The MV Victoria, which travels on Lake Victoria, has not undergone major maintenance for over two decades.
Mr Beatus Mghamba, the spokesman of Marine Services Company, which operates the ship, said the 52-year-old vessel was still in good shape and safe for ferrying passengers and cargo.
Mr Mghamba, who doubles as the ship’s captain and the acting manager of the firm’s Mwanza branch, said in an interview that the vessel last underwent major maintenance between 1990 and 1991.
He said this preceded similar work on the MV Mwongozo in Lake Nyasa and MV Liemba in Lake Tanganyika in 1992 and 1993, respectively.
The MV Bukoba was built in 1979, sinking some 30 nautical miles (56 kilometres) off Mwanza port. The vessel had capacity for 850 tonnes of cargo and 430 passengers, although during the accident it had more than the prescribed cargo and passengers.
Its manifest showed 443 passengers in her first and second class cabins, but the cheaper third class accommodation had no manifest.
One among notable figures who perished in the accident was Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who was then second in command of Al Qaeda.
According to investigations which followed, the disaster was made worse by a number of factors including lack of life jackets, life rings and life boats; lack of firefighting equipment, lack of distress signals and lack of periodical checks.
Mr Mghamba assured the Tanzania citizens that there was no reason to worry about passenger safety after the MV Victoria’s gearbox was repaired in 2007, adding that the vessel had a seaworthiness certificate, which confirms its compliance with marine safety regulations.
“The vessel has a seaworthiness certificate, which expires next January, and has thus been cleared to ply between the two destinations,” he said.
Mr Mghamba added that the MV Victoria, which is authorised to carry a maximum of 1,200 passengers and 200 tonnes cargo, was built in 1960 and has never been overloaded beyond its capacity in the recent past.
“Overloading the ship is out of the question. In any case, there aren’t enough passengers to fill the ship to capacity due to the stiff competition posed by road transport and other marine companies.”
Mr Mghamba said the ship had in recent years been carrying an average of 500 passengers and an unspecified amount of cargo, which were both well below the load limit, adding that the only time the number of passengers increased substantially was when students headed to and from school and during the holiday season.
He dismissed reports that the small number of people using the ageing vessel was occasioned by fears of a possible accident on the scale of the MV Bukoba disaster in which up to 1,000 people drowned when the poorly maintained and grossly overloaded vessel capsized as it was sailing to Mwanza from Bukoba on May 21, 1996.
“People are now spoilt for choice when it comes to means of transport between Mwanza and Bukoba. Many people now also travel by road and air, and this explains why the number of travellers using the MV Victoria has decreased sharply in recent years,” Mr Mghamba added.
In another development, the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority (Sumatra) official in charge of Kagera Region, Mr Japhet Loisimaye, said more needs to be done to improve response to marine disasters.
Mr Loisimaye said although there were enough human resources for search and rescue operations, the same could not be said of equipment needed for such undertakings.