On The Hooghly Pilotage tales….

CHAPTER XVIII

Norwegian ships—The female cook—Dynamitingfish—Anarrow escape—The sole survivor—Eaten by sharks—Catching a big shark —A hungry ship—” We are starving “—Gems on the beach—The missing steward and the refrigerator.

IN my slack time on board the brig I had amused myself by studying French and Italian, and on boarding a steamer of either of those nationalities I made a point of asking the people not to speak to me in English and to bear with my efforts to converse with them in their own language, which they very kindly did. In this way I often got a free lesson, and I retain many pleasant recollections of my journeys up and down the river in foreign steamers.

The Norwegian steamers carried a female cook and stewardess, and on one of these vessels there was an old cook who was a fierce creature of whom the crew were quite frightened. As soon as we anchored at the Huldia tripod in the afternoon the men trooped aft to the galley to remonstrate with the old lady about the way in which she had cooked their hash. I was on the bridge at the time, and the captain drew my attention to the little comedy.

The men came along timidly, huddled together, one of them carrying the offending mess on a dish. ” You wait,” said the captain ; ” she give them what for.” I looked at the woman, who was standing at the galley door waiting for them with folded arms and a very grim expression on her aged countenance.

They made their complaint, and she replied. I could not of course understand what was said, but her address was pitched in a shrill scream and was evidently to the point, for after one or two feeble efforts to arrest the flow of

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eloquence, or vituperation, the poor fellows slunk away looking very discouraged, and she was left mistress of the field. The captain sadly admitted that he himself was afraid of her.

The stewardess on this ship was a thin, gaunt, middleaged woman who looked quite the typical old maid, and I wondered how she came to be afloat. She seemed rather inefficient. The cabin looked as though it would have been all the better for a good wash. Any rubbish was merely swept into the corners.

THE DEPUTATION TO THE COOK

In the morning, as we should not be leaving until about nine o’clock, I proposed to the captain that we should go for a stroll ashore with the gun. We walked to a village about half a mile from the shore, where we excited a great deal of interest, white people being rarities in the neighbourhood. Probably few of the villagers had ever seen one at such close quarters. The Norwegian skipper was much taken with the appearance of a pretty little girl about four years old who was staring with round-eyed wonder at the FISHING WITH DYNAMITE

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strange intruders. He thought she would look pretty playing about the cabin, and asked me if I thought that they would sell her. I thought not, and when I said jokingly to the headman of the village that the captain would like to buy her, a woman darted forward, snatched up the child, and ran away with her.

As a Senior Master Pilot I found plenty of work to do and was kept very busy : a day or two in town, a day or two on the brig, and the rest of the time on the river on vessels of all sorts, shapes and sizes. At the end of the month I was unable to give off-hand the names of the different ships and steamers which I had piloted, unless I first glanced over the little bundle of pilotage certificates which had to be attached to my pay-bill. As soon as I had finished with a vessel I forgot all about her and became interested in the next bit of work, unless, of course, some unusual incident occurred to impress my memory.

In this way I recollect sailing into Saugor on board the three-masted ship Victoria Begina, deep laden with a cargo of salt. There was a light southerly Avind, which died away altogether when we were abreast of the Intermediate Light, and as we were not stemming the ebb tide I dropped the anchor, gave her a short scope of chain, and waited for the breeze to freshen. I remember that we merely hauled up the courses and clewed up the topgallantsails, leaving the topsails set. Seated together on the poop the captain, whose name I think was Cawsey, was telling me about the weather he had experienced during his voyage, when I noticed several shoals of fish drifting past with the tide and remarked that a stick of dynamite exploded in such a shoal would probably yield a rich harvest. The captain said that he had some dynamite and time-fuses on board and would try a stick.

Having got his stick of dynamite and inserted his fuse he proceeded to ignite it, and having done so began a long yarn about dynamite and fuses, waving the thing about in the air while he discoursed. I knew nothing about no

ON THE HOOGHLY

explosives and felt that the sooner it was thrown overboard the better. However, he said that it was quite safe and would not go off for several minutes. At last he decided to cast it in the deep, but made a bad shot and it fell into the water about a couple of feet away from the ship’s side, a little column of smoke slowly ascending from the spot where it had disappeared.

