Working on board foreign vessels is both adventurous and rewarding, hence one of the most sought after occupations in the country.
Until the 1980s, seafaring, or simply sailing, employed an estimated 10,000 seafarers before taking a nose-dive.
Experienced seamen have fond memories of traversing the oceans and raking in the dollars while mourning the collapse of the once vibrant sector.
Some veterans also have fresh memories of how they survived accidents by a whisker as they worked onboard merchant ships miles away from home.
Abdalla Mwaruwa started off as a seafarer when he was employed onboard the MV Bamburi in 1974, after dropping out of school in Form Two. He rose through the ranks from a cleaner in the engine room to an assistant engineer.
The ship ferried cement from the English Point terminal in Mombasa to Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Dubai and other countries.
“Although the pay was low, we enjoyed travelling on board ships. We enjoyed duty-free alcohol. The bar in the ship was opened twice a week and we could celebrate,” he said.
Mwaruwa, whose uncle Salim Abdalla Mwaruwa served as general secretary of the Seafarers Union of Kenya (SUK), escaped death narrowly in Mauritius when a coxswain sailed off as Mwaruwa tried to board the ship after an evening drinking.
He fell into the sea after missing the steps on the plank.
“I had quarrelled with the captain of the boat on our way back because he had asked us to pay fare for the trip while the boat had been hired by our ship master,” Mwaruwa recalled.
“I refused and forced him to take us back to our ship at the anchorage. On arrival, I asked the crew members to board the ship first. When I put one leg onto the ship, he sailed off; I fell into the ocean.”
He further narrated that the ship captain heard noise and checked only to find him on the verge of drowning.
“The captain dropped a ladder that I clung to and I was pulled to safety. It was 3 am,” he said.
On another trip, Mwaruwa witnessed the ship’s chief cook commit suicide after jumping from the ship while anchored at the Diego Garcia island off the coast of Mauritius.
“The cook used to drink too much. One day, he told us he would not return to Mombasa alive and asked us to share the eggs in the food store. He jumped into the rough waters through the window and drowned,” Mwaruwa said.
“The body emerged after three days of search and was laid outside the crew members’ rooms because the cold storage room was filled with perishable foodstuffs.”
“We couldn’t sail with the body to Mombasa since it was decomposing fast. We decided to pray for his soul and dropped the body into the sea. The captain took the pastor’s role.”
Mwaruwa blames the lack of seafarer jobs on the failure by the government and unions to negotiate proper contracts with ship owners.
He said he boarded his last ship, MV Invictor, in 1989 and came back in 1990 after nine months and never got another opportunity. He then quit seafaring. Josphat ‘Yusuf’ Biachu also started off as a cleaner on MV Bamburi in 1971 and served for 40 years, rising to the rank of chief engineer on board several foreign vessels
In his last 24 years, Biachu, 70, worked with Inter Marine Dubai company on permanent and pensionable terms before retiring in 2011.
From a monthly salary of Sh290 while working on MV Bamburi to $3,700 (Sh433,011) when he retired, Biachu considers himself one of the few lucky local seafarers.
Seafarers of the 1970s and 1980s only required to understand the seafarers’ book to get jobs. Most of their contracts were negotiated by union leader and one-time Kisauni MP, the late Ibrahim Salim Mwaruwa.
When they came home loaded with dollars, seafarers would patronise high-end night clubs in Mombasa. Some would use expensive items like watches as collateral for expensive alcohol.
Biachu has seen it all when it comes to seafaring.
He talks of many thrilling voyages to Mauritius, the Seychelles, Middle East, China, Europe and United States, among other places.
The man who spent most of his time working in the engine room fought fires more than 20 times on ships. At one time, a ship lost a propeller off the coast in the Middle East and began taking sea water; all sailors on board thought they would drown.
“I was busy in my office within the engine room when the captain, one Ian John, came shouting that the ship was sinking. When I rushed to check, I found that a propeller had come off and the ship was taking in water,” Biachu narrated.
“I decided to pump out the water to save the generators. The propeller had not been well welded into place during repair. If water could have reached the generators, the engine would have switched off and the ship would have sunk.”
Biachu and his fellow seafarer Juma Idho said they were helped to join the foreign vessels by the union.
“There was a major decline in seafaring jobs which forced me to venture into tours by taking tourists out to sea on glass boats from Nyali and Bamburi beaches,” Idho said.
Head of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Programme Andrew Mwangura said veteran seafarers should now be engaged as instructors in schools.