Early this morning, one of the ferries that operates between the Tongan Islands sank with 79 people on board, almost all of them Tongans. The boat left the main city of Nuku’alofa yesterday in route to Vava’u.
Fifty three people have been rescued and the remaining 26 are believed to have drown. It appears that no women or children survived, just men. (UPDATE: 95 people are presumed dead out of 141 who were on board the ship.)
The boat, the MV Princess Ashika was put in service just a few months ago to temporarily replace another boat that was determined to be unsafe. The Ashika, which was actually older than the boat it replaced, was to remain in service until late next year when a new boat, paid for by the Japanese government is to begin connecting the islands.
It may seem odd that only the men survived, but as is normal in Tongan culture, it is very likely that the men were in a different part of the boat or outside. Men and Women do not normally socialize together in public or even sit together. The woman and children normally sit inside the boat and the men will stay outside and drink kava and smoke.
All over Vava’u today, the accident was all everyone was talking about. At the market, one of the women selling vegetables was in tears after just learning that her son may be one of the victims. There are similar stories all over the area as it is likely that the majority of the people on board were either from Vava’u or are related to someone who lives here.
One of the missing men is a JICA volunteer. JICA is the Japanese version of Peace Corps.
The area where the boat went down is not far from Nomuka, which is part of the Ha’apai Island group, but is actually closer to the main island of Tongatapu.
The survivors have been picked up by the other ferry that serves Tonga and taken to the main island in Ha’apai.
No word on what caused the boat to sink but one rumor claims that the boat was having troubles even before it left Nuku'alofa and that the crew was told not to make the trip.