Chapter 23. On the River Hooghly

One day, in the last week of November 1945, I received a letter from a friend, Kabir Ahmed (Dufferin 1941-43) who had joined the Bengal Pilot Service. He was, at that time, aboard a pilot vessel at Sandheads in the Bay of Bengal.

He advised me that the Public Service Commission was to meet on November 30 to interview candidates for appointment as Leadsman Apprentices in the Bengal Pilot Service. The minimum qualification required was a second mate’s certificate. This had been relaxed during the war and cadets passing out from the Dufferin were considered qualified. The age limit was 23 years.

I had received the Dufferin Final Passing Out Certificate and I knew this would be the last opportunity for me to join this prestigious service (like the Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.) and the Indian Police Service (I.P.S.) as I was 22 years old. With my father’s support, I applied for the job.

I met P.Ridley, the Port Officer (Pilotage) and had a detailed interview with him. He informed me that although the last date for receiving applications was over, in view of the fact that I had been in Japanese captivity and had returned home on November 13, he accepted my application. I was to appear before the Public Service Commission meeting to be held aboard the Dufferin in Bombay on November 30. I left for Bombay immediately and had the usual interview with the Public Service commission.

This meeting was held aboard the Dufferin to make it convenient for the applicants, all of whom were Dufferin cadets. It gave me the opportunity to meet a large number of cadets who were under training at the time, as well as officers and members of the staff.

I spent a week in Bombay, spending much of my time with my good friend and shipmate C.G.K. Reddy. He also introduced me, among others, to K. R. S. Captain, Master Mariner, who was then serving as a pilot in Bombay. He was one of the first thirty cadets who joined the Duferin in November 1927. We went over to his apartment where I met his wife Frainy, who now lives in Karachi with her daughter Spentha and son Furrokh. Kaiky, as Captain was known, had become a ship owner and a well known industrialist in Karachi. He was well known for his charitable work. He passed away a few years ago. May his soul rest in peace.

I joined the Bengal Pilot Service as a Leadsmen Apprentice in March, 1946. A room was allotted to me in the Bengal Pilot Sercive Chummery which was situated next to the prestigious Calcutta Club on main Chowringee Road.

I settled down to work quite nicely, getting to know every bend in the river Hooghly, the various channels, buoys, green, red and amber lights flashing at different intervals, each telling its own story of its position, depth of water and so on. Once the pilot, (whom a leadsman apprentice accompanies), feels confident of his capability, he sits back on a high-chair and lets the apprentice do the piloting, taking over when approaching difficult turns and bends. In my own case, within two months of my joining the service, every pilot that I had accompanied gave me ample opportunity to handle the ship.

I cannot explain how and why, the other day, my memory travelled back to the time, more than sixty years ago, when I was a Leadsman Apprentice in the Bengal Pilot Service, and went up and down, between Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal, on the River Hooghly, for one whole year.

Calcutta (presently known as Kolkata), is an inland port which is approached from the Bay of Bengal by the River Hooghly, and vessels bound for Calcutta are piloted in and out by Pilots belonging to the Bengal Pilot Service. I do not know when this service was first established, but I have information that in the year 1969 the 300th anniversary of the Pilot Service was celebrated in Kolkata.

Knowing the river as I did, I admire and wonder how the skipper of the first British ship navigated his ship up the river without having any prior knowledge of the many bends and curves and the strong current that makes it difficult to manouvre a ship round various bends.

For reasons unknown, the British Government made the Bengal Pilot Service prestigious by making it a Government of India Class 1A service, like the Indian Civil Service (I. C. S.) and the I. P.  (Indian Police). After selection  by the Public Service Commission the person is appointed to spend five years as Leadsman Apprentice, before qualifying to become a Mate Pilot. After ten years he becomes a Master Pilot after passing an oral examination, and another five years before becoming a Branch Pilot. The size and tonnage of ships that a pilot was allowed to pilot depended on his status as mentioned above.

At the time that I am writing about (1946 – 47), there were two steam Pilot vessels – “Lady Frazer” and “Andrew” – one of which remained berthed in Calcutta and the other kept station at sea, in the Bay of Bengal, about 150 miles from Calcutta. They changed positions once a month. This part of the Bay of Bengal was known as SANDHEADS, and the pilot vessel kept cruising within a radius of so many miles with a number of pilots and leadsmen on board. They had cabins for the pilots while the leadsmen had dormitory like accommodation.

