Up the Hooghly to Calcutta
This is not a visit to get the pulses racing, but it is memorable and unforgettable for a variety of other reasons.
Picture this: The ship slows without any obvious purpose. Overside, the water colour is mudlike and fast-flowing, and there is no land in sight. Still, a pilot boat approaches. We are at Sandheads, the station for arriving and departing vessels, and it has a long and fascinating history of pilotage involving protracted voyages often taking 2 days or more to reach moorings or the docks in Calcutta. The pilot boards accompanied by many bags. They contain his overnight wear plus all the things necessary for days on board, and more, often including golf clubs or other strange items not immediately associated with pilotage. It is a tradition steeped in time. Once underway, and informed of the draft, he describes the passage ahead, usually involving an overnight safe anchorage. He is a skilled and experienced pilot.
Finally, when the river narrows and the banks close in, the ship approaches a busy built-up area with many boats, and oceangoing ships hanging on buoys midstream, surrounded by dozens of barges. There is a bustle as sampans and hay barges manoevre in all directions across the river, which is very fast flowing. Most are crabbing sideways in the racing water, defying the force of the flow. Overhead scavenging hawks are circling and watching.
Our destination is a berth midstream, calling for the unshackling of anchors and the use of the chains to moor to buoys.
Later, drydocking occurs, and a repair schedule commences, the owners taking full advantage of the ample cheap labour on offer. The noise is intrusive. Sleeping bodies litter the decks. Ashore, children of all ages are begging cheerfully and forcefully for coins. They chant melodious ditties. Ashore at night, smoke rises from compounds near the dock, and lilting Indian music fills the air. Calcutta is weaving its unforgettable spell.