The ebb was nearly done, and that little column of smoke simply seemed to crawl along aft. I looked anxiously at the captain, who was getting rather white about the gills.

There was nothing to be done, and we simply had to wait for the explosion, which came just as the charge was under the counter. There was a muffled report and a sensation as though the hull of the vessel had been struck with a heavy hammer.

The carpenter was sent to sound the wells, and greatly to our relief gave a favourable report. But it was a nasty five minutes.

On another occasion I boarded a vessel which had just rescued the sole survivor of a tragedy of the sea. The brig had been blown off the station by hard westerly weather, and when we got back and were once more in position south-west of the Eastern Channel Light, the look-out reported a sail to the northward, which turned out to be a four-masted barque standing down under easy sail. She stood across the tail of the Eastern Sea Reef, clewed up, and camc-to not far from the Light. The brig ran up and signalled her. She hoisted her numbers and we found that she was the Matterhorn, a large grey-painted, four-masted barque, deep laden. I was on turn, and was sent on board her.

The captain told me that they had had a bad time—very bad weather coming up the Bay, unable to get any sights, too thick to see the Lights, and found themselves, when the weather cleared and moderated, in discoloured water, with breakers a mile or two away on either side of them. Without knowing it, they had run up the Western Channel, and THE INJURED BOATSWAIN

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it was a wonder that they had not been lost and met with the same fate as the Star of Albion. The captain had hauled his wind on the starboard tack, and the wind being still westerly had been able to steer south, had sighted the Light, crossed the tail of the Eastern Sea Reef, and anchored in the spot where I boarded him. The boatswain had met with an accident and had both his arms broken. They had made up a bed for him in the alleyway leading to the saloon,

A DHOW

and had set his armb as well as they could and put them in splints. The man was delirious and kept waving his arms about and shouting.

I noticed an Indian on deck and was told that they had picked him up from some wreckage as they came down the Western Channel. My servant had a talk with him, and the story he had to tell was rather grim. It appeared that he had been one of the crew of a small dhow, which had capsized in a heavy squall in the Western Channel. From what the man said about breakers I formed the opinion that they had probably touched the ground and then capsized, 282

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floating off into deep water as the tide rose. There were at first five of them left clinging to the keel of the dhow, but first one man and then another lost his hold or was washed off, and when the morning broke he, the nacoda, and the nacoda’s son, were the only members of the crew still surviving. The wind had moderated but the sea was still rough and breaking, and it took them all they knew to keep themselves from being washed off the wreck.

To add to their misery they were now surrounded by sharks, which tried to reach them with each wave that washed over the vessel. He said that some of these sharks were very large and came half out of the water in their efforts to secure a meal.

The boy, who was exhausted and very frightened, suddenly let go his hold, and was torn to pieces by the monsters, who fought over him, churning up the blood-stained water all round them.

The old nacoda then appears to have gone out of his mind, for he rose to his feet and leapt into the sea, where he was promptly devoured by the sharks.

The weather continued to moderate, and the survivor was able to retain his position on the keel of the dhow until the Matterhorn came along and sent a boat to take him off.

We remained at anchor that night as there was no wind, but I did not get much sleep, because the poor boatswain made such a noise calling out and talking to himself all the time. The following day a tug came down and we towed up.

About a fortnight later, being in Calcutta, I went to the General Hospital, where the boatswain had been taken as soon as the Matterhorn arrived in Port, and very much to my surprise found that he was well on the road to recovery. He was a fine, strong, healthy man.

Sharks are plentiful at the Sandheads. When lying at anchor in the brigs we often used to catch them. They appear to be always hungry and willing to feed on anything SHARKS

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that comes their way, whether digestible or not, and I have found inside them empty sardine tins, bits of wood, and sheep’s feet, none of which could possibly have done them any good. Lying at anchor at Saugor in one of Brocklebank’s ships I noticed several big fish swimming about under the counter and suggested that we might as well try to catch them. There was no proper sharkhook on board, but the carpenter made one from a chain hook, which we baited with a piece of salt horse and cast over the stern. It was immediately grabbed by one of them, but as the hook had no barb, he shook himself free as soon as we hauled on the line. Nothing daunted, another one tried his luck, and also shook himself off. Four or five of them did the same, but at last we pulled one fellow’s head out of the water and managed to get him on board. He was about six feet long.

