If it unclear whether he meant to embarrass the administration of Prime Minister Keith Rowley or to simply bring attention to the plight of people in Tobago but a council member from Tobago said he was so fed up with problems relating to the crucial ferry between Trinidad and Tobago that he decided this week to simply jump in the ocean and undertake a dangerous protest swim to Trinidad.
In doing so, Watson Duke not only accused authorities in the larger and more resource-rich Trinidad of neglecting tourist paradise Tobago, but of also fumbling the leasing of an inter-island ferry so badly that Tobagonians are suffering and enduring an unprecedented level of political indifference from Port of Spain, the country’s capital.
Duke made national headlines both and home and in the wider Caribbean this week when he and some supportive comrades jumped into the waters off Tobago on Monday and swam more than four hours to Trinidad’s northern coastline. Only one other local had done it before in the modern era though old records have shown that runway slaves made it to Trinidad back in those days.
He said he wanted all the world to know that the cabinet had royally screwed up a plan to lease a proper ferry to operate the three hour service between the two islands. The Ocean Flower 11, which government had leased from a Vancouver, Canada-based company was condemned by engineers as unseaworthy, triggering pile up of stranded passengers on both islands.
The ferry service is crucial to the economy of Tobago as some of the vessels which run the route are large enough to simultaneously carry hundreds of passengers and dozens of cars and trucks at any time.
But delays in getting one of the larger ones out of dry dock and the cancellation of a contract to lease Ocean Flower 11 have added to the woes of Tobagonians and a rise in political tensions between the sister islands.
“The sea was rough. I will not encourage persons to travel to Trinidad by that means but it was worth it because it is really the only alternative that the average Tobagonian has to get to Trinidad. This was symbolic for all of us,” said an exhausted Duke.
From this day forward, Tobago must decide, must be the final deciding voice on the ferry service and the air service.
In the latest quarrel and political flare up between the two islands, there was no talk this time of a unilateral declaration of independence from Trinidad, secession or demands for greater self governance but the feelings of neglect among Tobagonians persist.
“We were pushed and propelled by 125 years of suffering and being told by central government what type of vessel we should use, what type of plane we should ride on. From this day forward, Tobago must decide, must be the final deciding voice on the ferry service and the air service,” local media quoted Duke as saying.
Caribbean Airlines which operates a domestic service to Tobago, said this week it had doubled seating capacity on the 15-minute flights to the sister isle but many people prefer the ferry service as they could take cars, motorbikes and other forms of transportation with them either way.
The fiasco has made the Rowley administration look weak and sometimes incompetent but Works Minister Rohan Sinanan has vowed to “keep a very close eye” on a new procurement effort to lease another ferry.
Bids for the supply of a roll on, roll off fast ferry have already been published and close in the third week of September.
Tobago is a crucial constituency in general elections. It usually votes largely for Rowley’s PNM party so the rush is on to make amends to the island even as Duke and other step up the pressure.
“One does not have to swim across the channel for that,” Rowley told reporters. “As prime minister, I offered to Tobago that when the next go around, which is happening now, of evaluating a vessel for Tobago that the government would put an evaluation team in place to support the port authority and that evaluation team would have a large Tobago input,” Rowley said.
For his part and for Tobago, Duke appears to be intent on capitalizing on the fiasco to both push his agenda and to gain the attention of decision makers in Port of Spain.
“We have been talking for eight months. We have been keeping spot meetings, we have been doing all sorts of stuff, protesting. I am saying we are going to begin a new conversation, a conversation that says Tobago must decide and we intend to deliver a letter to the president, asking for a meeting to discuss the air and sea bridge, one to Caribbean Airlines, asking for a meeting on the air bridge and also the port authority of Trinidad and Tobago, asking for a meeting on the sea bridge.”