TRAVEL: History of the MV Federal Palm and MV Federal Maple – By Roland Martins-Smith | Nautical Solutions 

Roland Martins-Smith | Nautical Solutions 

It is said that the British Colonial administration initiated an “Inter-Island Shipping Service” in the Eastern Caribbean with chartered coasters in 1947, of which little is known today.  Some 10 years later, when the West Indies Federation was being conceived, the importance of strengthening regional shipping appeared to be critical to the success of integration efforts, and so the Canadian government stepped in and offered to custom-build two cargo/passenger ships as gifts to the Federation. THESE TWO SHIPS WERE NAMED FEDERAL PALM AND FEDERAL MAPLE.    

Both ships were launched in 1961, the Federal Palm built by Port Weller Docks, and the Federal Maple by Vickers Engineering, Montreal.  With but minor variation, each ship was about 3,171 gross tons, 1930 summer deadweight, an LOA of 91 meters, and a speed of 14 knots.  The ship carried 50 cabin passengers, 200 deck passengers, and 1500 tons of breakbulk cargo, which was handled by 2×3 ton electric cranes, 2×5 ton derricks, and a heavy lift derrick of 20 tons.  They were smart ships in their day, very comfortable passenger accommodation, and functional gear given the state of our ports and the prevailing technology.  I had the personal pleasure of sailing on the Federal Palm in 1968 as a student, returning home to Grenada from Jamaica, briefly visiting several intermediate ports.

When the ships were handed over to the Federal authorities in 1961 Furness Withy & Co, Trinidad, were initially assigned to manage them.  Later that year the Federal Government passed the West Indies Shipping Corporation Act of 1961 establishing a statutory corporation to operate the donated ships.  It is my belief that when the Federation collapsed in 1962, the management passed to the Corporation, which continued operating under enabling legislation of member states, specifically that of Trinidad & Tobago, where the head office of the Corporation was located.

Despite the failure of the Federation, it is felt that the ships contributed handsomely to the development of regional trade, travel and functional integration during the sixties and early seventies.  Certainly, the perceived value of the service grew with the initiation of trade and economic integration discussions in 1965, leading to the formation of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) in 1968.

This Free Trade Association evolved into the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) with the Treaty of Chaguaramas of July 1973.  Under both CARIFTA and CARICOM, the West Indies Shipping Corporation (WISCO) was treated as a related regional institution, a vital part of the integration mechanism, which required policy direction and development.

Under the Community framework, the Board of Directors of WISCO reported to the Standing Committee of Ministers of Transport which met twice a year.  Those meetings were serviced and supported by the Secretariat of the Community.  WISCO lost money consistently, and was subsidized by member states, which were not happy about the annual subsidies.  In the early 70’s the Secretariat persuaded the Ministers to grant more discretion to the Board and management of WISCO to raise rates and charges, to pursue a development program and to raise capital for this purpose, all reflected in the successor Agreement Establishing a West Indies Shipping Corporation, ultimately adopted in 1975.

The Secretariat and the management of WISCO recommended that the combination of passenger and cargo operations in the same vessel was dysfunctional and expensive, that containerization appeared to be the way to lower freight costs, and THE FEDERAL SHIPS SHOULD BE REPLACED.  Air travel was also beginning to make inroads into the passenger business. 

The FEDERAL PALM was reported to have been sold to the government of Nauru in 1972, and renamed the Cenpac Rounder.  It was “wrecked” on March 28th 1979, and was found to be at the breakers in Pusan on June 6th of that year. 

The FEDERAL MAPLE was withdrawn from service and laid up at Chaguaramas from 1976 to 1980, during which time she was advertised for sale.  There was a contract of sale to a Taiwanese company executed in 1976 but the buyers never took delivery or consummated the sale because of a dispute over the absence of the International Passenger Certificate, and the seaworthiness of the ship.  It is believed that the ship never had an international passenger certificate, having been built for trading within the West Indies Federation, a coastal trade.

By late 1977 WISCO attempted to resolve the dispute by offering to discount the original sale price of $500,000 to $400,000, but the Taiwanese countered at $300,000 and claimed deductible expenses of $275,000, so WISCO referred the matter to arbitration in NY.  THE ARBITRATORS AWARDED THE BUYERS $100,000 WHILE CANCELING THE SALE.   The vessel remained at anchor in Chaguaramas until 1980 when it was sold “as is” for $50,000, having deteriorated with inactivity and minimal maintenance.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY OF THE FEDERAL MAPLE IS VAGUE.  It was reported that she was used, or buyers attempted to use her, in the Cuban Mariel boat lift of 1980, and that the ship was eventually lost on the coast of Nicaragua.  The Federal Maple was removed from the ships register in 1997, with the remark “continued existence in doubt”. 

With the retirement of the Federal ships, WISCO built, bought and chartered container ships for the regional service.  The Corporation continued to lose money, although there is evidence that the switch to container ships did help to reduce the losses in the years immediately after the withdrawal of the passenger ships.  WISCO ultimately succumbed to its accumulated debt and was closed by the Member States.   AN ERA IN CARIBBEAN SHIPPING CAME TO AN END IN 1992.

It is now clear to many of us in the industry that intra-regional shipping is difficult if not impossible to make commercially viable on its own without the support of extra-regional imports and exports.  It may be argued that the intra-regional business is a cross-trade, supported and made viable only with the distribution of larger volumes from foreign ports. SCALE IS CRITICAL TO PROFITABILITY IN SHIPPING.

The Federal ships were a beautiful boutique business which was expensive to preserve, but was probably worth preserving for its indirect social values, including training of officers and seamen, social integration of the islands, and farmers market distribution capacity.

I regret today that we did not find a way to afford to keep them going. They were indeed beautiful ships. 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/27/2021 at 11:10 am

    Brother Peter wrote:

    Thanks for posting: It is important that we tell the younger generation about the lasting friendship between Canada and the Caribbean.

    Canada, in its usual quiet manner, has always extended a helping hand to the Caribbean and it is up to us to “Big Up” them.

  • wally n  On 03/27/2021 at 12:48 pm

    My friend (sadly recently passed)was quite an expert in Shipping Industry, in his opinion it is the right way forward. Massive roadblocks(sorry) main one of course was docking, many of the islands buy American frozen produce from the US islands,which is of course very expensive. From a Guyanese point of view, if there was deep water and proper docking facilities, Guyana could easily supply all of the Caribbean with fresh fruit, clean water (from upper Essequibo), and vegetables.
    His opinion was on a larger scale, inter Caribbean Shipping can become profitable.

  • Ian Still  On 11/16/2021 at 4:00 am

    I travelled inter Island in early 1970’s and wondered whar had happened to them. Interesting article reminding me of the Old Days.
    If I remember correctly served Carib beer not Red Stripe on board ?!

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