General Manager, Sea Coach Company Limited, Bolaji Alaka, shares his boating experience with MOBOLA SADIQ. He spoke on the challenges and benefits of boating on Lagos water ways.
Are you a private or commercial boat owner?
I will say that I have had several unforgettable boating moments but I’ll mention one. Seven years ago, I travelled on a boat and it was one that I will describe as a good day when we set out.
But on our way back at night, the boat ran out of fuel in the middle of the sea. After several attempts to get the boat to start, we later discovered that it was fuel issues.
Thankfully, we called out for help and some people brought fuel for us in the middle of the sea. That saved the day, it was not a good experience for me but luckily the boat was a standard boat, so we were not scared. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful feeling to have something (a boat) that can move people around without the hassles of Lagos traffic, area boys, LASTMA, police etc.
What’s the longest boat trip that you have embarked on?
I have had several long trips within Nigeria. I have travelled from Ikorodu to Badagry on a boat. I have also gone on boating trips beyond Epe. I have also experienced boating in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It was a two-hour boat cruise with me and some friends.
It is worthy that what one will see on Lagos waters, can’t be found on the waters in Dubai. The waters in Dubai are clean, one can hardly find waste or dirt on the sea compared to Nigeria. Also, in Dubai, people use boats more for leisure and private use rather than for commercial transportation. I can tell you authoritatively that they take care of their waterways.
What are some of the challenges facing water transportation in Lagos?
We have serious challenges that pose a threat to the engine, the boat and the boat user. Having a boat on water is expensive compared to having a car on the road. It costs so much to maintain a boat on water, every little crack on a boat and its engine costs triple the maintenance of a car.
In fact, car spare parts are readily available but that’s not the same for boats and engines. I remember that when we started, we could hardly find spare parts in Lagos State unless we shipped them from Dubai, China or the United States of America. At some points, we even had to search on Google to look for companies that have branches in Nigeria and many told us they were not in Nigeria until recently that we got a supplier.
When a boat is on water, the engine is exposed to several threats. First, there are people that transport logs of wood from different parts of the country into Lagos, and they transport the wood by water because it is less expensive than by road. Many times, the woods fall into the waterways because of the quantity being transported. If the water is shallow, one can see the tip of the log of wood but if not, one can’t see the wood. Unfortunately, when a boat collides with woods, it automatically damages either the boat or its engine.
Also, whenever a boat engine comes in contact with waste or dirt in the waters, it blows an alarm; this is dangerous for the boat if not properly checked. Also if the dirt blocks the inlet or outlet of the engine, it will begin to work abnormally. A fisherman’s net left in the water is equally dangerous for the propeller of a boat. These are some of the many challenges we face on the waterways.
Is your firm also affected by government levies?
Yes, the levies affect all operators. For anyone to operate on Lagos water, they must be duly registered by both the Lagos State Waterways Authority and the National Inland Waterways Authority. They are the regulators for boat operators. However, one way the government can encourage and support us is to reduce the levies to what the operators can afford considering what is at stake in maintaining the boats on a daily basis.
What’s the highest amount you have spent repairing a boat?
Well, it depends on the extent of the impact of the damage on the boat. If a boat hits an object that creates a hole on the boat, the boat will sink and this is of course a major expense.
I would also like to state that the durability and standard of boats differ. Therefore, what can damage one boat may not damage another boat. One can spend about N11m, N12m or N20m to change a boat engine. When one wanted to buy a brand new engine, one must have at least N20m. Mind you, our boats are powered with two engines. We have a total of 15 boats.
Did you envisage a costly boating business when you started?
In life, there are ups and downs and at some point, some things will either encourage or discourage one. But all one needs to do is to keep forging ahead, in hope that the “lines will fall in pleasant places.” In this business, we have two types of clients; the daily clients and those who want it for charter. The latter pays a premium amount for our services. The daily clients are also valuable customers I must say.
What are the things that have helped you in the business?
Like I have mentioned earlier, boats serve different purposes. As a result, a boat operator must put different things into consideration for safety and security, availability of fuel so one does get stranded during a trip. One must have an engineer on board to quickly attend to any mechanical emergency.
Also, unlike vessels, boats are easier to manage during a trip. There are not many filling stations on the waterways. I think we have one by LASERA in Falomo area in Lagos State. Some boat trips may be to remote areas where one will get no fuel. The sea is not a place where one could easily get help when one is stranded because there are no bus stops or landmarks. Before a boat takes off, every safety measure must be considered. It is better if one does not take off than have problems halfway. As a matter of fact, rescue teams or helping hands may not come to one for hours or days.
Do you mean there are no rescue teams on the sea?
When there is a problem on water, a rescue team can get to one. However, night journey is discouraged especially for commercial boats. When it is daytime, one can make calls and find a way to direct the search and rescue teams. But when it is dark, the rescue team can hardly find the person. Boats are not built to have black box-like aeroplanes. Although, some modern boats have gadgets (compass, UPS, transponders etc.) to trace locations. But, night journeys are discouraged for safety reasons.
What were you doing before you ventured into the boating world?
I was involved in the logistics business for 21 years. I have also worked with LAG bus too.
Why did you choose the career path?
I got into the boating world through divine direction. I was never interested in boating but it’s the will of God that brought me into this career path. My educational background is in finance but all my life I have worked with a logistics company. I used to manage vessels on the water both locally and internationally too.
How can the boating or water transport sector be developed in Nigeria?
The water/boating sector can be developed if the government can encourage investors, subsidise boat fuel and parts. Boats consume a lot of fuel. One boat can use 150 to 200L of fuel. A large percentage of money realised by operators goes into fuelling boats.
How do you feel when you’re on a boat?
I feel relaxed especially since our boats are comfortable. Boating is good therapy for stress. It takes one’s mind off stress and worries. However, when I’m in a boat I don’t sleep. I watch everything and observe everyone around me. Also, I do my work on boats, especially when the water is troubled. Not to mention the joy of travelling without traffic stress. Boating helps me to meet appointments without fear of being stuck in Lagos traffic.