The border closure has definitely tossed a spanner in the works of a number of businesses in Vanuatu, although for MV Big Sista the impact was cushioned by the locals, who are keeping the vessel afloat.
Owner of the local shipping vessel legally known as PRD Trading, Peter Davies says that since they don’t cater to tourists, business has been mildly affected.
“We are fortunate that we have not been severely affected by border closure as our business caters to locals and not dependent on Tourists. There has been a decrease in passenger numbers as can be expected with so many job losses from the hospitality and tourism sector but I will address that later,” he said.
The vessel that has been operating for over a decade has a principle that it lives by, in return it has garnered the respect and trust of its customers, and that’s “reliability”.
“By reliable I mean that we have a set schedule, depending on weather, where we leave Vila every Monday lunch time and return every Wednesday afternoon.
“The key to this is that passengers turn up knowing when we leave and on our return trip fresh local produce can be harvested the day people know when we will be coming through and delivered to family and Market, fresh.”
This attribute which allows locals to bank on their service is a bilateral partnership spanning for 11 years now, locals transport their produce from one island to another and MV Bis Sista plays Big Brother in making sure the journey is made and on time.
“Our normal trip sees us do nine stops on our way to Santo including Epi, Paama, Malekula and Atchin. We do a similar trip back picking up passengers and cargo on the way. Knowing of our reliability people will wait on the beach, even in the middle of the night, ready to get on board.”
According to Mr. Davies, up to 30 eskies of fresh fish is brought from Malekula to be sold in Port Vila, with approximately VT4,000 per esky, that’s VT120, 000 on fresh produce alone per trip.
“We normally take anything from 10 to 30 eskys full of ice up to Malekula and 24 hours later we are bringing back chilled fish to go straight to the Market. Once again reliability is the key to supporting locals who want to earn money from their local resources. No one wants rotting fish left on the beach.”
The crew of 12, captained by Sean Winslett who is a shareholder to Big Sista and partner of Davies, all went on leave during the beginning of the lockdown in March but eventually got their sea legs back.
“With a crew of twelve first priority was to ensure continuity of wages because these guys are like family. Most crew have been with us for many years while Tony, Shem, Joe and Sean have been on the vessel since we started operations,” Mr. Davies said.
Mr. Davies remains highly optimistic about the future of MV Big Sista, and is certain that she still has a lot more years in her – “Many other vessels have come and gone but with us having an Alloy vessel that does not rot or rust there is no reason for the boat to not continue service for many more years.
“She may look a little rough on the outside but the vessel integrity is ideal for local sea conditions and mechanically first grade.”
Despite the integrity of the vessel being in “tip top condition” and the normal produce runs, the large customer base has been lost due the pandemic.
“Our numbers are certainly down but we counter that with running a very tight organization with very low overheads. We still manage to pay our employees about twice the Industry standards but that is a small price to pay to ensure we have very little staff turnover and maintains a ‘team spirit’.”
Mr. Davies mentioned that Christmas will set the tone on how much people really have been affected since they may not be able to keep to the traditions of going back to the islands during the festive season.
Mr. Davies explains: “Time will tell the true story as traditionally many people return to their Islands for this celebration or vice versa, come to visit family in Santo or Vila. Other vessel owners who may have additional financial responsibilities are going to find moving forward extremely tough.”
With more potential challenges ahead and no end in sight for the lockdown, Mr. Davies said they will continue to move forward, “over the years we have overcome mechanical issues, Cyclones and Compliance so I guess we will just have to roll with the punches with this one as well”.