On the Hooghly – Chapter XI

CHAPTER XI

Boarding the Cherbourg—I am nearly drowned—Tales of the cyclones—The colonial bishop—My first cyclone—The Cassandra loses her cable—A dreadful night—Heavy loss of life—The Godiva —the loss of the tug Retriever—Mr. Newby T. Wawn and Abdul” Not too much soda.”

AFTER my very enjoyable trip to the Terai I went back to work again. Things were still pretty slack, but not quite so bad as they had been and I managed to make some sort of a living, getting one or two vessels a month. I was chumming at this time with W. Mackintosh, of Mackintosh, Burn and Co., J. B. Warwick of the same company, and H. Wellard of Kerr Dodds, in a top flat over Solomons the opticians, where we were very comfortable and happy together. The missing leaves of that pocket-book if I could find them would make mention of the schooner Ruth Topping, the barque TJmvoti, and the little twin-screw steamer Medina belonging to the British India Company, for I very well remember piloting those vessels amongst others. But the first entry which remains concerns the Busheer, and reads as follows :

” September 8th : 3rd day of springs. Put on board S.S. Busheer, Captain Johnson, at 15.15. 19.0, Anchored at Saugor. September 9th : 7.0, Turned and proceeded.

7.40, Sighted nine feet at Kedgeree Semaphore. 7.50, Ten feet. 7.55, Eleven feet. 8.10, Twelve feet. 8.20, Thirteen feet,” and so on all the way up. “We passed Atcheepore at

11.42 with twenty-one feet showing at the semaphore, and got to Garden Reach at 13.15 with the ebb down.

My next record in the old book reads : ” September 15th: 3rd day of neaps. French barque Cherbourg, draught

144 NEARLY DROWNED

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19 feet 6 inches, from Calcutta in toAV of tug Columbus.” I have good reason to remember that trip down the river, for I was nearly drowned while boarding the vessel in Garden Reach. There was very strong freshet in the river, the ebb tide running as much as seven or eight knots an hour. After dinner, about 8.30, I took a dinghy from the ghdt at Kidderpur and proceeded down to Garden Reach where the Cherbourg was lying in the stream ready to leave in the morning. As we pulled out from the ghdt I noticed strong eddies by the mooring buoys, past which the tide was rushing with a good deal of noise.

The Cherbourg was lying off Garden House Point, a bad spot in which to anchor in the freshets, because of the eddies, but the harbour master had not been able to drop any lower as there were two other ships anchored just below the Point.

The dinghy wallah turned and headed the tide just ahead of the Cherbourg, but we were swept past the vessel without being able to catch hold of anything. We pulled close in to the southern bank, where we found an eddy tide which was running up the river, and were soon in a position from which we could have another shot at getting on board, and this time I was determined not to miss her. As the dinghy swept along the vessel’s side I grabbed hold of the manrope by the side of the rope ladder ; but the dinghy shot from under my feet, the manrope being wet slipped through my hands, and I found myself in the water. I went under the harbour master’s boat and on coming to the surface again found in my hand one of the boat’s fenders, which I must have clutched as I went under.

My first idea was to strike out for the southern bank, but when I heard the sound of the water rushing past the mooring buoys at Muttcabrooj moorings, and thought of the line of eddies which would certainly be there, I altered my mind and decided to keep out in the stream. An attempt to take my jacket off nearly finished me, for I went under and found it very difficult to get to the surface

K 146

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again. The two ships which were anchored below the point went by in a flash. I decided that my chances were practically nil, and that I was finished. Strangely enough this did not distress me, my sensation was rather one of relief that all the bother of life was over. Suddenly I heard the voice of the dinghy wallah calling. My philosophic resignation was gone immediately, and I yelled to him to come. It was very dark and I could not see the dinghy at once, but I swam in the direction of the voice, and when the dinghy wallah offered me the end of his boathook I seized it eagerly, climbed into the boat, and got rid of a lot of muddy water which I had swallowed.

