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Vessel good for 25 more years

SUZANNE SHEPPARD Sunday, January 30 2005

WHILE UPWARD of TT$378,000 a day is being spent to operate three leased vessels on this country’s inter-island ferry service, the MF Panorama, the only vessel fully owned by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, is being deliberately deprived of spare parts, leaving it prone to breakdowns. Insiders say this is being done to justify the vessel’s removal from the Trinidad/Tobago route so that it could be put up for sale. Last week, Works Minister Franklin Khan confirmed that the Panorama will be put up for sale shortly. Those plans were due to be finalised last Friday during a meeting between the minister, the Board of the Port Authority and officials of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA). Khan said because of the age and condition of the vessel, he does not expect it to bring in a considerable sum of money.

However, a Sunday Newsday investigation into the ferry service has uncovered startling evidence of mismanagement, waste, deliberate and systematic neglect of the vessel and even worse. According to knowledgeable and experienced sources within the Government Shipping Service (GSS), at a fraction of what it costs to lease two conventional ferries and a fast ferry, the 18-year-old Panorama can be restored to optimum working condition. If that is done, the experts say, the vessel can operate on the route more efficiently and economically than is the case under the current lease arrangements.

One insider remarked: “Why tie up a perfectly good vessel and charter others at such a high cost? Something is very wrong here.” At present, on a service that is already heavily subsidised, taxpayers are being made to pay US$14,000 a day to lease the 31-year-old MV Beauport, US$24,000 a day for the MV Sonia and US$23,800 a day for the short-term lease of the Cat. These costs do not include astronomical fuel bills, estimated to be in the range of TT$34,000 per round trip on the Sonia and even higher on the fuel-guzzling fast ferry. Other expenses include wages for local crew and, in the case of the Cat, lavish, high-cost accommodations for its officers at the Tobago Hilton and Crowne Plaza.

According to well-placed sources on the Port of Port-of-Spain, the neglect and mismanagement of the Panorama came to a head last August and September with an incomplete dry docking of the vessel in Curacao. As a result, it is not up to International Safety Manage-ment (ISM) Code, an important requirement which impacts significantly on the vessel’s value and classification. Arrangements for dry docking the Panorama are handled by Miami-based International Shipping Partners (ISP), the same company responsible for the leasing of the MV Beauport and the MV Sonia. According to sources, senior management, not the crew of the vessel, are to blame for problems with the Panorama. An informed source said: “They are making it very difficult to run this vessel. Some spare parts have been outstanding for a long, long period of time. We were in a shipyard for half of August and most of September last year to upgrade this ship and quite a few things that should have been done to bring the vessel up to ISM Code were not done.”

The source said with the money allocated for the dry docking of the Panorama, all outstanding repairs on the vessel could have been completed. “Millions of dollars were allocated but they didn’t spend all the money. They came back with money and the person in charge was boasting that it was the cheapest dry docking the Port Authority had ever had. “The ship came back with a lot of things not completed. They didn’t paint the ship, they half-way paint the car deck. The money was there to do everything but they didn’t want to do it for some reason. “The people in Curacao said they could have done everything but they didn’t get the okay.” Crew members were reportedly startled at the condition and physical appearance of the Panorama when it returned from being dry docked. They had expected to see a clean, polished vessel, with everything in good working order.

Instead, the vessel returned dirty, with most of its problems not corrected, so it had to be tied up for a few days for some quick repairs to be done. “For the oil/water separator, they put up ordinary pipe fittings. . . ordinary pipe that you use in your house. . . and salt water running through that. That not going to last a month,” said one insider, describing one of several glaring deficiencies discovered after the vessel’s dry docking. According to sources closely associated with the Panorama, every problem experienced with the vessel has to do with the fact that spare parts are not being supplied.  The situation, which has existed for as long as the vessel has been operating on the Trinidad/ Tobago route, was exacerbated by last year’s incomplete dry docking. The source explained: “Before, even when there were problems for spares, these would be resolved during the dry docking. That is no longer the case.”

Although frequent requests are made for the parts and comprehensive lists are regularly submitted to the Marine Division of the Port Authority, these requests have been outstanding for as long as two years. One frustrated insider commented: “They could spend US$24,000 a day for a chartered ship but they don’t even want to spend quarter that amount on the Panorama — not even TT$20 to buy an O-ring.” Another revealed: “When you talk about this vessel (the Panorama), the hull is in superb condition, the tanks are in superb condition based on the fact that they have always had fresh water rather than sea water as ballast. The machinery is good. . . the four main engines are working.

“Right now one of the generators has been down for more than 18 days due to some stupidity but by standards anywhere in the world, this is a vessel worth keeping. It is still a safe vessel to ferry passengers once we get spare parts to get the lifeboats in working order.” Long outstanding spare parts for the Panorama include the davit, winches and brake system for the lifeboats and the complete gauging system for the engine room. Also urgently needed are special tools for the servicing of the generators. At present there is only one main sea water circulating pump operating on the vessel — an order for another has been outstanding since last June.

Several months ago a crew member was killed in Tobago due to a malfunction with the vessel’s car ramp. That problem, insiders say, which involves changing some shackles, is yet to be corrected. Also long outstanding are repairs to the ship’s pantry. As a stop-gap measure, crew members have been using silicone to repair leaks between the bulkhead and the pipes. “When we are ordering spare parts for the Panorama, which we have been doing for a long time, there is no compliance from management. They don’t even come back to you. “They are neglecting the crew of this vessel by not coming back and explaining why certain things are not being done. We are kept completely out of everything.” The source said that the Panorama’s engineering crew has been very resourceful in making up for the shortage of spare parts, using “Vim” to grind injector tips, for example.

Despite its problems, insiders maintain that the Panorama is the best vessel for the inter-island service. Its operating costs are just TT$30,000, considerably less than for the MV Sonia. The Panorama has four engines and can run on two, while the Sonia has two main engines, so if one goes down, there is only one left. The Panorama’s 20-year survey is due in 2007 and sources say the vessel can pass “with flying colours” if everything is in order with the ISM Code. They estimate that the vessel is good for at least 25 years more service, if properly maintained. At the very least, sources claim, the Panorama could be used as the cargo vessel on the route. However, according to Works Minister Franklin Khan, a cargo ship is to be purchased.

According to our well-placed sources, the Panorama can be used as a roll-on/roll-off cargo vessel and it would cost considerably less than the option currently being pursued. “The insurance will be cheaper. Because we will not be carrying passengers, we will not need lifeboats and we won’t need the amount of crew we have right now. That will cut down on costs.” The Panorama, which is currently alongside the Cruise Ship Complex, may return to the service briefly next April when the four-month lease of the fast ferry ends. However, the search is already on for a buyer. There is no word on whether the vessel would be brought up to ISM Code, which would double its value and ensure it gets a better price when it is sold.

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