Cargo Ferry Prototype

It’s amazing how much has happened in the 4 months since I arrived in Fiji. CATD and my involvement has extended way beyond the cargo proa. It includes a biogas reactor program

running off food scraps and sewage and producing enough methane to cook for 100+ students. CATD got the first of them at a hand over ceremony with the Israeli ambassador last week; A cassava flour mill for the bread we are cooking in the student built bakehouse;   A “village/school appropriate” recyclables collection site organised with help from the local high school; installing a low cost solar hot water system; producing mud bricks; recycling unsorted, uncleaned plastic waste into tiles to cover the mud on the boat ramp and turning scrap glass into sand sized pieces using a locally built kava crusher. Initial use of this will be to substitute for sand in the mud bricks, play with non slip, hard and reflective coatings on the boat and cover some of the mud around it.   It is wonderful working with people whose first reaction to an idea or suggestion is “Yes, let’s do it”.

Thanks to Sue (my wife)’s grant writing skills, we have been awarded significant UNDP funding to get the cargo proa finished and tested, set up boat building classes for the Women in Fisheries outrigger canoe and the Mini Cargo Proa (incl sailmaking and spar building), get us started on recycling plastic for the MCP deck slats, the cargo boxes and core material for all 3 boats and fund some analysis of routes and production costs.

After this was announced, I was chatting with one of the CATD teachers, who told me his family was the ‘sailor’ clan in his village and he would very much like to help teach the building classes, and that his grandfather was a traditional navigator, keen to pass on his knowledge.  Exciting stuff, as the general consensus is that all the old Fijian master navigators had died, taking their knowledge with them.   More on this soon, I hope.

Despite my preference for doing rather than talking, I am spending a lot of time talking due to the interest the cargo proa has generated, particularly the launch by the PM’s.     We had a 2 day session with the Minister for Rural and Maritime Affairs and a gathering of 300 dignitaries from  Korea, the UN, Fiji Govt, NGO’s, donors, green groups and sundry others I didn’t get to meet.  The Minister had a look at the boat, then sought me out to apologise for not being at the launch and to discuss problems and solutions.  Cargo proa feedback from everyone was overwhelmingly positive.

The Private Secretary of the Solomon Islands Environment Minister dropped in for a look at the boat.  The highest ranking person to climb all over it to see what it was about.  Nice guy, very knowledgable about problems and lack of solutions.  We discussed the diesel powered solution being mooted for the Solomons, and agreed it is probably the hardest place in the Pacific to service due to strong winds and big distances.  He will send over a group of students for the boat building classes.

Had a visit from the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji people.  Not quite so positive, but a necessary first step in writing the safety rules for cargo proas.  It will be a bit of a process, but they (and us) are keen to get it happening.  They suggested a local naval architect who I had a long chat with.  Fun guy, very practical and knowledgable about how things work here and what is required.   He explained what is required, both for the prototype and the production boats, and assured me he could do all the necessary engineering, drawing and paperwork.  Big load off my plate. He and the recently retired ex boss of MSAF visited for a look, were suitably impressed.  They said the PM has asked for me to do a cargo proa presentation at World Maritime Day at the end of the month.

I was filmed for a prime time documentary on climate change by Estonian TV.  Cargo proas are going to be big news in Tallinn!   
Sue and I spent 2 days running a booth on cargo proas and sustainability at a PIDF conference in Nadi.  Nice drive there and back, Fiji has some stunning scenery.   While there we met with an old mate of mine who is doing some amazing stuff with uncleaned, unsorted plastic waste.  More on this in the next update.

The CATD “Skunk Works” department is playing with plastic foam from recycled PET bottles (soda, water, etc).  Glassed each side, it will provide some alternatives to ply, mdf etc, may also have some applications for insulation and low cost boat cores.    They are also working on island suitable lids for the cargo boxes which cool fruit and veges or freeze fish and meat.


