On The Hooghly – A pilot's tale…


My only collision—The Lismore and Venetia—Big windjammersThe Brilliant—On the Gasper Bar—And off again—The two deserters.

IT was on February 20th, 1906, that I had my one and only collision. This occurred as I was taking down a tramp steamer named Venetia, drawing about twentythree feet and capable of steaming at her best between eight and nine knots.

The bar at the James and Mary had been shoaling up and I could not expect to have there more than a foot over my draught at the top of high water.

In view of the slow speed of the Venetia it behoved me to cross Moyapur Bar as soon as there was sufficient water to float the steamer, and it would then be necessary for the engine-room staff to do their best if we were to get across the James and Mary’s. Should we fail to do so the steamer might be held up for several days, for the tides were ‘ taking off ‘ and there would be less rise on the following day.

Another tramp steamer, the Lismore, which was leaving on the same day as the Venetia, was doing so under almost exactly similar conditions.

We turned round in good time, steamed slowly down to Moyapur, where we stopped and waited for the semaphore to show sufficient rise of tide to float us over the bar. The Lismore did the same; and as we waited side by side, the pilot of the Lismore told me that she was drawing three inches more than my vessel.

I told him that I would go over the bar as soon as



I had my water. He said that I had better let him go across first, for although he was drawing three inches more than us, his vessel had a six-inch keel, and was also faster than the Venetia. Of course I agreed and he led the way over Moyapur, closely followed by the Venetia. Before he got to Royapur we caught him up, but could not succeed in passing him. Thence onward both steamers went along side by side. This was a nuisance, as it entailed considerably more attention to the steering, but we could neither of us afford to ease down or give anything away, if we were to save the James and Mary’s bar. I hoped that the Lismore would increase her speed and draw ahead. We kept each other company in this manner, going neck and neck through Fisherman’s Point anchorage, past Fultah, and round Fultah Point.

After rounding the Point, I suggested that he should ease and let me go ahead, but he said that he could not afford to do that, which was perfectly true, and added that they were cleaning fires, and would draw ahead directly.

I then said that as we could not go round Nurpur in that manner tw r o abreast, I would ease my engines. We did this, but still the Lismore failed to draw ahead. So I said, ” All right; I will stop, and go astern.”

Having reversed our engines we at last managed to get behind the other steamer, but the action of the reversed engines had caused the Venetia’s head to pay off to starboard, so we had to go slow ahead again with our helm to starboard to straighten up in the channel.

The Lismore seemed to be hardly moving through the water, for we began to overhaul her again as soon as our engines went ahead. I steadied the helm and then put it hard a-port, and as it looked as though we were going to be very close to the other steamer, put the engines full speed ahead to make the Venetia answer her helm. 284


Instead of doing so she ran up and hit the Lismore just abaft the bridge, pushing her right athwart the channel. We were then just above Nurpur Point.

Our engines were reversed until the two steamers separated. The Lismore then turned round with her port helm and proceeded back, and as soon as I saw a clear channel ahead, I rang the engines full-speed ahead, intending to go on and cross the Gut as there was still sufficient water showing at the semaphore. But the mate hailed me from the forecastle that we had a hole in the bow just above the water-line, so there was nothing for us to do but turn round, too, and follow the Lismore back to Fisherman’s Point, where we both anchored for the night, returning to Calcutta on the following day for repairs. There was a court of enquiry, which I had to attend as a witness. Neither the pilot of the Lismore nor I was blamed for the collision.

I ran across the pilot of the Lismore a short time ago. It was many years since I had last seen him. Speaking of the collision, he agreed that it was unfortunate, but said that we were both trying to do our best for the vessels which we were piloting.

In the Calcutta Statesman of July 26th, 1912, the following appeared:





” For many years Calcutta has been regarded as one of the world’s ports which it was impossible for sailing ships to trade to, and in consequence of this no sailing ship of any size has come up the Hooghly. Small schooners and Arab dhows from the Persian Gulf have traded here regularly, but the bigger ‘ windjammers’ have kept away.

