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Building Confidence in Self-sufficient and Sustainable Outer Island Futures

  • A community driven project, involving the Niua Islands communities

  • Promotes economic self-sufficiency and sustainability

  • Promotes environmental conservation

  • An innovative development prototype for other South Pacific island communities

In 2006, the National Committee for Political Reform held talanoa meetings in every village in Tonga. In outer islands consultations, it was found that the struggle for political reform was grounded in a major frustration with basic impediments to achieving a self-sustaining local economy. For the Niuatoputapu, Niuafoʻou and Tafahi peoples, the major issue was the lack of sea transport. “The government provides roads for the people of Nukuʻalofa. The sea is our free road. Why can’t they provide a boat?”

In the 1970s, the collapse of the copra industry caused drastic cutbacks in government subsidised inter-islands shipping services. Over time, these services have continued to deteriorate. Tonga, like many other Pacific island countries, has fallen into a vicious circle of lacking sustainable sea transport services, lacking sustainable development in outer island economies and lacking sustainable management of both its fragile marine and land ecosystems. Innovative thinking is needed to deal with this critical problem, which is undermining self–sufficient and sustainable living in outer island communities.

Project Vaka fanāua aims to address this area of development and conflict by building confidence in the sustainable future of small, marginalised outer island communities and their ecosystems. Literally meaning two-mast boat, Vaka fanāua references the sailing ships that operated in the mid-twentieth century, carrying copra and passengers between Tongatapu and the Niua islands group. To meet the outer islands’ economic needs today, Project Vaka fanāua aims to develop a prototype inter-islands cargo/passenger sailing trimaran that is flexible, affordable, safe and sustainable in all aspects of its operation and management.

Although envisaged as a regional project, the Vaka fanāua trimaran is specifically designed for the northern Tongan islands of Niuatoputapu, Niuafouou and Tafahi. These islands, 480km (300 miles) north of Tongatapu, closer to Samoa than to Nukuʻalofa, epitomise the extreme conditions of the South Pacific. They are small, far from their public service provider, isolated, marginalised and surrounded by deep, exposed waters. Other South Pacific island communities can easily modify the Vaka fanāua prototype by choosing another of the 30+ possible Pacific rigs.


“VAKA FANAUA (Two masted sailing vessel in the Tongan language) combines old Pacific island tradition with modern construction to safely and quickly carry almost three tons of people and/or cargo on deep sea voyages.

She can average about 10 knots in usual trade wind conditions. A small diesel engine will give an economical 6 to 8 knots in a calm and increase her manoeuvrability in small, shallow harbours closed to larger vessels. A 14 foot tender is carried to load and deliver people and goods to islands without a harbour.

Wood construction, sheathed with epoxy and fiberglass, gives a moderate first cost, and, equally important, low maintenance by islanders.

An experienced skipper, helped by an apprentice and the passengers, when needed, keeps manning requirements to a minimum.

The lug schooner rig was developed by English Channel smugglers a few hundred years ago when seaworthy speed was necessary. They were quite successful until  Revenue Services learned to copy their rigs.”

- Dick Newick

Dick Newick

Boat Designer

A pioneer in sailing multi-hulls, Newick’s inspiration is the Polynesian voyaging canoe. In 2008, he was inducted into the North American Boat Designers Hall of Fame. His “fast, safe, ocean proven multi-hulls can truly be said to have been ‘ahead of their time’”.


A competitive sailing passenger-cargo boat for outer island communities to run and maintain. Providing affordable, safe, flexible and regular service.

Pacific outer island communities need affordable, safe, economic, flexible and regular transport. Lack of sustainable sea transport has led to a lack of sustainable development and insufficient management of fragile marine and land ecosystems. This vicious cycle needs to stop.

Working with North American Boat Designers Hall of Fame Dick Newick, Vaka Fanāua is an innovative community driven project that promotes economic self-sufficiency, sustainability and environmental conservation. The project involves building and operating a prototype competitive cargo trimaran for the Niua islands communities of Tonga.


(Steering Committee)

Dr. Sitiveni Halapua

(Project Manager)

Max Purnell

(Build Manager)

Matthew Flynn

(Legal Advisor)

Steering committee members are donating their time, efforts and expertise.

Project Vaka Fanāua