Despite the above, work on the boat is progressing well.  
We got 20 students to slip the boat after the Prime Minister’s party.  All went well until we removed the beams from the masts.  One end of the hull was in the water, it floated sideways and the hull, with masts up, capsized.  A bit of a bang as the masts hit the beams and a bruise on my finger, but otherwise no obvious problems.  Removed the beams, carried them and the ww hull up, righted the lee hull and slid/lifted it up the ramp and onto the level. Most of the time it was on tyres, over which it slid nicely. A village could disassemble it, get the pieces up the beach and prep it for a cyclone in a couple of hours if required.  Three tyres (double as fenders) tied under the hulls extends the type of beaches it can dry out on to include the lumpy dead coral typical of the area between high and low water inside coral reefs.

The welding shop is making 3 rollers from 200 kg drums to make launching/recovery easier on the muddy ramp.   Hopefully they can handle the load (about a tonne/ton each) without needing too much beefing up.  We are applying for funding to extend the sea wall and build a floating jetty, which is starting to look like a marina, with the taro patch to become a car park until it becomes the floor of the proa building factory.  We are also exploring some novel bio concrete options for the jetty construction.


One of the many drawbacks of using big jobs like the wings for experiments is that it takes forever, with a lot of small and repeat jobs followed by waiting overnight for epoxy to cure.  Get something wrong, and it has to be corrected 20 times.   Not helped by a small workspace, a lot of rain showers and occasional power cuts.    5 wing sections for the first mast and 4 for the second are now built, apart from the trailing edge covering which may be sail cloth sewn on, or peel ply and/or 200 gsm cloth glued on.  Once I figured out the load paths and let gravity do it’s thing, it became a lot simpler to set up, but the 1.25 high x 4m lengths are pretty floppy until they are in place, which makes solo handling frustrating.  There are some fiddly string lengths to sort out, but each section is now independent of the rest so any adjustments required do not mean adjusting every panel which is a lot less frustrating for an impatient builder.

Other jobs off the to do list: 
Replaced the tie down beams with tapered slots.  One less thing to go wrong/be maintained and it makes assembly/disassembly much quicker.  
Installed the toy box, not sure whether it will need beefing up, but so far so good.  The fibreglass hinges and catches work, but need some prettying up, along with much (almost everything) else on the boat.  Might replace them with netting, but at the moment, they are easier to walk on than the cockpit floor, which  is supported by string lashed across underneath it to make it easy to walk on and catch anything dropped.  It needs closer lashings, which I will do when the dyneema order arrives.   
Redid the beam/mast attachments (again) to make them easier to tie on and more secure.  Still not totally happy with it, will repeat the hull lifting test we did in Brisbane to ensure it is strong enough.
Used tow instead of metal bolts to attach the bilge pump, 4 carbon mooring cleats a winch and the 2 anchor rollers.  Not as quick as metal fastenings, but no leaks, lighter, cheaper and a better load spread.  More challenging too. There are no screws or bolts on the boat so far.  No timber either apart from a bit of cork and the scrap ply the pump is on.  The 2 x Sarca 25 kg anchors (thanks Rex) and the Ronstan supplied Anderson  winches (1 x #34 and 1 x #40, thanks Tom) are the only metal on the boat so far.

I could not use much tow on the winches due to the bolt hole sizes, but initial tests look like there is plenty.   Which makes some of the other carbon tow uses on the boat look like huge overkill.  Next challenge is on the Ronstan cam cleats where resin intrusion is a worry, might have to get imaginative attaching those.
Installed the tender davits using tow to attach them and carbon axles for the sheaves.  Looks pretty good and one of them supported half the weight of the tender (double what it will take in use) so another good start.  
Mounted one rudder case.  Looks workable, I’ll fine tune the kick up mechanism when the boat is floating.  Still undecided about the other one.

