign boats, the Knutson's 24 tonne 'Escapade' from Whitianga, New Zealand, and a larger boat the 'Patriot' out of USA, had joined in the search.

'The Patriot divers went down and the vessel was described as being shredded, there were lots of different parts, so the yacht had taken quite a beating,' said Ross.

Caught up in web of local bureaucracy that the foreign boat owners are finding difficult to negotiate, Ross believed that it was unlikely that they would be able to refuel his boat on Monday morning in time to get a search party landed safely on the volcanic island's dangerous coastline.

His motor launch can reach Late island in just under three hours, but Ross said it could take 6-7 hours to get people on and off the island in the dangerous swell, so they would have to wait until Tuesday when they could leave early at around 6:30 am.

'Who will pay the fuel bill?':

Meanwhile, Tonga's sabbatical laws that forbid trading on Sunday, along with uncertainty over who will foot a $10,000 fuel bill for continuing the search has tied up the search boat.

BP's manager in Vava'u, 'Eloni Siale, told Matangi Tonga that the first time he heard of the need for fuel was this afternoon, Sunday, when his security officer called him from the terminal. 'I told him to tell the people who wanted fuel to go to the police to get authority to trade on Sunday and also to contact the BP boss in Nuku'alofa about the bill. We also have to make sure who is going to pay the bill,' he said.

'That is what I am concerned about because we have helped search and rescue before and we refueled 20,000 litres for search boats at over $2 a litre and were never paid. We ended up with a lawyer and are still trying to recover those costs from 2009.

'We must wait for the police or the army to request a rescue at sea,' he said.

The Orion aircraft had covered a big grid search area on Saturday, but not Sunday because it was the sabbath in Tonga.

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