Conquering the Indian Ocean: The treacherous voyage that is a coast guard's job
When the Nation Mombasa team got an invite to accompany the Kenya Coast Guard Service (KCGS) on one of its patrols in the Indian Ocean last Tuesday, nothing had prepared us for the terrifying and harrowing experience.
“So, what is life here like in the ocean?” I asked. “Very warm. Carry light clothing,” our host informed me.
And so on Thursday at exactly 8.30pm, myself, NTV cameraman Peter Wainaina and Nation photographer Wachira Mwangi were driven to Mbaraki Wharf near where the Likoni ferries operate.
After an exchange of civilities, we were received into 54.7-metre long sea patrol vessel MV Doria which has a helicopter deck that can accommodate a five-tonne chopper.
MV Doria operates over a range of more than 1,500 nautical miles in the Indian Ocean off the East African coast in Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu and near the Tanzanian and Somalia borders.
At exactly 11pm, after a debriefing session, the ship grunted lazily to life through the Likoni channel onto Mama Ngina waterfront with its snout pointing to the sky heading into the dark waters of the Indian Ocean.
On board is a troop of coast guard officers and young Kenya Navy officers undergoing training under the command of Lieutenant Commanding Officer Joel Mochanga and coxswain warrant officer two Njeru.
If some journeys are audacious, the ocean patrols are a terrifying experience.
But for these officers, the hazardous and strenuous voyages must be made and not even the hopeless water terrain and the sheer distance stand in the way of their job.
KCGS is charged with maritime security and safety, fisheries protection, pollution control, dealing with narcotic drugs, illegal firearms and ammunition and protection of maritime resources.
The service comprises personnel from the police, army and intelligence services and civilian professionals seconded from the Public Service Commission.
It is also empowered to arrest and prosecute persons suspected of committing offences in Kenya’s territorial and inland waters and undertaking emergency response such as maritime search and rescue and response to marine spills.
The patrol would take us from Mombasa to Shimoni in Kwale and onwards to Ras Kamboni near the Kenya Somalia border in Lamu County and end at the Lapsset in four days.
In the Indian Ocean waters, explained Lt Mochanga, there is no limit to the things that could go wrong and time is, therefore, critical.
The journey was uneventful and we saw no sign of life for the first half hour into the journey except lights of three tall cargo ships awaiting clearance to get into Mombasa Port.
But once we were in the deep sea at around 2am, it was us against the water.
Here in case of an attack, there’s no escape.
This is perhaps the toughest hurdle in this audacious journey and for sea newbies like us, our guts literally churned.
In this frightfully isolated area, our bodies protested and we lost our sense of taste, developed mild headaches due to sea sickness, also called motion sickness, and even vomited.
At this juncture, the ocean had stripped us off any dignity we had left.
Clearly we were unprepared for how rocky the water was and as the ship rocked back and forth with each passing wave slapping the boat, we felt both exhilarated and dizzy.
And so we added to the count of navy newbies who spend time hurling their breakfast, lunch or dinner into the sea or buckets hooked on different corners of Doria.
“The condition causes cold sweats, nausea and vomiting. Sea sickness hits personnel as the sea becomes too rough,” Lt Col Mochanga, who surprisingly was not born anywhere near the ocean, explained.
Yet in different corners of the vessel where plastic buckets are placed to help those sea sick to relieve themselves were busy every now and then.
Deep in these unruffled waters where the coast guards operate, there is no sight of human activity.
Occasionally, only the swimming and playing dolphins with their long snouts showing and dipping play around as the ship moves fast.
“They love to follow boats and shops,” explains Lt Mochanga.
We arrived at Shimoni at 11am on Friday and once the ship’s engine was killed, we could see a rusting hulk of iron on its lower deck, an indication of how long this master of the waters has been in operation.
It is also equipped with a TV, music system, computers and numerous gears which help navigate in the lonely seas like global positioning systems (GPS) and auto pilot.
In addition, it has radio receivers and radar surveillance capabilities.
Meals, which include lots of oranges and drinking water, are also prepared on deck.
Such voyages, according to Lt Mochanga, come at a high cost.
“From diesel prices to feeding the staff on board is a huge cost for the taxpayer. That is why our operations and patrols are intelligence driven,” he explained.
Improved security on Kenya’s territorial waters mean there is more flourishing cruise ship tourism and better competitiveness for the Mombasa ports.
Kenya’s territorial waters covering 230,000 square kilometres and a distance of 200 nautical miles offshore, provides the local maritime sector with huge potential and therefore the need to protect it through the coast guard.
Also, the Indian Ocean provides major sea routes connecting the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia with Europe and the Americas.
The Coast Guard Act 2018 established the KCGS, which is responsible for maritime security and safety, pollution control and sanitation measures as well as prosecuting offenders.
It also has a strong presence at the Mombasa, Lamu and Kisumu ports.
So did we see the thrill of the voyage? Yes. Would we recommend it to others? Of course.