As we were making our way to the shore we met the harbour master’s boat which had been sent to my rescue and to which I transferred myself, belongings, and servant, and was soon put on board the Cherbourg, where I relieved the harbour master, and spent the night watching the steering, for owing to the eddies the vessel was sheering about all over the place and I feared she would part her cable.

Referring again to the notebook. It says: ” 3.30, Started to unmoor “—which means that she was moored with two anchors down because of the violence of the current. The next entry is : ” 7.0, Turned and proceeded.” The tug Columbus, Captain Stone, had come ahead after we had hove short, and we had passed hawsers, picked up, and catted the anchor, and were off. ” 8.15, Abreast Atcheepore. Crossed Moyapur Bar with twelve feet up, bad eddies below Devil’s Point” (they must have been unusually bad or I should not have made a note of them). ” 10.15, Brought up at Fultah, the serang having shown 13 feet best track Nynan.”

What happened was that as we towed through Fisherman’s Point anchorage a steam launch blew his whistle to attract our attention, and showed us a black board with the news about Nynan, which is a bar just above the James and Mary shoal. I learnt subsequently that on the previous MYg FIRST CYCLONE

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day the sailing ship Argomene, in pilotage charge of Mr. Newby Wawn, had grounded in Nynan, very nearly capsizing. She got off on the night’s tide and towed down below the James and Mary, but her grounding had caused the bar to silt up.

It was rather a business turning round after reading the notice on the blackboard, for we were flying down with a strong ebb tide, and by the time we got round were below the anchorage, where the channel was none too wide. Stone, the tug master, was one of the best and turned me beautifully.

We waited there, hanging on to the tug and with our anchor under foot, until the tide had risen. ” 12.45, Turned and proceeded. 13.45, Eastern Gut 12 feet up and slack water. 14.15, Diamond Harbour Custom House abreast. 17.15, Came to at Kedgeree, near the Upper Dredge buoy in 8 fathoms with 35 fathoms of chain. Rode a quiet tide. September 16th : 6.0, Turned and proceeded. 9.25, Lower Gasper Light.” And that is all ib says, but I probably got on board the brig about one o’clock and have no doubt that I was glad to get there.

After my exciting time in boarding the Cherbourg there was more excitement waiting for me at the Sandheads ; for in September, 1885, I went through my first cyclone, on board the p.v. Cassandra. The old hands had spun us many a yarn about the cyclones they had been through and of the ships which had been lost in them. There was the story of the two Bengal pilots who were returning from furlough in the days before the Suez Canal, when everyone travelled round the Cape. They were passengers on one of Green’s ships, and as they ran up the Bay of Bengal their knowledge of local weather conditions told them that they were running into a cyclone. With some diffidence they acquainted the captain with their opinion and suggested that it might be wise to heave-to until the weather looked a little less threatening. But the captain of one of Green’s ships was rather a dignitary, and this particular captain did 148

ON THE HOOGHLY

not want any outside advice. He said that when he wanted their opinion he would ask them for it. Some few hours later when they ‘ got it in the neck ‘ he did ask them what they thought he had better do. But there was then nothing to be done but see it through, and they were dismasted and very nearly lost.

There was the story of the other dignitary, a colonial bishop, who was passenger in a sailing vessel under similar conditions in the Bay of Bengal and who, in the height of

THE SOLE SURVIVOR

the tempest, managed to make his way to where the skipper stood under the lee of the after-deckhouse and asked him what he thought of their chances. On receiving the reply that their only hope was in the Deity, he cried in his agony, ” Good Heavens ! Is it as bad as all that ? ” Another man told how several days after the Midnapore cyclone, when he was in charge of a sailing vessel, they rescued an Indian who was floating on the roof of a hut, who told them that he had originally been one of five on the roof. From his plump condition they reluctantly concluded that he must have eaten the other four.

From these and other talcs of the same kind I gathered that a cyclone was rather an awful experience. I was now EASTERLY WEATHER

149

about to see for myself whether it was as bad as they made out.

