Patrol Boats across the Pacific converge to help Vanuatu

Published on CAPT Jesse Platz (author), CAPT Jesse Platz (photographer)

Lieutenant Commander Semisi Tapueluelu stands on the deck of the Tongan Patrol Boat Voea Neiafu in Mala Wharf, Port Vila, Vanuatu.   (photo: CAPT Jessie Platz)
Lieutenant Commander Semisi Tapueluelu stands on the deck of the Tongan Patrol Boat Voea Neiafu in Mala Wharf, Port Vila, Vanuatu.

The international response to the crisis in Vanuatu has been nothing short of exemplary, with immediate contributions from countries like Australia, New Zealand, France, USA, UAE and South Korea.  

But now even more support has arrived from smaller nations like Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tonga.

Fiji has embedded a 12-man medical team in Tanna Island and a 30-man engineer element in Efate Province, while the Solomon Islands and Tonga have each sent a Pacific Patrol Boat to provide a niche capability in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam. 

Commander of the Tongan Patrol Boat Voea Neiafu, Lieutenant Commander Semisi Tapueluelu said his 21-man team will deliver humanitarian aid to locals in hard to reach places.

“The main tasks we are looking at are transportation of humanitarian relief to the outlying islands, particularly the ones that don’t have an airstrip or a wharf,” he said.

“Pacific Patrol Boats are so effective in missions like this because we can get close to the islands, we have more space to move, and we have local knowledge of the waters.”

Under the Defence Cooperation Program, Australia provided 22 Pacific Patrol Boats to 12 Pacific Island countries in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The boats are now owned by the Pacific Island countries, but the Australian Department of Defence continues to provide ongoing maintenance and logistic support for the boats and training for crews in Australia and within the region. 

Lieutenant Commander Tapueluelu has experienced the full effect of the program; he joined the Tongan Navy in 1995 and completed several training courses at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania and is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College.  

“I am so proud to be here, it’s an opportunity to work with Australia again and of course New Zealand, the French, the Solomon Islands and the Fijians; it’s really good to get everyone to work together during an incident like this, we are very lucky to be invited,” Lieutenant Commander Tapueluelu said.  

“The more we work together, the more that we get to understand our friends and their roles, it will be easy to play our part and add to the overall effort.”

Solomon Islands Patrol Boat Auki is currently in the Shepherd Islands delivering crop seeds and planting material, as well as transferring women, children, the elderly and the disabled back to Port Vila until their homes have been reconstructed.  

The Tongan Voea Neiafu began tasking on 28 March.

“It will absolutely be a special moment for me and my team; we in the Pacific have experienced natural disasters for so many years now,” Lieutenant Commander Tapueluelu said.  

“Standing there with no one to turn to and then seeing all this help right in front of you, we are so proud of ourselves because saving one life is so important, and when they need it, we are there.”