SLIP AND SPLASH

Why vehicles plunge into the ocean at Likoni ferry

Embarking and disembarking from the ferry is a complex affair

In Summary

• Even experienced drivers are falling victim to vehicle plunges at the ferry, but KFS has not addressed the problem 

• Ramps are steep and get slippery in the rain and from silt, while impatient passengers obstruct vehicles

A truck plunged into the Indian Ocean on Wednesday morning.
A truck plunged into the Indian Ocean on Wednesday morning.
Image: JOHN CHESOLI

Vehicles and the Indian Ocean have made strange bedfellows the past few years. 

‘Bus plunges into Indian Ocean at Likoni ferry crossing in Mombasa.’

‘Lorry plunges into Indian Ocean at Likoni channel.’

‘Car overturns at Likoni channel hours after trailer plunged into ocean.’

‘Bodies of woman, daughter yet to be found after Likoni ferry tragedy.’

‘Canter plunges into Indian Ocean while disembarking.’

‘Kenyatta University bus almost plunges into the Indian Ocean.’

Despite journalists capturing photos and stories of mishaps at the Likoni Ferry crossing channel, little has been done to stop the tragedies from recurring.

The crossing is a must-use for anybody visiting the award-winning Diani beach by road, or for wildlife lovers going to watch the elephants of Shimba Hills and for those crossing to head over to the neighbouring Tanzania via the Lunga Lunga border.

The sight of a ferry cruising across the blue waters while carrying passengers and vehicles is fantastic, but the trouble lies in embarking and disembarking it, especially for motorists.

It is a puzzle drivers have to crack every day for a successful six-minute ride across the channel before attempting to get it right again while disembarking.

Buses, trucks and trailer drivers have few seconds to navigate the steep slope, uncontrolled pedestrian traffic and vehicle congestion to avoid a tragic end.

SLIPPERY SLOPE

Salim Omar, driver of the Pollmans Tour bus that plunged into the ocean at the mainland side on January 10, said he has used the channel for more than 11 years.

“I’m not a new driver. I have driven cars, buses and all kinds of vehicles across this channel and I'm not a learner at all,” Omar said in a phone interview with the Star.

After dropping tourists at a hotel in South Coast, Omar and his guide were returning to Mombasa island when the bus slid into the ocean as he attempted to board MV Safari at around 10am.

“I tried to apply breaks but it kept sliding into the ocean. The work of the Kenya Ferry Services officials should be to alert us which areas to avoid when getting into the bus,” he said.

Due to their experience with the ocean since childhood, both the driver and the guild managed to get to safety while their bus remained calmly floating in the morning high tide, like a water vessel.

Two days later, a semi-trailer carrying tiles from Tanzania plunged into the ocean at the same point, after hitting the ferry's prow and losing control, according to a KFS statement posted on its official social media sites.

After the two incidents, KFS put a notice on their Facebook page that read: “Safety tip: Avoid slippery surfaces.”

Another post told motorists: “Direct your vehicle to the ferry entrance points to avoid going off the ferry prows.”

Pollmans Tour Bus floats after it plunged into the Indian Ocean at the Likoni Ferry Crossing channel on January 10, 2021
Pollmans Tour Bus floats after it plunged into the Indian Ocean at the Likoni Ferry Crossing channel on January 10, 2021
Image: COURTESY

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

Drivers, however, say the warnings only sound good on social media as corresponding actions by officials on the ground are lacking.

While many say the ramps get slippery when it rains, even on a normal day, drivers say silt left by the tide in the ramp is more slippery to vehicle tires.

For longer vehicles like buses, trucks and trailers, drivers have to snake into the ferry so as not to have the rear of the vehicle stuck on the ramp.

If the driver avoids the snake movement and decides to board in a more direct manner, the front tires will be in the ferry and the rear tires on the ramp, making the wheels on the middle axle which drive the truck to hang.

To complicate matters, many trucks that use channels are heavily loaded, some bringing tonnes of goods from Tanzania and vice versa.

With increased loads, the risk of sliding into the waters during the rains is high.

While the passenger traffic is more controlled during the boarding, when the ferry crosses, passengers often rush to disembark with vehicles as security officers struggle to control them.

A driver of a loaded truck snaking its way out of the ferry has to be extra keen while climbing the steep slope, and even more keen not to injure impatient passengers.

“It’s difficult work. I’m used to crossing here but manoeuvring up this mountain is no easy task,” Bakari Charo, who regularly transports timber from Tanzania into the port city, said.

“We don’t why they put it this steep and our lorries are always loaded.”

Charo said a small miscalculation will get your lorry into the ocean.

“That kind of slope needs very experienced drivers, who know how to play with gears,” he said.

HISTORY OF ACCIDENTS

Despite the drivers’ concerns of a steep gradient at the ramps, said to be cause of accidents in the past, little has been done to redesign it to counter future incidents.

On November 2019, a Kenyatta University bus was filmed struggling to ascend seconds after disembarking from a ferry on the mainland side.

In a statement, KFS said “the driver of the bus failed to negotiate uphill momentum”.

While the KFS noted it was the fault of the driver, two months earlier, the management had failed to explain how a car slipped off ferry midway, plunging into the waters, tragically drowning a mother and her daughter.

The September incident, which saw agencies take a record 11 days to recover the bodies of Miriam Kighenda and her four-year-old daughter Amanda Mutheu, drew condemnation and uproar over safety of motorists in the channel.

When the wreckage of their Toyota ISIS car was retrieved, exclusive pictures by the Star showed the gear in park position, against earlier reports that put blame on the driver, saying she might have accidentally reversed the car into the ocean.

Many expected that the tragedy might have jotted the KFS into action on re-evaluating their risk analysis and mitigation strategies.

The only notable change was a change in security guard company at the channel.

But observers have in the past argued that owing to the incidents, security personnel, other than being muscular, need to have extra skills, like diving and responding to incidents at the channel.

More than 300,000 people and 6,000 vehicles cross the Likoni ferry channel every day.

Last week’s incidents showed the first responders were volunteer divers and passengers who were waiting to cross. They turned into rescuers before other agencies, including Kenya Navy and Kenya Coast Guard, who take pride specialising in water safety, arrived later.

While the tourist bus and the truck were retrieved, critics say such efforts to retrieve vehicles from the ocean should be redirected to preventing such incidents from occurring in the first place.

The Kenya Maritime Authority, Kenya Ferry Services, Kenya Navy, Kenya Ports Authority and Kenya Coast Guard Services all practise their craft in the ocean, but it remains to be seen how joint efforts can help stop the incidents at the ferry.

Recent incidents have left many speculating about other vehicles lying deep in the ocean, with others wondering just what it will take to warrant a tangible safety review in the channel.

Edited by T Jalio