It was the 21st of September. We had had easterly weather for some days and, as always with easterly weather, there was a strong set to the westward. The glass was not particularly low, somewhere about 29.30, but was falling slowly all the time. I was on the Cassandra, of which Mr. Barnet was still in command. There were, to the best of my recollection, five other pilots on board besides myself, amongst them W. Kendal, P. Paulson and C. Collingwood, senior. With easterly weather and a strong current running to the westward it was impossible to keep on the pilot station under sail, and the Cassandra, which was acting as buoy brig and taking pilots out of outward-bound vessels, was anchored a couple of miles south of the Eastern Channel Light.

About mid-day wc sighted a smoke to the northward, which proved to be the country ship, Merchantman, towing out. At 14.0 the boat was sent away to her, and as it had difficulty in fetching back, because of the strong easterly set, we had to trip the anchor and drift until we could pick it up, when Mr. Paine, Mate Pilot, came on board and said that Captain Mourylion of the Merchantman did not like the look of the weather and wanted our opinion as to whether it was cyclonic or not. The opinion of the pilots on board was that it was just an easterly gale, and we signalled that opinion to the ship. She cast off the tug, made sail on the port tack, and the tug proceeded upchannel.

As the afternoon wore on the weather grew worse, the easterly squalls increasing in violence and the current to the westward becoming stronger. The glass began to fall more rapidly, and a succession of low, ragged-looking clouds kept racing across the sky. As the Cassandra was dragging her anchor we paid out more chain, until we were riding with a scope of sixty fathoms. Some five fathoms or more of it would be seen stretching tautly ahead as we lifted to an 150

ON THE HOOGHLY

extra large wave, to disappear the next moment as the brig buried her nose in a churned-up mass of foam. It was obvious that if things got much worse there would be a likelihood of the cable parting, and I asked the older men whether in that case, with the strong westerly set which was running, we should be able to weather False Point. They pointed out that the current setting into Balasore Bay would have to sweep down south past False Point and would probably carry a vessel clear of the Point.

With the dense mass of cloud overhead it became dark early. We slung our cots to the beams in the ‘tweendecks and turned in, but the brig was rolling heavily as well as plunging, and every now and again the cot would bang up against the beams in a way which made getting to sleep a matter of difficulty. I don’t know whether any of the others got any sleep, but I know that I did not, but lay there listening to the howling of the wind and the noise of the chain on the windlass as she surged back to some extra large wave.

Suddenly the brig’s motion became easier, and I heard the officer of the watch sing out that the cable had parted. On going on deck I found all the others there, discussing whether it would be advisable to heave in what was left of the cable, or slip it and make what sail we could without loss of time, in view of the importance of getting south as much as possible and clear of the tails of the sands. The pin was knocked out of the shackle, the cable slipped, the lower topsails loosed and sheeted home, the fore staysail set, and the brig brought to the wind on the port tack. She lay right down to it, putting the lee rail under, and almost immediately the lower foretopsail blew away ; but the lower maintopsail hung on for some time before splitting and blowing to ribbons.

The squalls now were of intense violence, and the noise of the wind deafening. It was impossible to raise the head above the weather rail, where the spray and rain struck the face like a charge of shot. The lascars, although excellent THROUGH THE CENTRE

151

seamen, and good boatmen in ordinarily hard weather, are apt to throw up the sponge when things look really desperate, and from the forepeak came a dismal chorus of ” Allah! ” which did not tend to make matters more cheerful. But on that, as on subsequent occasions, I found that the serang, tyndals (boatswain’s mates) and two or three of the men refused to take it lying down, and kept on deck. Towards daybreak the weather eased up a bit, the squalls became less violent, and the pilots assisted the few men who were still working to get two lower topsails from the sail locker and bend them. The wind was still easterly and the problem of weathering False Point still our chief concern.

As daylight came in the wind fell light and we found ourselves in a very heavy, confused sea which appeared to be breaking in all directions. A cast of the deep-sea lead brought up sand on the arming, and we fixed our position as somewhere west of the Ridge. It was very thick and murky. The wind died right away, and we lay tumbling about for some little time before we got it, again from the westward and stood back for the Station. In the afternoon a ship hove in sight to the southward with her foretopmast gone, and we put a pilot on board her. I cannot remember her name, but we learnt that she had been through the centre of the storm off False Point and had picked up the second mate of the Merchantman, the only survivor of that vessel, which had foundered. This officer became an Assistant Harbour Master at Calcutta and some years afterwards fell overboard from the steam launch Enchantress in Garden Reach and was drowned.

