An unpleasant night—Mastering the Greek language—The ” turret” steamers—The mate of the Aislaby—The case of the Mignonette—The ex-actor mate—The Chemnitz—Mr. WoodrufFe and the man-of-war—Dynamite in a thunderstorm.
ONE of the most unpleasant nights which I can recollect was spent on board a ship named the Earl Spencer’, which fell to my turn in town. I forget who took her up to Calcutta, but it was not me. She had been a steamer, and her engines and propeller had been removed, and she had been rigged as a ship. The tug Dalhousie, Captain Sampson, towed us down and we had no trouble of any kind on our way down the river, getting to Kulpee the first day and out to sea on the second. The weather was not too good as we passed Saugor—hard monsoon weather, with occasional heavy squalls, and after passing the Lower Gasper we found quite a big sea running. While the ebb tide lasted we made fairly good progress, but by the time that we were midway between the Intermediate and the Eastern Channel Lights we met the flood, and it was not until about nine o’clock at night that the Dalhousie pulled us to abreast of the latter, when Sampson blew his whistle and hailed us through his megaphone to let go the hawsers. At least I concluded that that was what he wanted us to do, although I could not make out what he was saying. The tug had eased down and kept on whistling, so although I would rather have been towed a mile or two south of the Light I told the men to let go the hawsers and to loose the topsails and foresail. We already had the fore and main staysails set. They were a long time getting the sail on her, and by the time they had hoisted the topsails we had
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drifted close to the Light. We could not have weathered it, so I put the helm up and passed to leeward.
We set the foresail and stood down close hauled on the starboard tack. It was blowing a gale from south-south-west and we had a succession of squalls to which we had to lower the upper topsails, hoisting them again after the squall had passed. She was not too well manned and the men seemed played out after an hour or two of this sort of thing, but I could see that she was not too weatherly and that we must carry as much sail as possible if we were to reach the brig by daylight.
Having stood down for two or three hours, and the flood tide being finished, we wore round and stood to the westward, the weather if anything getting worse. She certainly was not too weatherly, for we only weathered the Light by about a mile.
I stood on until the Light bore east-south-east and then went round again, and we set the main topgallantsail, which was just about as much as she could carry. I had seen nothing of the brigs, but as the daylight came in I made out the Buoy brig hull down to windward. We stood to the westward again and put the mainsail on her, which certainly sent her through the water, but she was a regular crab on a wind and went to leeward in a most disheartening manner. It was evident that she had not been built to sail. But about noon the brig took compassion on us and ran down to where we were. I was very glad to be taken out and grateful to Mr. Rayner, who was in command of the Buoy brig.
Greek vessels were almost unknown on the Hooghly, but I recollect being sent on board a green-painted tramp steamer, the Marietta Ralli, which flew the Greek flag. I always made a practice of giving my orders to the helmsman in the language to which he was accustomed, instead of giving them in English to be translated by the officer of the watch. Before doing so on this occasion I had to learn them myself. I therefore asked the captain, who spoke LEARNING GREEK
English, what I was to say if I wanted to direct the vessel’s course to starboard. He replied, ” A dexia,” and to port, ” A ristera.” Steady was translated ” Grami” My traps having been hoisted on board, and the book filled in, I called out, ” A dexia ! ” I could not see the wheel or the steersman as they were concealed in a little round wheelhouse situated in the centre of the bridge, but a
face surrounded with black whiskers and beard suddenly shot out from an opening in the wheelhouse and grinned at me, displaying a fine set of glittering white teeth. He had evidently been startled by my foreign accent. I looked firmly at him and repeated, ” A dexia ! “
The face disappeared and I heard the wheel going over, so I knew that I had mastered the Greek language, as far as my requirements were concerned, and that all was well.
English vessels are different from foreigners in that we say ” Port the helm ” when we want to direct the course to
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starboard; but if we wish to go to starboard on a foreigner we simply say ” Starboard,” or its equivalent, and take no account of what the helm does. This little difference very nearly put me ashore one day when I was taking down an English steamer. It so happened that I had just been piloting a succession of foreign vessels. I had taken down an Italian steamer and brought up a German one. On the Italian if I wanted to go to the left the order had been ” Sinistra,” on the German, ” Links.”
