Travelling from the Tongan capital Nukuʻalofa to Ha’afeva on 5 August 2009, the government-owned ferry Princess Ashika put out a distress call just before 2300 hours, followed by an EPIRB activation. The ship, which was known to be unseaworthy, sank in the night, with the loss of 74 lives.
The ship carried 32 crew and 96 passengers. Four of the crew died in the sinking, as did 70 of the passengers.
The Tongan Royal Commission of Inquiry noted that:
The MV Princess Ashika was unquestionably unseaworthy and in an appalling condition. It should never have been allowed to sail in Tonga under any conditions. Any suggestion to the contrary, including by Mr John Jonesse (the CEO of Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Limited until he was suspended by the Board of Shipping Corporation on 6th November 2009) and Mr Paul David Karalus (the former Minister for Transport), to the effect that the vessel was in good condition or well maintained is not only patently absurd, but dishonest. The evidence as to the unseaworthiness and appalling state of the vessel is overwhelming and compelling. Mr Sione Mafi Kavaliku, a Marine Officer in the employ of the Ministry of Transport, when asked by the Acting Director of Marine and Ports as to his opinion about the vessel aptly responded by advising that “any fool (could) tell how bad the ship was”.
Not only was Princess Ashika an exceptionally unseaworthy vessel, she was also overloaded by approximately 150 tons on her final voyage.
Length: 50.5m (165ft 8in)
Built: 1972, Japan as MV Olive Maru No. 1
A P-3 Orion plane from the Royal New Zealand Air Force located a trail of wreckage 86 kilometres northeast of Nuku’alofa. An ROV operated from HMNZS Manawanui returned photos of the wreck on 18 August 2009.