” On Wednesday, however, the American ship Brilliant, said to be one of the biggest barques that has ever visited the East, arrived at Saugor, and it is expected THE ” BRTLLTANT”


that she will be brought up the river to-day. The Brilliant is a four-masted American steel barque, commanded by Captain C. Morrison, and she has brought a cargo of about 5,000 tons of oil from Philadelphia. She is 352 feet long, with a beam of 56 feet, a displacement of 3,565 tons, and the hold is 28 feet deep.

” Her cargo consists of 111,000 cases of kcrosine oil, and 21 tons of lubricating oil.

” On Wednesday the Brilliant arrived off the Eastern Channel Lightship, and Branch Pilot Beattie boarded her, but owing to the heavy seas running, the ship could not be anchored off the Sandheads. The pilot consequently had the very difficult task of sailing the vessel as far as Saugor Roads where she anchored.

” The Port Commissioners’ tug-boat Retriever is being sent down to Saugor, to tow the Brilliant to Budge Budge, where she will discharge her cargo.”

I had not boarded a sailing vessel for very many years, and certainly did not expect ever to handle one again on the Hooghly, but fate decreed that before retiring from the Service I should once more give the order, ” Lee main brace ! “

I had the first turn of Branch Pilots at the Sandheads, but when a sail was sighted to the southward did not feel particularly interested. Like everyone else on board the pilot steamer, I felt rather surprised, for sailing ships of any sort had long since ceased seeking a cargo at Calcutta. In any case, I could only take vessels of over 3,300 tons, and I did not know of any sailing ship of that tonnage. As she approached, it became evident from the size of her sails that she was a large ship, and the Senior Master Pilot of the turn showed signs of concern, and very naturally, for there were no longer powerful tugs, commanded by expert tugmasters to handle them, and to get a large sailing craft up to Calcutta was going to be a problem. But when she was close enough for her flags to be read, his anxiety was removed. She 286


was the Brilliant, 3,565 tons, with a cargo of oil, and I was sent off to her.

She certainly seemed large, and was drawing twentyfive feet six inches. The wind was fair from south-west when I boarded her, but it was about half-ebb, and I should not have enough water over the Gasper Bar until half-flood, so we hove-to on the port tack and waited until the flood made.

When we filled away and stood up-channel the wind was still south-west; but when we were about level with the Intermediate Light we got a heavy rain squall and the wind shifted to west-south-west. If the wind remained like that we were going to have a difficulty in getting through the Gasper, so we braced sharp up and luffed to hug the edge of the Middle Ground. The wind came, if anything, more to the westward, and it was as thick as a hedge. I had a leadsman with me, who kept the lead going. We were under topsails, topgallant-sails and foresail and were slipping through the water nicely. The leadsman kept singing out, ” By the mark five,” and although I could see nothing of the Lower Gasper Light, which was obscured by rain, I felt happy enough, for I knew that there would be enough water for us by the time that we reached the Gasper Bar. And by keeping well to windward on the western side of the channel wc ought to be able to lay through, for she seemed to be a smart vessel. So I kept luffing up, and the leadsman kept giving mc five fathoms. I have often blamed myself since for not taking the lead personally. The leadsman gave mc ” Quarter less five,” and still I luffed up; for I was prepared to stand into four and a half fathoms or twenty-seven feet in my anxiety to get well to windward.

Suddenly I felt her touch the ground, and asked the leadsman what water he had got. He called out, ” Quarter less five,” but I knew that she was on the ground. We brailed in the spanker and squared the after-yards. Her MAKING HER A STEAMER


head payed off at once, and almost immediately we came clear and slipped through the water, to my very great relief. At the same time the weather lifted and I could see both the Gasper Lights. The lower one was bearing about east by north, between two and three miles. At the same time the wind shifted to south by west and remained so until we anchored abreast of Saugor Light.