Now, in the English steamer going round Sankraal Bight
A TURRET STEAMER
I wanted to go to the left, and instead of saying ” Starboard,” or ” Starboard the helm,” I said ” Port.” I saw the man putting the helm to port, and called out to him, ” I said port! ” He looked surprised and replied, ” I’m putting the helm to port.” I tumbled to my mistake at once, got the helm over the other way quickly, and nothing happened. But it was a warning to me to keep my wits about me.
When the ‘ turret’ steamers came on the scene they were regarded by us with mixed feelings. They were easy to handle and steered well, but they did not draw much water when laden, which was a serious defect in our eyes, as our remuneration was based on the vessel’s draught, and with a heavy sea running they were awkward to board or to leave when deep-loaded, for the platform alongside which the THE ” AISLABY”
boat had to lie was only a foot or so above the surface and would be submerged with each successive wave. These vessels were designed to reduce the registered tonnage on which port dues and other charges were based. In the formula for calculating a steamer’s tonnage the width of the deck was taken into consideration, and in the turret steamers this width was reduced to a minimum.
When going out from Saugor in the south-west monsoon the turret steamer with each sea which she encountered would pick up tons of water which would rush along the platform and, as she lifted, cascade back again to where it belonged with a continual roar and din. This was the reverse of restful, but the people of the vessel were accustomed to it, just as a miller gets used to the sound of his mill wheel and does not notice it.
Of all the tramp steamers which I have taken up the river, the Aislaby was probably the most uncomfortable. She had a very narrow bridge which rendered it difficult to get away from the venerable steering engine which emitted steam from all sorts of unexpected places whenever the helm went over with a banging and clanging that made one wonder how much longer it was going to hang together before going out of action. The bridge was surmounted by an ancient awning, so threadbare that an observation of the sun might have been taken through it. The funnel was close abaft the bridge, and as we slowly wended our way to Calcutta the following breeze came to us several degrees hotter than it need have been, and flavoured with mephitic vapours from the stokehole.
But my chief reason for remembering the Aislaby was her mate. He was a tall, spare-built old man with one eye, reminding one involuntarily of the Ancient Mariner, and, like the Ancient Mariner, he had some pretty grim stories of the sea to relate. Perched on the bridge-rail he regaled me with tales of disaster to the various vessels in which he had sailed. In each case, whether the trouble was shipwreck, collision, or fire, he appeared to have played the leading 244
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r61e and to have been on watch when the disaster occurred. He certainly was no mascot, although he seemed to have led a charmed life and to have been extraordinarily lucky personally ; for on one or two of the occasions he was the sole survivor.
We anchored for the night in the upper reaches, and on
THE MATE OF THE
leaving at daybreak I found that the mechanism for lifting the anchor was in keeping with everything else on board. There was no direct steam to the windlass, which had to be worked from one of the winches by means of a ‘ messenger ‘ or endless chain which clattered and thumped as it did its work. One of the links of the endless chain broke in halves, and I watched with interest the efforts of the old mate to repair it with a shackle while the crew looked on, CANNIBALISM
occasionally offering a word of advice and encouragement. Eventually the anchor was hove up, catted and fished, and we resumed our journey to the port.
On another occasion I made the acquaintance of a man who had been an actor in one of the tragedies of the sea. He was the second mate of a steamer which I was taking up the Eastern Channel. It was night and we were slowly making our way over the ebb tide with the idea of arriving at Saugor somewhere about daybreak, and proceeding to Calcutta with the first of the flood. To pass the time and to keep myself awake I got into conversation with the officer of the watch, who seemed at first to be rather a taciturn person. But he suddenly asked me whether I remembered the case of the yacht Mignonette.
I remembered it very well. Two men and a boy formed the crew of the Mignonette, a small yacht which they were sailing out to hand over to the purchaser in Australia. They encountered very heavy weather, and the yacht was so badly knocked about by the sea that it foundered, but the crew had time to take to their boat. The two men were picked up and rescued by a passing vessel when they were at the last gasp and nearly dead from hunger and thirst, but the boy had disappeared. The men, to calm their troubled consciences, confessed that they had killed and eaten the boy Peter. They stood their trial at the Old Bailey, were sentenced to death, and subsequently pardoned in view of the circumstances of the case.