The Cassandra had not felt the full violence of the storm as she was some distance from the centre when it struck the coast. We lost no spars or boats and got off very lightly with the loss of a couple of sails.

On the next day, September 23rd, the ship Viscount appeared to the north-westward and we took Mr. Goodwin, Master Pilot, out of her. She had left Saugor on the 21st 152

ON THE

HOOGHLY

in tow. but the w eather had become so bad while towing down the Eastern Channel that the tug had to cast off. The Viscount made sail and stood across the tail of the Eastern Sea Reef. Beiiii, a very smart ship she managed to survive, but they had had an anxious time beating about in Balasore Bay and had narrowly escaped disaster amongst the sands.

Shortly after we had taken Mr. Goodwin out of the Viscount, a small German schooner, the Franz, hove in sight to the north-west and Mr. Skinner, Mate Pilot, was taken out of her. He also had had a very bad time and some hairbreadth escapes.

We learnt aft era ards that the centre of the cyclone had passed over False Point, accompanied by a storm-wave fifteen feet high which, after submerging and drowning everything at Hookey Toll ah. the small station on the inner side of Dowdeswell Island where the Port Officer and the Customs Authorities resided, rushed inland with great velocity to a distance of about twelve miles, and the whole country thus far was completely inundated.

The loss of life on shore was appalling, being by the official estimate nearly 5,000. At False Point the Port Officer, Mr. Douglas, together with his wife and four children were drow ned, the body of Mr. Douglas being found under some bushes some way inland. Of the Customs Authorities all were drowned save two.

The barque Tewkesbury, lying at False Point, lost the master, boatswain and four of the crew, washed overboard by the storm wave. All the buildings al Hookey Tollah were washed away exccpl the refuge house, •which with a few coconut trees were the only objects left standing.

The aspect of the whole of the harbour had changed so completely that the place could Imnlly be recognised when the British India Steamer Goa entered the harbour shortly after the storm.

The tug which had towed the Viscount to sea had been able to get back again to Saugor and was more fortunate LOSS OF THE ” RETRIEVER”

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than the tug Retriever in the cyclone of May, 1887, which after towing the ship Godiva to sea was lost with all hands except one fireman. The ship Godiva left Garden Reach on the morning of May 23rd, 1887, in tow of the Retriever and in pilotage charge of Mr. Newby T. “Wawn. They anchored at Saugor on May 24th. On the morning of the 25th, when the tug came ahead to pass hawsers, Captain Hamcr, who commanded her, remarked that he did not like the look of the weather; but Mr. Wawn decided to proceed as the glass was standing at 29.50 which was not a very low reading for the time of the year. They took in tow and left Saugor at 7 a.m., passing the Lower Gasper at 10.30 by which time the wind had increased to gale force from east-north-east and the glass was falling rapidly. At 12.15 the tug was cast off and the Godiva stood down south under lower topsails. The glass was then standing at 29.10. There was a high sea running and it was blowing hard from the east-north-east. The Retriever stood over to the eastward and was soon lost to sight from the ship in the blinding rain. That night the centre of a cyclone swept over the Sandheads. The Godiva weathered it safely, made the station again the following day, and discharged her pilot, Mr. Wawn. Of what happened to the Retriever after casting off the Godiva and standing to the eastward the only account is that given by a fireman, the sole survivor, who was picked up by the inward-bound P. & O. steamer Nepaul on the morning of the 26th when making the Pilot Station.

When they sighted the man he was clinging to a plank, and the weather being too bad to permit of a boat being lowered, they had to manoeuvre into position to drift down on him, then a lascar was lowered with a rope and succeeded in getting him on board. So bad was the weather al the time that while turning round to pick him up they lost sight of him during a heavy squall and made sure that he was gone. But when the squall had passed they sighted him again, and watched him and his plank being rolled over and over by the breaking seas, and were filled with 154

ON THE HOOGHLY

wonder at his extraordinary tenacity and endurance. Their astonishment was increased when they learnt that he had been buffeted in like manner for many hours.

