Patterson Brothers Shipping is one of the oldest transportation companies in Fiji, founded by Levuka planter Reg Patterson and his brother just after World War I. Over the years, Patterson’s buses and ships have carried generations of travelers from Suva to Ovalau and Vanua Levu. The best known Patterson route is from Suva to Levuka via Natovi Landing on the east side of Viti Levu. This service currently operates five days a week, costing F$30 from Suva Bus Station to the Levuka waterfront. Compare that to F$88 one way to fly Pacific Sun with airport transfers not included. Patterson’s other longstanding route is from Suva to Labasa (Vanua Levu) via Natovi and Nabouwalu, also five times a week (five hours, F$55).
Since 2007 Patterson Brothers has been using the 385-passenger car ferry Spirit of Harmony on these routes. The ship leaves Buresala (Ovalau) in the early morning, calls at Natovi (Viti Levu) 45 minutes later to load/unload Suva passengers, then turns north to Nabouwalu (Vanua Levu) where it loads/unloads Labasa passengers. In the afternoon the ship retraces its route to Buresala, picking up a bus or two from Suva at Natovi.
The MV Spirit of Harmony is a fine ship, but two previous Japanese-built car ferries used by Patterson Brothers have sunk in recent years. In August 2003 the MV Ovalau sank off Nananu-i-Ra, Fiji, while carrying a full load of logging trucks from Nabouwalu to Ellington Wharf. Fortunately no lives were lost on the Ovalau but almost a hundred people went down with the MV Princess Ashika when it sank off Tonga on August 5, 2009.
A few months before the 2009 tragedy, Patterson Brothers had sold the Princess Ashika to the Shipping Corporation of Tonga, which failed to carry out proper safety checks on the vessel before putting it into service on the Nuku’alofa to Neiafu run. Many ships currently operating in Fiji and Tonga are well beyond their expiry dates but local governments have no choice but to allow them to continue sailing as funds are not available to buy newer ships. Most outer islanders cannot afford the cost of air travel.