We have just returned from a 2 day CATD staff retreat at Leleuvia to get everyone on the same page about the future direction of the place. Huge fun, lovely people and an exciting vision.  Sue and I are humbled and grateful to be part of this wonderful community.  The only downside was Black team’s carefully selected hermit crab, which finished a disappointing last in the race to the water. 😉

July 2022#2
The cargo proa is in the water, thanks to a bunch of CATD students who did the heavy lifting and put it on some tyres on the ramp at low tide.  The slope of the ramp was a bit more than the buoyancy at the end of the hull and the deck vents were going to go under.  20 students picked it up and put a couple more tyres under it. When the water got to the deck, we pushed it into the water, an advantage of muddy ramps!    No leaks, but the beam attachment is a bit peculiar, nothing that can’t be fixed.  I managed to twist my ankle in the mud, could barely walk by the end of the day.  One of the trainers wrapped it in Vau leaves. An hour later I could limp, the next morning was fine.  Vau Wow!  The photo shows what an ‘island suitable’ boat designer/builder looks like. That’s mud, not boots.

Lots of prep for the Pacific Island leaders. The CATD staff and students did an amazing job, way beyond the call of duty.    Another 15 cu m of concrete hand mixed and laid, grass and trees trimmed, edges painted, drains cleared, big marquee erected with raised plywood/carpet floor, decorated and catered. Big screen with video about the boat and lots of coconut fronds hiding the mud. Haircut, shave, shoes, new sulu and matching shirt for yours truly.

Due to lack of notice and prior commitments ‘only’ 2 PM’s (Fiji and Tonga) could make it, along with a bunch of High Commissioners, ambassadors, other diplomats, sundry NGO’s, donors, representatives from several green projects, the press and a bunch of others I didn’t get to meet.

That is near enough 2 PM’s (Fiji and Tonga), a bunch of High Commissioners, ambassadors, other diplomats, sundry NGO’s, donors,  representatives from several green projects and the press more than have attended any other boat I have launched.

The program was brief; a meet and greet while we waited for the dignitaries to arrive, a welcome by students in traditional dress, an MC with a cool sense of humour, students draping garlands around the guests of honour, PM’s speech, cutting of the ribbon (specially printed with Harryproa images on it), closing speech mentioning the Govts intention to make this area the “Silicon Valley” of green shipping in the Pacific, photos with the PMs, interviews and chats with interesting people, lunch, more mingling, kava and some r&r for the people who had been working hard at the PIF all week.  

The event was about the future of green shipping, effects of climate change, acknowledgement of the historical impact of the Pacific on sailing, what could be done and what was being done.  The cargo proa was simply evidence of doing something rather than talking about it. I stressed how the prototype was just that. We are still learning what is required and how we can address it, a process that will continue in earnest when it is sailing.  

I had a fine time, chatted to both PM’s and the ambassadors, was interviewed for a documentary, and established contacts with a lot of people and projects.  I quit in the evening, the party was still going on early the next morning.  All going well, it will all be cleared away on Tuesday so we can pull the boat out and start finishing it off, interrupted by a heap of meetings. The first of which is with plastic recyclers about making PET foam here, maybe.

All told, a wonderful day, my thanks to the CATD staff and students and my good friends Arbo (CATD Director) and Dovi (not sure exactly what he does, but everything he says will happen, does).

With a bit of luck, and following a lot of hard graft by my wife (the short person in the middle of the group photo, with the PM of Tonga on her right, me on her left and the PM of Fiji on my left), the next update should have some marvelous news.

Ministers speech

July 2022
I used to think “island time” was similar to manana in Spain.  ie It’ll happen sometime, maybe, perhaps.  Not any more.   I’m now a firm believer in “If you want a job done quickly and well, give it to a Fijian”.

Early June,  the Prime Minister couldn’t attend a function here, but was keen to know about the boat.  We sent him a briefing note.  It was suggested that he launch the project at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in mid July.  By mid June this had morphed into all 18 Pacific Island leaders launching it as a Pacific wide initiative. We shall see who turns up.

We decided the easiest way to make it happen was to move the boat out of the shed onto the large flat space next door.  The ‘large flat space’ was actually a small vegetation covered hill with a pig pen in the middle of it. A couple of days later, it was more or less level, the vegetation, pig pen and pigs are gone and we are waiting for the rain to stop.