One hot night on the brig lying at anchor, I came on deck to get a little fresh air. There was nobody about except the anchor watch, and nothing in sight but the stars and the Light vessel. It was all very quiet and peaceful. I lit a cheroot and sat down on the after-grating where there seemed to be a little more air. Abaft the quarter gallery, which was used as a signal locker, there was fixed a reel with a good length of two and half-inch coir rope. When lying at anchor in a strong tide, if the boat was unable to fetch back, a lifebuoy would be fastened to this rope and veered away until the boat caught it, and could be hauled alongside.

A big shark had been lying under the stern in the afternoon, and the sharkhook had been attached to the boat line and put over, baited with a fowl which had died a natural death and was not therefore regarded as fit for culinary purposes. Whether the fish was not hungry, or did not care for poultry, or was more cautious than the generality of his kind it is impossible to say, but the tempting morsel had been left untouched for hours and nobody was paying any attention to the line. I had 284

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forgotten all about it, had nearly finished my smoke and was thinking about turning in again, when suddenly the reel began to revolve and the line to run out. Catching hold of it I took a turn round the cleat which was under the rail, and held on.

From the strain on the line it was evident that we had caught something big which was struggling hard to escape, or to break the line ; but two and a half-inch coir takes a lot of breaking. Whenever the line cased up I took in the slack, and held on again. The watch now came to my assistance, and by degrees we hauled our prey close up under the stern and managed to lift his head and shoulders out of the water, when we slipped a running noose over his head, triced it nearly up to the rail, and made fast.

When I turned out in the morning he was dead and being hauled on board. He measured over eleven feet in length, and was the biggest shark that I have seen on deck.

But a much larger one was caught by the Mutlah lightship. He had been haunting the Light for days and had refused to touch any of the bait offered him. The crew of the Light were getting quite rattled about him, as some of the older lascars declared that his persistence in keeping close to the vessel was a sure sign that one of them was about to die and afford him a funeral feast. Finding the sharkhook of no avail, the captain made a dummy lascar of some old clothing stuffed with straw. This he fastened to a line, and having planted himself by the gangway with the grains or three-pronged harpoon in his hand, told the men to throw the dummy overboard from the forecastle.

The ruse proved successful. As the dummy struck the water the shark rushed at it, turning over on his back and exposing his white under-skin as he opened his jaws and prepared to seize his victim. The captain made a lucky hit and the grains went well home in his lower jaw. The line attached held good until a running bowline was dropped over his shoulders, and the delighted crew, after much hauling and the use of tackles, got him on deck. He SHORT COMMONS

S85

measured twenty-one feet, and his vertebrae were sent up to the Calcutta Museum, where they probably still are.

We were always hospitably received and treated on vessels arriving at the Sandheads. The sailing ships invariably saved up a fowl with which to regale the pilot, although in the case of a ship coming off a long voyage the poor bird may have led a lonely life in the hencoop for weeks, all its brothers and sisters having been cooked long since.

But I was once put on board a French barque where the crew were nearly at the end of their tether. She had made a long passage, and had been more than a month working up the Bay with calms and light northerly winds. We anchored in the Channel on the ebb, and I joined them in the cabin for the evening meal, which to my surprise consisted of scraps of biscuit and a small jampot containing pieces of bacon rind and what looked like lard. This was passed to me first as I was the guest, and when I declined it with thanks the captain assured me that it was delicious. I was not hungry, but the others ate it with their biscuit and evidently enjoyed it. There was no other course. I stuck to biscuits, and there was plenty of good red wine. Fortunately we got a tug at Saugor, and I only had three days of short commons.

Another little vessel which arrived at the Sandheads with no food on board was the barque William Wilson, built of iron, and of about five hundred tons register. I was a Senior Master Pilot at the time, and having arrived at Calcutta just before Christmas, on return from long leave to England, I decided to go down passenger to the brig, and start work again. My wife, who had returned with me from home, wished me to stay in town until after Christmas, but I was anxious to get into harness again after my long spell of idleness and was not to be persuaded. I went down in one of the Asiatic steamers, her pilot kindly pointing out the changes which had occurred during my absence, and telling me of all the interesting things which had happened 286

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to our mutual friends while I had been out of our little world.