“When he had sufficiently recovered to give an account of his experiences they gathered that the Retriever’s engines had been kept going until past midnight of the 25th, when the engine-room skylight was smashed by a heavy sea which filled the engine-room and extinguished the fires. She became unmanageable, gradually filled, and went down with all hands except the fireman. I was told that he was a small, weakly-looking man, not at all the sort of person to stand much knocking about, but he must have possessed marvellous powers of endurance and great vitality. Fortytwo people were lost with the Retriever, six Europeans and thirty-six Indians. These were the master, the mate, three engineers and one passenger, eighteen deck hands, and the same number employed in the engine-room. Captain Hamer was a very skilful tug master, one of the smartest among a smart body of men, and he was much regretted by the pilots—as was also the tug. It was replaced by another and more powerful Retriever to deal with the larger and heavier sailing vessels then coming to the port.

After coming to anchor at Kulpee or Mud Point, the pilot and leadsman of a ship would sometimes be invited to dine on board the tug, which would probably have put the net over as soon as her anchor was down, and caught a supply of fresh chingrees or bumalo. I recall one such occasion on the first Retriever and listening with great interest to Captain Hamer’s account of a fight he had had with Chinese pirates, when in command of one of the opium brigs which used to ply between Calcutta and the far East. A tuft of black hair hanging from a nail in his cabin was a souvenir of the combat.

The pilot of the Godiva, Mr. Newby T. Wawn, was a stout fellow in every sense of the word. He was quite the heaviest man in the Service. I do not know how much he weighed, but he must have been well over twenty stone. MR. NEWBY WAWN

155

Like the majority of fat men he was placid and amiable. Having spent a great many \ears on the river without proceeding on leave to Europe, he decided soon after the loss of the Retriever to take a rest and renew his acquaintance with the Old Country. There was no difficulty in obtaining leave or securing a passage; but he was faced with the serious problem of lacing up his boots. He had not seen his feet for many years. He knew that they were there, because he could see their reflection in his looking-

2^Q .

MR. NEWBY WAWN

glass, but he was unable to reach them, and they had to be attended to by Abdul, his faithful ship’s boy, who dried them after the morning bath, and put them into socks and shoes, which he removed again in the evening when his master retired to rest.

After careful consideration, Mr Wawn decided that Abdul would have to go to England with him, and accompanied by Mrs. Wawn and the faithful Abdul he took his 156

ON THE HOOGHLY

departure. When he reappeared, after an absence of more than twenty years, in his native village, his unusual proportions excited much interest among the juvenile population, who followed him about with awe and wonderment when he took his walks abroad, Abdul, who was a good-looking lad, claimed almost as much attention from the girls of the village, who swarmed round him (according to Mr, Wawn) likefliesround a pot of jam, and it became necessary to ship him back to Calcutta, much to his master’s regret. Mr. Wawns feet then became the care of Mrs. Wawn, until they returned to Calcutta.

In spite of his size and weight Mr. Wawn managed to climb in and out of the boat and up the ladders of inward-bound ships and steamers with remarkable agility. I recollect, however, that on one occasion he had a nasty fall when trying to climb on board the B.I.S.N. Company’s S.S. Manora. It was in the evening and dark, the Manora lay to on our weather quarter, and we saw the boat reach her. A few minutes afterwards her captain hailed us through his megaphone that Mr. Wawn had fallen into the boat and was injured, and would we send another pilot. As soon as the boat got back to our gangway we all helped to hoist the injured man on board. It was no easy task, but at last we landed him on the rail and then carried him to one of the settees. His eyes were closed and he lay quite motionless. Mr. Bellow, who had helped to carry him, said sadly,” I think he’s gone.” I said,” Would you like a little whisky, Ncwby ? “

His eyelids trembled, and he murmured, ” Not too much soda,” and we knew that we had not lost him.

He declared that the manropes wc-re greasy and slipped through his hands. In falling he had landed on the secunny, who really was very badly damaged.

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