As the Tongan royal commission yesterday resumed its inquiry into the sinking of the ferry Princess Ashika four months ago, locals were no closer to having a full replacement inter-island service.

The Princess Ashika sank while on a regular run between Nuku'alofa and the northern island of Ha'apai on August 5, with the loss of 74 lives.

The commission of inquiry has returned after a two-week break after hearing evidence from witnesses, many of them passengers, about the unsafe state of the vessel.

Some reported seeing water pouring on to the cargo deck through holes, and others told of a complete lack of safety or evacuation instructions.

The ferry's captain told the inquiry he was asleep for much of the sailing and was awoken only five minutes before the ferry overturned and sank.

John Jonesse, the New Zealander who was managing director of Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, bought the 37-year-old ferry on behalf of the Tongan Government, but said he never looked into the state of the vessel's hull.

The Princess Ashika was only ever intended to be a stop-gap measure while the Tongan Government waited for a new ferry to be built in Japan.

Local newspaper Matangi Tonga yesterday reported that the new ferry would not be ready for another year.

This leaves a limited inter-island service in the hands of private operator Uata Shipping.

The areas hardest hit are the remote Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu islands in the north of Tonga.

Niuatoputapu was still recovering from the devastating tsunami which hit the region at the end of September, claiming nine lives and destroying homes. Reconstruction had been made more difficult because there was no reliable ferry service, the newspaper said.

Tenders have been called internationally for a replacement service but the Nuku'alofa office of New Zealand aid agency NZAid said nothing had been confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia said an interim ferry service was needed for the northernmost islands as school holidays and Christmas approached.

"This is a busy time for travellers who may want to return home for Christmas or visit families, but we have no ferry," said acting chief executive Tali'ofa Kolopeaua.

In a letter to the editor, one reader said that in light of the Princess Ashika tragedy, the Government had issued such restrictive requirements for a replacement that it would be unappealing to those considering tendering for the service, particularly on a temporary basis.

- NZPA