Kenya Coast Guard Service officials search for the bodies of six people who drowned after their boat capsized in Lake Victoria on October 9, 2020. [Ignatius Odanga, Standard]

The coxswain engages the gear sending the engine roaring furiously as it cruises past Sirigombe Island headed to Mageta Island.

I sit back to enjoy the lull of the vessel as it laps the vast freshwater of Lake Victoria, concentrating on happy thoughts that calm my phobia of the lake.

The big, beautiful and boundless lake looks harmless but occasionally turns into a monster.

Peter Odhiambo, 44, who survived a boat tragedy three years ago, recalls how what seemed to be a fruitful venture ended tragically after their boat capsized, killing three people.

“We had left for the lake at around 10am. Although there was a lot of wind, we went on,” he recalls.

In November last year, 10 travellers perished after their boat capsized near Honge beach in Bondo Sub-county. The boat was ferrying agricultural produce. Ten others survived. The November incident happened barely five months after 20 passengers were rescued when a water bus capsized near Usenge beach.

However, despite the risks involved, owners of lake vessels have ignored safety measures put in place by the government.

Investigations by Shipping and Logistics on the possible causes of lake accidents reveal that majority of coxswain have not been trained and neither do they have licences.

Owners of cargo and passenger boats have not been taking their vessels to Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) for inspection as required. They also do not have insurance cover.

Worse still, most of the vessels do not have lifesavers and life jackets, and some operators have been sailing at night without navigation lights.

A coxswain at Usenge beach said he has been operating without any formal skills and safety requirements for the last 10 years.

“I became a coxswain after learning from my colleagues who operated some boats,” he says.

According to maritime safety expert Nahum Okila, the frequent accidents can be attributed to lack of proper navigation aids on Lake Victoria.

He warned that existing navigational aids are in a state of disrepair and cannot effectively guide fishermen.

“Each vessel is licensed to operate at a limited capacity, but it has been discovered that most boat operators flagrantly ignore safety rules,” said Okila.

“On several occasions, cattle would be ferried from the mainland to the island and vice versa. Although it appears risky, these people are used to it.”

Boaz Omondi, a regular commuter, said: “Carrying a cow in a boat is just like carrying any other luggage. The only thing that is difficult is loading the cow onto the boat, but once it is inside, it will not even move,” he explains.

Michael Singh, a resident of Usenge town narrated how he boarded a boat that had three cows, 12 sacks of omena and about 10 passengers.

Irene Achieng, a resident of Mageta Island, uses the boat almost everyday. In most cases, she never puts on a life jacket.

“Even if the life jackets are provided, very few people put them on,” she said.

The Lake Victoria Transport Act 2007 aims at regulating and overseeing safety and security in the lake. It requires all fishermen to undergo formal training to attain licences and certificates. It insists on constant inspection of vessels and provides for standard boat construction formats to ensure all vessels are sea-worthy.

The Act also states that all boats must be fitted with navigation and communication equipment, fire extinguishers and other fire fighting safety installations and appliances.

“Stiff penalties, including revocation of licences for those overloading their vessels are prescribed in the Act, though we have no roadblocks or police on the lake to ensure that the rules are not flouted,” said Okila.

Even though KMA warned all lake operators that they should acquire life jackets and other safety gears, few have observed this directive.

The authority’s Vessels Inspector, Alexander Munga, said KMA has been arresting offenders, including those who operate water vessels without licences, lack life jackets and training, and those who are negligent or work while drunk.

According to Lake Victoria Basin Commission, 5,000 people die in drowning incidents on Lake Victoria every year due to overloading, unstable boats, poor seamanship, bad weather and lack of safety equipment.

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