Welcome to Sail Freighter Fridays! This article is part of a series linked to our new exhibit: "A New Age Of Sail: The History And Future Of Sail Freight In The Hudson Valley," and tells the stories of sailing cargo ships both modern and historical, on the Hudson River and around the world. Anyone interested in how to support Sail Freight should also check out the Conference in November, and the International Windship Association's Decade of Wind Propulsion.
The Na Mata-I-Sau isn't strictly speaking a sail freighter, but she is important to the story of sail freight's revival in the Pacific during the 1970s Oil Crisis, as well as to some modern efforts such as the SV Kwai, so we're giving her the time she deserves in this blog. She was originally a motor vessel belonging to the Government of Fiji, but six years after her launch she was selected for an experiment in sail assist propulsion due to the extraordinary rise in oil prices which had crushed the economy of many Small Island States in the Pacific.
As a result, she was equipped with a Fore-&-Aft sailing rig to reduce the amount of fuel she burned on a government-subsidized packet route to many remote islands. Displacing only 274 tons and carrying as many as 60 passengers, she was involved in a mixed trade involving mostly undeveloped ports, and had a large crew of about 18, to assist with loading and unloading cargo using ship's gear. She saved on average about 30% on fuel when using the rig as intended for assistance to the engine, and she saved up to 60% of fuel when she sailed by wind power alone even just 10% of the time.
She became popular with passengers because the sails reduced rolling and other movement when underway. She was very popular, except for one bad review from a passenger on a voyage back to Fiji from Rotunga, which had a cargo of vegetables, fruit, copra (coconut husks), and one pig: As one of the best short academic footnotes ever written states, "The pig was very seasick."
Na Mata-I-Sau served for about a year until she foundered in the height of Tropical Cyclone Eric. This resulted in the loss of two crew members. Remarkably, her engine had failed on the way to her destination in the face of the storm with the Prime Minister of Fiji, a full complement of nearly 60 passengers, and her full crew on board. She sailed under wind power alone to the island of Moala, which was a significant distance to windward. The crew was able to bring all passengers and the majority of the crew to shore before the storm struck, saving the lives of all the passengers involved. Without the sail power which had been only recently added, it is likely all hands would have been lost at sea.
After the wreck, the rig was salvaged and placed on the Cagidonu for further experimentation, but that is a story for another blog post. The rig and the adaptation of a motor vessel to sail with dramatic gains in efficiency not only saved a number of lives, but provided the evidence and model for other ships such as the SV Kwai which is still operating today in the Marshall Islands.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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