I felt very sick at having grounded the ship, but it was no use saying anything to the leadsman. With the disappearance of the sailing vessels the lead had become much less important, and I don’t suppose this particular man had had any practice in getting soundings in a seaway.

The next day the tug Retriever, which now belonged to the Port Commissioners and was used in the River Survey Service, came down and took us in tow, and considering that the officer in charge of her had had no experience in towing a vessel of any size, he did remarkably well, and we arrived at the Budge Budge oil moorings without any trouble.

When the Brilliant was ready to leave, the captain applied for me to take him down. I accepted the application but stipulated for two tugs for the first day. It was all very well for the Retriever to tow the ship up the river on the top of the flood tide, but I did not fancy being turned in the Reach and towed round Melancholy and Fultah Points by someone new to the game; so I decided to have a tug on each side and make a steamer of the ship. This plan answered perfectly. The Brilliant became for the time being a twin-screw steamer, and I conned her seated on the roof of the deckhouse on the poop. The second tug was the Rescue, which, like the Retriever, had been one of Turner Morrison’s tugs and had also been purchased from them by the Port Commissioners, who used her to move vessels in the port. We lashed a tug on either side of the ship. The three of us abreast certainly took up a good deal of room, and 888


occupied most of the channel, but we got along quite well, and I do not think that we inconvenienced any of the vessels which we met.

We got to Kulpee, and lay at anchor there with our tugs alongside until the afternoon’s tide, when we weighed and proceeded to Mud Point, where we cast off the tugs and anchored for the night. I decided to tow out from there with the Retriever ahead, so we discharged the Rescue.

In the morning, as we were taking in tow, I remarked to the captain that he had got together a heterogeneous collection of humanity to serve as crew. They were of all races and colours. ” Yes,” he replied; ” but they were the best I could get,” and added, ” I expect by the end of the voyage those two deserters will have become the best sailormen of the lot.” I became interested at this and asked him to point out the two men. It appeared that they belonged to the regiment stationed at Dum Dum just outside Calcutta. I told the captain that I would take the two men with me back to Calcutta, and that unless he agreed to let me have them, the ship would remain at anchor while I telegraphed to the Port Officer for instructions. He demurred at first, but finding that I was really in earnest, gave the required promise, so we hove-up and towed to sea.

When the boat from the pilot steamer came alongside, I asked him to call the two men aft. As they marched along the deck in step, there was no doubt about their calling. They were obviously soldiers, and smart, well set-up soldiers at that. When they were close to the break of the poop I said ” Halt,” and they stood to attention, while I told them to fetch their kitbags, and get into the boat. I felt sorry for the captain who was thus losing two of his complement, but I could not be a party to a couple of soldiers deserting. When we were pulling to the pilot vessel, I suggested that they should put on their helmets, as it was no use getting sunstroke. They TWO SOLDIERS


promptly fished them out of their bags and donned them. It was difficult to understand how they could have been so foolish as to desert, for they were both men of considerable service, and one of them was an N.C.O. On arrival at the steamer they were each given a bottle of iced beer, which probably comforted them a little. They went up that night with me in a steamer which came in to my turn, and as the Port Officer had been notified by wireless, they found an escort waiting to receive them at Calcutta, and they departed bearing a letter to their CO. begging that they might be dealt with as leniently as possible, as they had returned quietly and without making any trouble. Probably they were not very sorry that they had been prevented from making that long voyage round the Cape, which would not have been altogether a joy ride.

I was destined to see the Brilliant once a^ain. Shortly after the War had broken out in 1914, walking on the front at Eastbourne, I sighted a large ship running upchannel and remarked to the person with whom I was walking that she was a very large vessel and leminded me of a ship called the Brilliant. A couple of days later I read in the newspaper that it really was her. She had been sold to the Germans and was wending her way to Hamburg in blissful ignorance of the state of war, when she was captured and taken into Dover Harbour.

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