In less than 2 weeks we had a huge level area and a 10m wide ramp into the river.  We decided against concreting it as the mud/clay is pretty inconsistent and there is a lot of buried vegetable matter to rot.  Instead, we have moved the boat up there for assembly and, once launched, will erect a scaffolding and plywood (200 sheets) stage for the dignitaries.  The sparky is installing 3 phase power, the drains have been dug (pretty impressive bit of eye ball sloping) and the stage materials ordered. Also in June, the carpentry students built most of a 6m x 6m bakehouse so they can make their own bread and save a small fortune in gas bills using firewood (plenty on site and nearby) to boil the large amounts of taro and cassava consumed by 80 hard working youths.  And the welding students are well on the way to chopping the sand dredge into movable pieces when the tide is out.

The boat moving was a lot of fun.  30 students picked up the 550 kg lee hull, put it on their shoulders and carried it 50m to the assembly area,  tipped it on it’s side, put the masts in, pushed it upright and put the beams in place. Then 20 students carried the ww hull down and put the beams in place. Took an hour or so, including a fair bit of chat, congratulations, instructions and adjustments.
The following day they started to turn the 90m of dirt track into an access road. 40 cu m of concrete, hand mixed and wheel barrowed 50 in 4 days. If you want a job done quickly and well, give it to a Fijian!

The new beam ends are on so it is possible to easily remove/install them without taking the masts out.  I had some time waiting for epoxy to cure so experimented with another rudder system.  I’m nowhere near confident enough to grind off the original, but curiosity made it worth a look. Relies a lot on water forces to keep everything in place, so testing will be when it is in the water.

I am trying to make the boat look presentable from 20m as it will be anchored in the river and the party will be in the evening, under lights (edit: maybe not, meeting with the PM’s office today).  Also figuring out the launch process, which will be 80 students carrying it down the ramp.  The lee hull is joined, painted and the copper/epoxy applied, the toybox exterior and tender interior are painted and the president of the Fijian Artists Association visited to see the space available for decorating the hulls.  Interesting guy, has done some serious miles on traditional boats.   He did not seem too phased when I told him it was a certainty that bits of it would be ground off for changes and improvements.  He reckons the boat is the art, not the paint job.  Polite as well as interesting. 🙂

The rest of my time is spent in meetings.  Everyone wants a piece of the project.  I explain what it is all about and anyone who currently relies on shipping has 2 questions: “How much?”  and “When can we have one?”  Some very interesting possibilities, it is going to be a lot of fun if the boat works.

We are helping CATD set up a course for building cargo proas similar to the Marshalls project, but using recycled PET (soda bottles) foam instead of plywood.  The difference in attitudes towards plywood between people who live in warm wet countries and leave their boats on the beach and western ply boat owners is stark.  Recycling soda bottles also gets a big smile.    One of the things we are looking at getting is a shredder and plastic press to make the cargo boxes and deck slats for the mini cargo proa.  Had a meeting with the industrial scale plastic recyclers here who want to be involved and are looking at what is involved in PET foam.  $US3 per sq m for 6mm/quarter inch recycled PET foam is a high value add to recycled plastic.  We have also had some discussions with the Women in Fisheries Network Fiji.  The biggest problem women fishers face is no boats.  So we are setting up a course to train trainers to go to the villages and teach the women to build outrigger paddling canoes.  Once again from PET.  Along with this may be a microbank to lend money for the materials, which will be repaid from fish sales.  Looks like the single beam outrigger boats will weigh ~15 kgs, light enough to carry with a shoulder strap.  A big advantage over needing 3 friends to help drag a dugout down the beach. The prototype in the picture weighs a tad under 10 kgs. The outrigger will be longer, with a narrower hull.

CATD and the people here are delightful.  Anything I need, they arrange.  The food is great (huge servings, I skip lunch), the accommodation basic but far better than sleeping in a container which was one of the early proposals, the students are incredibly friendly, the location is sublime and the people who fish in the river paddle over for a chat and a check on progress.  I don’t close the door to my buree, office or work shed and nothing has gone walkabout.  Borrowed tools are returned and there is always someone handy when I want a lift or something held.  It rains a bit, but is warm enough for T shirt and shorts.  Only thing missing is a sandy beach, but the Bau River will come into it’s own when cyclone season starts.   If there is ‘nothing quite as enjoyable as messing around in boats’, there are not many places quite as pleasant to do it as CATD.