The Good and the Bad of Getting our Goods
Two pallets and a literal boatload of goods shipped from New Zealand 28 days ago have finally made it onboard Infinity. As we unloaded the final box from our dinghy and piled it onto the stacks of packaged medical supplies, safety gear, and other miscellaneous equipment, a collective sigh of relief fell over the saloon. Getting the goods necessary to carry out our 2017 initiative was a practice in patience and persistence that would leave almost anyone in tears.
It cost our charitable organization $5,651 pa’anga (3717.86 NZD) and a full week of vital medical training.
It also left us with an unbelievable network of Tongan friends, a priceless strength in resilience and an incredibly positive outlook for the remainder of our voyage.
But getting there was not easy. Here’s the full story:
When his yacht’s inboard engine failed in 2014, Craig shipped a replacement from New Zealand to his boat, which has a tax status of “Yacht in Transit.” Since his boat wouldn’t be staying in Tonga for long, he wasn’t charged import tax.
Since Infinity (and the goods) are leaving Tonga upon completion of our project, our goods were once again labelled Yacht in Transit. The containers arrived shortly after we landed in Vava’u on June 14th, we paid the $250 pa’anga release fee and the $100 pa’anga broker fee and awaited the release of our much-needed gear.
But that wasn’t enough. The customs agents insisted we pay tax on everything other than our medical supplies, and so, over the course of the next two days, we p
rovided an honest and thorough inventory of the contents of our packages and their costs. Our jaws dropped when presented with a bill in the amount of $5,651 pa’anga ($3717.8 NZD).
We’d have huge cash flow issues! These goods are all for a charitable cause! We have demonstrated support from the Minister of Health! We must figure out a way around this huge, unexpected cost!
And then, another wrench was thrown into the plan: Infinity had been re-designated as a ship that conducts charter operations (inviting paying guests for recreational purposes). The ship’s website does, in fact, offer such things at certain times – but not with us in Tonga. Whilst in Tonga, the Floating Foundation is the only operation onboard Infinity and does not conduct charter operations. Saying so wasn’t enough – even if we did have the means to pay the bill, our goods had been frozen.
Craig began calling on the assistance of every friend he had. Our Tongan friend in New Zealand, Lupe, started calling friends and ministers, government officials, and local businesspeople – everyone who knows anyone! Her friend spent two days driving Craig throughout the city of Neiafu to the houses of those in power, their families’ houses, their offices. The Minister of Health answered Craig’s phone calls during meetings with royalty. Our friend Dr. Tom Mulholland connected us with the Prime Minister. Soon, we couldn’t wander a block without complete strangers asking how it was all going and whether they could help.
As (bad) luck has it, July 4th is the King’s birthday – a National Holiday with a week full of parades, feasts, and festivals. Any government contact who may have helped us was busy celebrating in Neiafu, Vava’u with the King – the ver
y city outside of which we were anchored, just in sight of the warehouse that housed our precious goods.
More than a full week had passed. Our first volunteer had arrived. Our next three were due to arrive on Saturday, July 8th. Friday would be Craig’s sixth full business day spent at the office of customs with little hope for the release of our goods.
As the work week came to a close, Vehitau, the
head of Vava’u customs with whom Craig had been pleading with for days, began a tireless lecture: Why had we combined non-medical with medical supplies? Why hadn’t we anticipated X and Y and Z? Why hadn’t we known not to ship to Infinity?
And with that, a lightbulb lit up: We hadn’t shipped our goods to Infinity. We shipped our goods to the Floating Foundation, care of Infinity! Call the King! Call the Ministers! Tell them we’ll pay your fees! We just need the medical supplies!
Vehitau called his boss, who spoke to Craig and then again to Vehitau and agreed that if we paid at that very moment, we could take our shipments. We’re not sure whether it was that bit of information, the desperation in Craig’s voice and the puddles forming around his eyes, or that they were just sick of our tireless efforts to get our supplies released, but we’d soon have our goods - albeit at a huge cost.
Vehitau handed a bill to Craig for around $2,000 pa’anga. This amount seemed a bit off, Craig thought, so he handed it back for a double-check. “You’re right,” the agent replied, handing him the corrected bills:
One for $1,274 pa’anga.
Another for $4,377 pa’anga.
We’d now have to pay over $5,500 pa’anga.
We darted from one ATM to the next to withdraw the extra cash. Craig counted out $5,651 pa’anga in mostly $50 installments ($3,717.76 NZD). And with that, in the final moments of the business week (on the day before our next group of volunteers would land), we were free to remove our pallets of supplies.
Over dinner that night, we quietly reflected. We had our supplies. We’re behind schedule, but can still catch up. We made new friends and connections. We maintained the respect of our contacts and the support of the Tongan government. We aligned with many new Tongan citizens who will help us execute various project initiatives on islands we’re not yet familiar with.
We’ve proven the strength of our own core crew.
We’re ready to go.