All meals were served in the dining room, and those on board spent time reading, playing cards etc., and played games of cricket on the deck. While cruising nets were also put down for catching fish. The pilot vessels were commanded by senior pilots, with one of the senior leadsmen as the Chief Officer, Second Officer and Third Officer who kept watch on the bridge in the same manner as is done aboard Merchant vessels.

On receipt of a signal from a vessel proceeding to Calcutta – a merchant ship or even a warship – giving estimated time of arrival (E.T.A.), tonnage and draft, depending upon the tonnage and draft of the approaching vessel, the pilot on top of the roster of that group, is kept ready, and as soon as the ship arrives, a boat, rowed by some members of the crew, takes him to board the ship. If there is a leadsman on board – they also have a roster – he accompanies the pilot.

As the pilot and the leadsman climb up the Jacob’s ladder they are received by the officer on watch and lead up to the bridge where the Master of the ship receives them. While the pilot takes over the ship and sets course for the first of the three Lightships, the leadsman proceeds to the “chains”, a small platform below the bridge, protruding from the ship’s side, for taking soundings (measuring the depth of water at any given spot) when required by the pilot.

To do this the leadsman swings a led (forget the weight) at the end of a long line, throwing ahead of the ship’s path, and as the line straightens perpendicularly, the leadsman feels the bottom of the river, and according to the markings on the line, shouts out aloud, for the pilot to hear, the depth of the water under the keel of the ship. All this is done in split seconds as the ship travels at some speed.

The bottom of the lead has a hollow which picks up matter which shows the kind of soil underneath. This exercise is carried out when negotiating river bends as it is important for the pilot to know how much water there is below the keel of the ship.

The led and the long line – with markings of different depths which the leadsman determines by feeling by hand – is a part of the leadsman’s equipment which he spreads out, ready for use, soon after boarding the ship. Having done this he joins the pilot on the bridge. Piloting for the first fifty miles or so, from Sandheads to the mouth of the river Hooghly, is quite easy and straight forward due to the open sea guided by three Lightships.

Therefore, after setting course for the first Lightship the pilot hands the ship over to the leadsman and goes below, specially if it is late in the night, to have some sleep. On an average, it takes about four hours to cover the distance from Sandheads to Sagar Islands, at the mouth of the river.

The process is reversed when a ship leaves Calcutta, which is invariably at night, more often in the very early hours of the morning. Since pilots and leadsman apprentices have to stay aboard the Pilot Vessel at Sandheads, for a few days, waiting for their turn to return, they carry some clothes and other items of necessity in a small suitcase made of cane and covered by canvas.

Their equipment also includes a Camp Bed as, sometimes it becomes necessary to anchor over night waiting for the tide to turn, and that particular ship might not have a spare cabin. Thus, they have the luxury to take a bearer with them who looks after them on the Pilot vessel. They also help the leadsman with his luggage etc.

If my memory serves me correctly, there were twenty four pilots; twelve British and twelve Indians, among whom there were some Master Pilots. Except for three, all other Indian pilots and leadsman apprentices – about eleven – were Ex-Cadets of the Training Ship “Dufferin”.

In the year 1946-47, as my friend and former colleague has reminded me, the twelve British pilots were: Messrs Headly, Mclean, R. Davis, C. Davis, Knowles, Proser, Farquiharson, Sidebottom, McFarlane, Rosseto, Brice and Collinson. The Indian pilots were: Messrs Daniels, Pavri, R. Dotiwala, Vasdev, U. S. Rao, B. K. Sahgal, P.N. Kohli, A.T.S. Muhsin,  P. Mohindar, T. S. Mohan, K Rozdon. Ivan M. Khan, K.K. Verma, P. K. Deshmuk and Q. M. Shahiduzzaman.

The Leadsman Apprentices were: Rusy Mistry, Kabir Ahmed, D.K.Dutta, S.K.Gupta, R.S.Pathania, A.L.Soares, K.M. Hussain (later retired as Commodore, Pakistan Navy), B.N. Bhargava, Madhok, R.S. Yajnik and myself.

All the pilots lived in rented houses, or Clubs. I do not know if they received house rents. However, for Leadsman Apprentices there was a Chummery next to the Calcutta Club on the well known Chowringhee Road. It was a three-storied building with rooms on the first and second floors, while, the dining room, lounge and a Billard room were on the ground floor. There was also a tennis court.

Leadsmen were not charged anything for the accommodation but, they had to pay for the meals they had. There were bearers who attended on them, took care of making beds, cleaning, etc., and serving meals in the dinning room.  When called to duty to accompany a pilot taking a ship out of Calcutta, a car used to collect them from the Chummery at the appointed time, and drive them to the jetty where the ship was berthed. Sometimes, the same car collected the pilot as well.