The officer of the watch told me that he was one of these two men. He said that the boy was so ill and weak that he could not in any case have lasted much longer. He also added the information that when the judge before passing sentence asked them if they had anything to say, his companion looked at the portly row of jurymen and exclaimed, ” I don’t suppose any of you gentlemen have ever been really hungry.”
Having told his tale the officer relapsed into silence and appeared to be absorbed in his own reflections during the 246
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remainder of his watch. I have sometimes wondered whether he really was one of the two unfortunate men who were constrained to cannibalism, or whether he was pulling my leg. If the latter he was certainly a good actor, for at the time he impressed me with his sincerity.
I did meet an actor on another steamer which I was taking down the river one Christmas Eve and had anchored for the night at Fisherman’s Point. I had left orders that I was to be called when the vessel began to swing at the change of tide.
When the quartermaster turned me out in the small hours with the news that she had started to swing, I got into a thick coat, for it was quite chilly, and made my way to the bridge, where I found on watch a very stout officer whom I had not noticed before. It was a calm, still night, the moon shining softly through the usual cold weather mist on the tall trees and village huts of Fisherman’s Point. The far-off wail of a jackal seemed to accentuate the general effect of peace and quietness. The steamer was evidently going to take her own time about swinging, and having canted across the river she remained in that position without any regard for my desire to get back to bed again.
I lit a cheroot and remarked to the officer that it was a fine night. He agreed, and said, ” Very different with me at this time last year ! ” He sighed and continued, ” I was King Pippin in the Christmas pantomime at Blackpool. But it’s a messing game playing to kids.”
He did not explain why it was a messing game, and I did not like to recall any painful recollections by asking him whether his royal mantle had been sullied by a well-directed egg. Anyway he had retired from the profession and was once more afloat.
I asked him whether he had filled any other leading rSles such as ” Hamlet,” or the dismal jockey in ” The Arcadians.” He had not played either of those parts, but he had been one of the two Corsican Brothers, and the THE ” CHEMNITZ”
memories connected with that performance seemed to have a depressing effect on him.
The steamer having by now got three-quarters of the way round, and the possibility of her tailing the sand no longer a matter of anxiety, I wished him the compliments of the season and retired to my bed in the chart-house.
At certain seasons of the year, and principally at the end of the dry season and before the freshets had commenced to do their useful work of scouring out the channels and improving the tracks over the bars in the upper reaches of the river, we found it necessary to limit the draught of vessels leaving the port. As we were paid according to the vessel’s draught we naturally gave them as deep a draught as possible, and the fact that we did so was generally understood and appreciated by the captains and agents. But not always, as I discovered in the case of a German steamer, the Chemnitz, which I took up with a cargo of horses from Australia. They were a poor lot of horses in bad condition, and the captain told me that they were a poor lot when they came on board, and that many of them had died on the voyage. He also told me that they had lost the boatswain overboard a couple of days before. There were a number of horses standing on either side of the boat deck, and the boatswain was going along outside the rail with the hose and washing down, when one of the horses kicked him overboard.
Nothing worth noting occurred during our passage up the river. I handed over to the Harbour Master and the Chemnitz was berthed at the usual moorings off the remount depot. A week or ten days elapsed, during which I piloted one or two other vessels, and then I learnt that the Chemnitz was nearly loaded and wanted me to fix a draught. The Eastern Gut had been shoaling up, the neap tides were coming on, and the consensus of expert opinion was to the effect that twenty-three feet was the utmost we could expect over the bar in two days’ time. I accordingly told them that they might load to twenty-two feet six, but that 248
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they would do better to restrict the draught to twenty-two feet, as there was a possibility of the bar shoaling still more. The captain wanted to load to twenty-four feet, and said that he understood that we always kept a foot up our sleeves. I assured him that that was not the case, and that if he exceeded the limit which I had given him, his vessel might have to wait until the next spring tides, or unload.
When I boarded the Cliemnitz in Garden Reach to take her away I found to my disgust that she was drawing twenty-three feet six, and I was very much inclined to go ashore again. However, I decided to go and have a look at it; the tide might rise better than the forecast, as there was a good southerly wind, or the bar might open out a few inches, though this latter contingency was unlikely.
