A new wreck is being prepared to join many others at the world's greatest shipwreck haven of Truk Lagoon. This is a tale of a tough little ship, one of seven identical sister vessels built during the late 1970s for the U.S.-managed Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands lying within Micronesia. Constructed in Japan to U.S. designs, they possessed numerous modern, quality components from both the United States and Japan. Their construction met or exceeded the highest codes to reliably serve the needs of tiny populations at hundreds of far-flung, remote islands lying within equatorial archipelagoes.
Rugged, well-designed, of nearly 200 feet in length and just 8 feet of draft, these twin screw ships served full-ranging tasks of supply, transport, mail, banking and nearly every other task of moving people and their needs between outer remote locations and capital bases. Brimming with schoolchildren at break times or bringing many others together for church and civil functions, they successfully met most needs efficiently and practically.
Luxury air-conditioned suites served the VIP sector, while large covered deck areas provided space for hundreds of bedrolls in tight proximity to each other. Romance often commenced aboard these ships, and many newborn Micronesians carry names of the ship where it all began. Happy times were aboard fine ships, with great memories!
By 1984 several island groups formed semiautonomous young nations with Compacts of Free Association to the United States, still relying mainly on large per-capita grants of U.S. aid intended for fragile infrastructures to attract and build successful private enterprise economies. This dream did not always succeed, especially at some larger states such as Truk (Chuuk), where integrities of some leaders are now under tight question.
Each island state assumed management of its designated "field-trip ships," as the Micro Trader class was dubbed, under state-run Marine Transportation Divisions. At first, these ships continued performing well and were regularly inspected and maintained to the American Bureau of Shipping standards for the next 10-12 years. They supported a trade of local seafarers trained in local maritime colleges to international standards, becoming professionally capable of managing their ships.
As direct U.S. aid diminished under Compact agreements, some states began experiencing fiscal shortcomings from previous excesses and poor management. By later stages of 15-year Compacts, these shortages were near fatal at Chuuk with politicians clambering to cover salaries of bloated bureaucracies, while still supporting pork-barrel handouts.
Early government squeezes began where they were the least visible to on-street viewers, and marine maintenance budgets were the first to feel it. By the late 1990s this tightening was apparent with Chuuk's two ships slipping steadily down a course of disrepair. Extended periods among shipyard visits, curtailment of insurance policies, and outward views of previously well-painted hulls changing steadily to rust-streaked red marked this fall from grace. Even the best machinery fails with neglect, and many on-board functions were going down. Competent managers departed to greener fields, unable to bear the decline of their charges.
When the stronger of the two vessels, Micro Trader, tangled with a submerged reef while approaching its moorings, this vessel with a badly twisted propeller and shaft was without hope of repair from a near-bankrupt administration. Languishing at pier side for nearly two years, it served as a parts supply to keep a fading sister operating.
During July 2002, severe typhoon Chataan brushed Chuuk with devastating results from record rainfalls and high winds. More than 50 lives were lost as steep hillsides tumbled down on island villages lying closely adjacent. At its peak with high southwest gusts streaking across the lagoon, the laid-up Trader's moorings ripped away, and it was flung hard onto a nearby rocky shore, towering over Chuuk's main marketplace, a huge symbol of governmental distress. For 1½ years it lay heavily stranded and battered by a series of southwestern storms inflicting further damage and flooding all interiors.
A removal contract funded by the U.S. FEMA organization was later awarded to our powerful local dive ship, the SS Thorfinn, a steam-powered vessel operated by this former towage and salvage master. An extremely hard-working salvage crew tackled the mission and within one month had patched, pumped and pulled the wreck from its perch, still leaking and awaiting its next dispatch.
Government leaders decided to create another wreck-diving site among numerous ex-Japanese vessels of a former war, and remaining materials still aboard the Trader were stripped out by Thorfinn's crew in preparation for its final downward voyage. It was a disheartening exrcise to see this quality vessel, which served islanders so well, come to an early end due to fiscal shortcomings.
Interestingly, big Enrico "Remo" Lokopwe, an assistant engineer aboard Thorfinn, and one of our longest term crewmembers, had apprenticed aboard Trader as an oiler back in the early '80s and was of great assistance with his knowledge of the wreck. Remo's home island, at Pulap Atoll in Truk's Western Islands, is the origin of many mariners and traditional navigators of this region, and many of his family served aboard Trader from captains to engineers. A final position was chosen adjacent to Truk's very popular Fujikawa Maru, with a sand bottom at 120 feet where great corals and other sessile growth should soon adorn its sides. Thorfinn will tow it to this site on Tuesday, Feb.17, 2004, exactly 60 years after the United States' first major attack, code-named Operation Hailstone.
This event will be honored by presence of the chief of military operations from Guam, the United States and his entourage, along with local officials including Chuuk's Hon. Gov., Ansito Walter. After dedication ceremonies at Blue Lagoon Resort, the site of Japan's earlier South Field seaplane base, the process of sinking the Trader will commence, and Truk Lagoon will have a fresh new wreck for divers to explore and photograph.
Early Tuesday, Feb. 17, final preparations for submergence were under way, with previously cut seawater access holes readied just above the waterline into each major section of the ship. On-board pumps began filling forward sections and double bottoms to offset heavier aft section with house and engines. By midafternoon the holes were passing water into holds and the forepeak, and the final voyage was drawing near. For a time the ship listed hard to port from free surface effect within, but straightened in its final plunge, landing perfectly upright with upper masts reaching to within 50 feet of surface. This was a happy final landing for a once proud vessel. It should serve for many more years as a top dive attraction at famous Truk Lagoon.
We, aboard the SS Thorfinn join with Chuuk State government in welcoming future visitors to dive this fine and intriguing vessel from any of Chuuk's fine diving facilities.
SS THORFINN Seaward Holidays Micronesia Inc. PO Box 1086, Weno Chuuk, FM 96942 Web site: www.thorfinn.net