When I joined the service on 6th March 1946, I was sent out to the Pilot Vessel at Sandheads for a month’s training, which was intensive, and, among other things, I had to learn how to heave the lead. The river Hooghly is known to be one of the most dangerous rivers in the world for piloting ships. There are curves and bends, very strong current, and bars, parts of the river which cannot be crossed at low water when the tide is ebbing.

The entire river, from its mouth at Sagar Islands to Calcutta, is charted, and navigational aids, such as ‘Track Marks’, buoys, with red, white and green lights flashing or occulting are used to pilot ships up and down river. We had to learn to read the various signals along the river showing depth of the water at a given time; the channel to be used, and had to have a thorough knowledge of the position of each buoy recognizable from the flashing lights etc.

I do not remember the name of the ship nor the pilot, whom I accompanied on my first voyage from Sandheads to Calcutta. However, the thing that struck me, as we entered the mouth of the river, was the clear demarcation between the salted sea water and the fresh water in the river. I praised the Lord Almighty who alone created this phenomena.

Within a few months I had gained the confidence of the pilots I accompanied, and they let me pilot the ship all the way to Calcutta and back, taking over at two dangerous bends, where a strong current is capable of turning a ship right round, and therefore, the experience and skill of the pilot keeps the ship on its course. The most dangerous of the two points is known as “James and Mary” as, according to legend, a ship of that name sank there. Piloting had to be done under adverse weather conditions, strong wind, rain or storm, and tidal bores.

I was very happy in the service and going up and down the river on ships of all nationalities and meeting seafarers of various countries around the world was most interesting. For the purpose of pilotage the Hooghly is 130 miles long, one of the longest and, probably, the most dangerous one-man pilotage in the world.

It takes the pilot 12 hours or more non-stop piloting to take a ship out from Calcutta to the sea. Sometimes it takes a couple of days from Calcutta to Sandheads if the ship is slow and also deep drafted. There are certain ‘Bars’ which can only be crossed at high water, with the tide flooding. At such times, the ship is anchored, specially if it is at night, and continue moving when the tide changes.   .

One of my most memorable moments was the night when I accompanied a pilot to board a ship at Sandheads around 10 p.m. It was the “Englestan” of Scindia Steam Navigation Company. As was the practice, after setting course for the first of the three Lightships, the pilot – forget who he was – handed the ship over to me and went below to have a nap.

At midnight the Second Officer came up to the bridge and took over from the Third Officer to keep the ‘Middle Watch’ – midnight to 4 a.m. You cannot imagine my excitement and extreme pleasure to find that, the Second Officer was D. C. Mitter, my term mate in the “Dufferin”. This was our first meeting since we left the good ship in December 1941.

It seems the Lord Almighty had other plans for me, and my association with ships, the  river Hooghly and the sea had to come to an end, as, there was problem with my eyesight and I was advised to wear glasses which was not allowed in those days until one became a Branch Pilot. Therefore, it became necessary for me to submit my resignation, in April 1947, after one year with the Bengal Pilot  Service.

I am indebted to a very dear old and close friend, the late Rusy E. Mistry, for helping and guiding me at all times. We first met in the Training Ship Dufferin in January 1941, and five years later, we were colleagues, once again, as we joined the Pilot Service, together, in March 1946.

Rusy, retired as a Branch Pilot in 1985, having served on the river Hooghly for almost forty years. Then, after a gap of five years he returned to the river, and, at the age of 80 plus, he was still doing odd jobs on daily wages, and enjoying  himself spending time on the river, until he passed away a few years ago. May his soul rest in peace.


3 responses to “Chapter 23. On the River Hooghly

  1. Sayeed Sahib – many thanks for reviving fond memories of the Hooghly. Was two years with River Surveyors ’56-’58. My best was fresh hilsa (straight from the net) for breakfast!

  2. Served in the Hooghly Pilot Service and later in the Calcutta Pilot Service from January1952 to December 1991 after becoming a Branch Pilot and later on Harbour Master (Port) The Hooghly Pilot Service and the Assistant Harbour Master’s Service was amalgamated in the Re-organisation in 1964.
    The pilot station is now land based at Sagar Island and Masters now pilot their ships into and from Sagar roads where the pilot embarks and disembarks on the inward and outward journeys Was also a Dufferin cadet of the 1950-51 batch

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