As we passed Fultah Point the blackboard on the bank used by the Hooghly Point serang to show the very latest soundings over the bar gave ten feet, a reduction of three inches on the previous day’s report, while the semaphore at Hooghly Point registered thirteen feet three, the combined total making twenty-three feet three, or three inches less than we were drawing. It wanted another twenty minutes to high water, when possibly it might show another three inches.
I had a good look at the last sketch chart of the bar, and the shoalest bit certainly looked very narrow. I suppose it was really my duty to turn round and go back, but I went on instead, feeling by no means too happy. Abreast of Nurpur Point the semaphore did show the longed-for three inches, and I sent word down to the engine-room to ” give her all they could.” The high water ball went up at the same moment and dropped just as we approached the bar.
I had the marks dead on, of course, but she suddenly lost her way and looked as though she was going to stop. I looked at the skipper, who had gone rather pale and who cried out, ” Vot is this, vot is this, Pilot ? ” I saw MR. WOODRUFFE AT NYNAN
she was still moving over the ground, and greatly to my relief was gathering way again, so I said to the captain, ” That is the foot we keep up our sleeves.” As we cleared the bar the semaphore showed a fall of three inches.
Of course I was quite in the wrong, and really ought not to have taken the risk. I can only recall one other occasion on which I did the same thing at the same place, but the steamer that time had a big rise of floor and we went over without noticing the bar at all.
This recalls a story which was told me by one of the senior pilots, with whom I was heaving the lead, of what happened to Mr. Woodruffe who was taking down a small man-of-war and who found on rounding Fultah Point that he would not have sufficient water to cross the Eastern Gut. It was first quarter-ebb and the tide falling fast. The only thing to do was turn and anchor in Nynan. He stopped the engines and told the First Lieutenant that when he gave the order to let go the anchor, he wanted them to hold on the chain as soon as the anchor touched bottom, and then give it to her link by link very slowly. The officer told the captain what the pilot wanted done, but the captain said, ” Nonsense, give her thirty fathoms and hold on.” The result was that the whole of the cable ran out and parted at the clinch. Mr. Woodruffe then asked to be allowed to anchor the vessel in his own way with the remaining anchor, pointing out that otherwise she would possibly be lost. He had his way, and having come-to, proceeded to write out a report of the loss of the anchor, and stated that instead of holding on to the chain as he ordered, they had let it run out to thirty fathoms when, of course, it was impossible to hold it and they lost the lot. Having written it out he took the report to the Captain for his signature, but that gentleman declined at first on the ground that he might be called upon to pay for the chain. But as Woodruffe refused to move the vessel until his report was signed he gave in and parted reluctantly 250
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with his autograph. I never met Mr. Woodruffe, who had retired before I joined the Service, but I have heard this story more than once and have no reason to doubt it.
Inward-bound vessels had to discharge all explosives at the powder magazine, which was situated at Moyapur, nineteen miles below Calcutta. On boarding one of the German steamers of the Hansa Line, I was informed that she had on board a large consignment of dynamite, so I telegraphed the news from Saugor, and on reaching Moyapur turned round and anchored. In addition to the red-painted powder boat, two other cargo lighters came alongside, and the crew proceeded to get the cases of dynamite on deck. They were stout wooden boxes about eighteen inches long, and the men flung them on to the iron deck as cheerfully and carelessly as though they contained oranges. The captain assured me that it was quite safe to treat them in this manner, and that the stuff would not explode without detonators. I took his word for it, but soon after we had anchored a black bank of cloud formed to the north-west, and we got one of the most violent thunderstorms which I have ever experienced. Forked lightning of the most viciouslooking description seemed to be playing all round the steamer, and the captain’s air of cheerful nonchalance disappeared.
As we sat together on the bridge watching the men pass the cases into the boats, I asked him, after one particularly wicked electrical explosion, what he thought would happen if the steamer was struck. He said that there would probably be a hole in the riverbed about half a mile deep. . . . Nothing of the sort happened, but I was very glad when it was all discharged, and we were able to go on our way to Garden Reach.