After our drinks we went below to the dining saloon for a breakfast of spiced fish cakes and poached eggs. When a young officer came down from the bridge to say that the incoming Sagar had been sighted just off Diamond Sand, the captain ordered half-speed so that we could finish our meal before drawing level.
Ten minutes later everyone was at action stations for ‘boating’ - the business of lowering the launch that carries the pilots between their mother vessel and the ships she is servicing. In bad weather at sea it can be appallingly hazardous work; A graphic description of what it is like at night in monsoon conditions has been written by Mr Makhan Chatterjee, a port of Calcutta commissioner: "Night boating at Sandheads is performed by the crew with remarkable courage and agility. In the turmoil of the blackness, the screaming wind and the rushing water, the boat carrying the pilot and his gear proceeds through the waves that alternately swallow the boat in their hollows and shoot it out through their crests as if to smash it into pieces any moment and drown all on board."
Today, as the launch crossed between the Sagar and the Samudra, only a steady breeze ruffled the estuary, sending flimsy-sailed fishing boats skittering like dragonflies across its surface. When the launch was hoisted aboard, the captain said farewell on the radio telephone to the captain he was relieving and rang full ahead. We reached Sandheads in mid-afternoon.
If I had to cast a film about the River Hooghly and its pilots, I would look for someone like our Pilot to play the leading role. We met him just after he had brought a ship down to the bay from Calcutta. As he hauled himself up the rope ladder - wearing white cotton gloves to keep his hands clean, I marvelled that fate should have arranged for us to sail with a man who looked so much like one's ideal of a Hooghly pilot. Removing his gloves, he shook hands gravely with the officers waiting for him on the boat deck in a formal welcoming party that seemed like another little ritual inherited from the British; everyone was in full uniform, and I noticed that they made a point of putting on their peaked caps for the occasion.
Our pilot, being a Sikh, was wearing a beautifully wrapped turban, the badge of the pilot service at its peak. Proud black eyes flashed beneath the white of the turban, the high cheek-bones descended in gracefully chiselled cliffs towards a full and fierce set of whiskers and beard. He was in his early forties, about 5ft 1Oin tall, and as crisp as a cricketer going out to open the batting.
Up on the bridge the captain and his secunny (coxswain) were now busy manoeuvring the Samudra between an Indian tramp steamer and a tanker, both requiring pilots. The secunny, a dignified Moslem, repeated the helm orders with alacrity as he spun the wheel and kept his eyes on the compass needle. Its position in a binnacle suspended from the deck head meant he had to keep his eyes heavenward, an attitude that, combined with his long beard, his skull cap and his jellaba, gave him a devotional air that would have been pleasing to the Prophet.