Passengers aboard the MV Kanawan had a terrifying experience after the ferry ran aground on a sandbank in the Essequibo River at around 1.30 pm on Sunday.
Another vessel, the MV Malali which arrived at around 3 pm to assist the ferry also became stuck. It left more than an hour later without any passengers when the tide rose.
Passengers claimed that the captain was seen drinking but a release from the Transport & Harbour Department (T&HD) said according to investigations thus far, “There is no evidence that the captain was under the influence of alcohol as reported in some sections of the media.” Describing the incident as unfortunate, the agency said its officials worked relentlessly to ensure that the passengers were always safe.
According to the statement, the MV Kanawan departed the Supenaam Stelling for Parika at approximately midday on Sunday with 255 passengers and 42 vehicles on board, thus it was heavily laden.
“While underway, in the vicinity of the Chalmers Area and close to the time of low water, the overboard water suction through which water enters to cool the main engines became blocked with sediments; consequently, the engine began overheating then subsequently automatically shut-down,” the statement said.
“The ensuing efforts to clear the suction pipes and to restart the engines proved futile.
The Department’s personnel at the Parika Stelling were contacted shortly thereafter and they immediately chartered and dispatched six water taxis from Parika to transport the passengers on board to the Parika Stelling. The vessel with the vehicles on board was subsequently towed to Parika by a tug,” it added.
The regular boat schedule makes provision for two trips departing at 5 am and 4 pm but the midday trip was added because of additional traffic around this time.
Some passengers told Stabroek News that the ferry was about 15 minutes away from the Parika stelling when it started moving unusually slow before coming to an abrupt halt. A woman said what happened was not a “boat problem” but was a case of “clear cut negligence because the captain did not shut off the engine and it started to pitch up a lot of mud.”
The mud, she claimed, resulted in the engine being damaged.
She lamented that it was not unusual for the captain and workers to imbibe alcohol but if strict disciplinary action was taken it would not occur.
According to the woman, there was a “buoy in the water that clearly demarcated where the boat should travel. If they were paying attention the boat would not have run in the sandbank. They are endangering people’s lives.” She said they did not panic or become alarmed but felt that the boat would move when the tide rose.
Around 3 pm, the captain came down and informed them that the boat was stuck on the sandbank and asked them to wait for 45 minutes more. All this time, the boat kept drifting until it reached to the “back of Leguan.”
To their horror, they noticed the Malali pulling up to the boat and realized the situation was more serious. A passenger emphasized that instead of T&HD wasting time and money to send the Malali to “push the boat,” it could have taken the passengers to Parika instead.
She said the two ferries left the Supenaam and Parika stelling simultaneously and the other one, Sabanto passed them on the way, dropped off passengers and passed them again without any difficulty.
She recalled that previously when she had travelled on the boat and went up to meet the captain and he was “not dressed properly and was smelling of alcohol.”
Some passengers related their fright. “What was even more scary was when the Malali came and started hitting the boat and it was vibrating. We thought the vehicles would roll into the water,” one said. According to the woman, it seemed as though the workers did not know what they were doing and were operating on a “trial and error basis. How could they send the Malali, which has a ‘V’ bottom and used to get stuck so often on sandbanks in the past, to rescue that boat? We found it amusing!” she added.
The tug arrived after and towed the ferry to the Parika stelling at around 8 pm. After the Malali left, passengers started calling for speedboats to rescue them. Reports are that about eight 18-seater speedboats with sheds took passengers, including children and a two-month-old baby to the Parika stelling.
Some recalled they had to jump on the sheds of the speedboats to get in and the boats were swaying as they were doing so. Some said they were hurt in the process. Passengers who hired a speedboat from Supenaam were charged $1,000 each and reports are the T&HD paid for speedboats to transport more passengers.
One family said they boarded the speedboat at about 5.40 pm. Many other passengers wanted to leave the ferry as well but were not brave enough to jump on the sheds. Some persons at the stelling that Stabroek News spoke with said they believed that “the boat ground because of the extra load on it.” They also said that, “the boats were pressured to work more than they’re supposed to during the holiday season.”
This is not the first time that one of the two Chinese-built ferries has run aground. On November 17, 2014, the Sabanto was travelling from Parika to Supenaam when the captain lost control of the vessel, causing it to run aground at Wakenaam. He was later fired. The following month, the vessel ran aground for a second time, stranding passengers in the vicinity of Hog Island, Essequibo.