Over the radio telephone the captain made arrangements for us to be accommodated on the Indian tramp steamer for the voyage up-river to Calcutta with the Pilot. The captain and some of his officers gathered at the head of the rope ladder to see us off, and as the launch ferried us across to our ship, the Samudra honoured us with six farewell blasts on her siren. We were now about to see a pilot at work.
It was almost sunset when the Pilot took command of the A.P.J. Ambika, a 10,000-ton general cargo ship registered in Bombay, carrying fertiliser from Hamburg to the Kidderpore Docks, Calcutta. Her master, a former officer in the Indian Navy, addressed the Pilot as ‘sir’, as did everyone else on the bridge of this extremely efficient ship.
We steamed north, our wake tearing a rent in the gold satin of the sea. There was no breeze now, but up on the open wings of the bridge the heavy tropical night became a cool rush of air displaced by the ship as she surged forward at 14 knots.
The Pilot explained his tactics for the voyage; there would be enough water on this tide to give us an easy clearance across the Middleton, the first bar in the river mouth, and a small clearance across the Balari Bar, higher up the river. We would then anchor in Kalpi Roads to await the morning tide that would give us sufficient water to get through the notorious Eastern Gut. What did he mean by a small clearance over the Balari Bar? "Two feet."
There was a few minutes' silence on the darkened bridge as we tried to imagine only two feet of water between the keel of this 500-ft ship and the two miles of shifting silt that is the Balari Bar. The master stared through his binoculars at the flashing buoys marking the channel ahead. I broke the silence by asking the pilot how he could be so precise. There was a gleam of while deep in the blackness of his beard; "I will show you when we get there." Then, walking to the bridge wing to check the position of a light he called out "Steer three, five, zero." The chief officer repeated the order. A pause, then from the secunny at the wheel: "Three, five, zero it is, sir." We pressed on up the Gaspar Channel, hurrying to catch the tide at the Balari Bar.
The most frequent cause of shipwreck and loss of life on the Hooghly has been the tendency for ships to capsize after running aground - sometimes within minutes of touching. There are two reasons for this: the peculiarly sticky consistency of the river's mud, and the extremely powerful tides. When one side of a ship's rounded bilge hits the mud it is held fast in an embrace of Superglue strength. A yawning void is then left under the rest of the ship's hull, into which the unfortunate vessel topples.