On arrival at the brig, I found that all of the junior pilots had availed themselves of ‘ Christmas leave’ and had gone to town ‘ passenger,’ to spend the festive season, leaving four Branch Pilots, and two Master Pilots besides myself, to take any vessels which might arrive.

During the night the other two Master Pilots were put on board two steamers of their tonnage which had come in, and I found myself with the first turn for everything under two thousand tons. In the course of the morning the look-out reported a sail to the southward, and I immediately became interested, for that sail was probably coming in for my benefit.

When it became visible from the deck, I made it out to be a small barque which was slowly working up to us against the north-east breeze. The wind freshened, and after tacking several times she was close enough for us to read a signal which she had flying. It said, ” We are starving.”

When I pulled alongside her in the afternoon, I was accompanied by a bag of rice and a supply of biscuits. She was from Durban with a number of returned coolies on board. They were people who had emigrated to Natal, and having made a little money as small shopkeepers were returning to their native land. The captain told me that they had been on short rations for weeks, and were practically at the end of their resources. He also said significantly that I would not be able to find any rats on board. I did not want to find any rats, all I wanted to do was get the barque to Calcutta as soon as possible. She was drawing about ten feet, and my Christmas dinner consisted of rice and one or two sardines. The laugh was distinctly against me. But the coolies were very glad to get that bag of rice, and we were lucky enough to pick up a tug on the following day.

We had returned from England, after my long leave that time, in the British India steamer Chyebassa, Captain A. B. TOM TIDDLER’S GROUND

287

Cave. It was a long passage, for we seemed to stop at every port on our route, and amongst other places found our way to Trincomalee with a consignment of Government stores. I had not seen the place before, and thought it very beautiful. In the morning as we lay at anchor some of the inhabitants came off in their boats to sell walking-sticks and precious stones. These latter were uncut gems of large size and all the colours. The ladies were greatly interested, and the wife of Mr. B , a merchant of Rangoon, was particularly anxious to possess some. The voyage as I said had been long, and Mr. B like the rest of us had spent most of his pocket-money in going ashore at other ports, in playing cards, or in paying his weekly liquor bill, and he was not in a position to gratify his wife’s fancy. There were tears, and B looked so moody and distressed that I suggested a walk ashore to look at the old Dutch Fort. We hailed a boat and pulled for the beach. At the water’s edge was a long line of dead jellyfish, but having waded through this we reached a sandy expanse covered with little pebbles of all the colours of the rainbow. It was a startling discovery and I cried to B , ” Why, these are the uncut gems!”

Fortunately we had some paper, and in a very short time we had collected neat little packets of rubies, amethysts, lapis lazuli, sapphires and emeralds. At least they had all the appearance of those precious stones in a rough state, and we were delighted with our find, but not so overjoyed as Mrs. B was when, after visiting the interesting old fort, we returned on board and B handed over his magnificent peace offering. It was well worth all the trouble we had taken to hear Mrs. B ‘s cry of joy as she flung her arms round B—-‘s neck and kissed him.

She asked him how much he had paid for them. Said he evasively, ” It’s lucky we didn’t buy any here : they were much cheaper on shore ! ” Which, of course, was perfectly true.

One other incident of that voyage occurs to me. The 288

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saloon of the Chyebassa, as on most passenger steamers of the period, was situated aft. It had a long table running down the centre, and on either side was a row of cabins. At the forward end of the saloon was situated the refrigerating or cold-storage room. Whenever this latter was opened it emitted an ancient and fishlike odour, which was much resented by the passengers, especially those whose appetite, owing to the motion of the vessel, was in a delicate and uncertain condition. The captain presided at the head of the table, and was a cheery and genial host.

One day the captain was relating how, on the previous voyage, the chief steward had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. They had hunted all over the vessel for him, but he was not to be found, and had to be written off. The passengers listened with sympathy to the sad tale; then one old lady of dyspeptic appearance looked gloomily at the captain and said, even more gloomily, ” Have you looked in that refrigerating room ? “

Captain Cave affected not to hear her, but a shudder went round the table at the awful possibility of the dead steward being mixed up with the eatables in the cold storage.

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