Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER


With slight adaptations from an article by Peter Crookston in the Observer colour supplement 13 June 1982 in a series on ‘Great Rivers of the World’.

Three days later we boarded the Samudra late at night with a senior pilot in temporary command of the vessel, who was to take her out of dock on the five o'clock tide next morning. Having just arrived from home, the captain had not yet changed into uniform and was looking relaxed and not at all nautical in open-work sandals, baggy flannels, and a brightly patterned short-sleeved shirt - more like an Englishman on a seaside holiday than a prince of the Hooghly. Over a beer in his cabin he explained how the next day would be programmed for us by the tides and their depths on the various bars we had to cross on our way down-river. All these bars are sounded and checked for movement daily by surveyors of the Calcutta Port Trust, who pass on this vital information to the pilots.

He showed us to our quarters, comfortable cabins normally used by off-duty pilots, and told us we need not rise early for the Samudra's departure; he would send a bearer with tea at seven. In the event we were up at six and standing in the wheelhouse to observe the navigation of the ship.

At eight o'clock thew captain announced that it was time for a drink. Anticipating delicious Darjeeling tea, I followed him down to the officers day room. Here we were joined by two Pilots and the chief engineer. Everyone was now looking crisp and efficient in white uniforms that almost dazzled in the bright early morning sun. "What will you have?" asked the captain. "Gin, whisky, brandy?" I wanted none of these spirits at this hour, on such a morning, but there was an air of cheerful expectancy among the company, as of people awaiting a pleasurable ritual. It would have seemed ungracious to demur, so I asked for a small whisky with a lot of soda. Everyone else drank gin and tonic and we were all very jolly, in the Mr Pooter sense of that word, for no one had more than one or two drinks.

Gin before breakfast - what larks! I'm sure that none of these men would ever think of having a drink before breakfast at home. But here, in this unique little world of ships and men, where periods of work and rest are dictated by the tides, it seems the most natural thing in the world to put a quick glow into a man who has been up half the night; and after all, were we not one hell of a bunch of fellows? Who else should be so lucky? Heading for the Bay of Bengal on a brilliant morning smelling of salt and spice, in a well-found ship with congenial chums. It makes a chap feel that life, on the whole, is pretty good.

Suddenly I experienced an unmistakable feeling of déjà-vu that this is how it must have been when the British lorded it over the Hooghly. These proud, courteous men who were our hosts had all joined the pilot service when it was still in the transitional period between British domination and total Indianisation; they were simply carrying on a tradition that had been established by their British mentors.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater