There is a marvellously understated account of piloting a ship around Hooghly Point in the memoirs of M.H. Beattie, a former pilot who witnessed a typical shipwreck there. Beattie was taking a steamer up-river in June 1887, following behind another steamer called the Mahratta: "I had timed departure from Saugor Roads so as to arrive at the James and Mary with sufficient rise of tide to admit of my using the Western Gut. With my glass I picked up the semaphore at Hooghly Point and from the depth of water which it was showing, estimated that by the time I arrived at the Western Gut there would be about two feet more than my draught. I was watching the steamer ahead of me and as I approached Luff Point noticed that she was going to use the Eastern Gut. Almost immediately I saw her take the ground and capsize, her funnel touching the water. I told our captain I would turn round below the Mahratta and take up a position from which our boats could reach her."
The crew of the Mahratta was saved, but the ship disappeared, and within days there was not a trace of her. There have been so many wrecks on the James and Mary that ship is piled on ship in a grisly multi-decker sandwich that the voracious sand has had no difficulty in digesting.
As we approached it, our Pilot asked the chief officer to make sure that both anchors were ready to be let go immediately in case of an emergency. "Yes sir, they're ready," said the mate.
"You don't seem to understand me, Mr Mate. I wish you to be up there on the fo'c'sle head in person in case we need those anchors."
"Very good, sir" said the mate, and left the bridge immediately to join the anchor squad up forward. The Captain took over the checking of the helm orders as we closed up on Hooghly Point and went into the turn. At one critical moment the wheel had to be put hard down to port to keep the bows amidships in the narrow channel as the conflicting currents took hold at each end of the ship. Then we were through the bend and steaming up the Nurpur Reach at full speed, close to the right hand side, the ship's displacement sucking the bank dry just forward of the beam, leaving moored boats aground till the wash followed on and replaced the water with a rush of surf that sent everything lurching and bobbing and brought gleeful screams from the bathing children.
The Hooghly was now carving a brown squiggle through verdant agricultural land; rice paddies, palm trees and mango groves. Villages huddled close along its banks, clinging tenaciously to the fertile soil that is the river's bounty.
We pressed onward at full speed, the great ship creaming into the bends like a motor launch, our impression of its speed acutely heightened by its proximity to the river banks. The Pilot, talking to me but looking over my shoulder at the leading marks and semaphores, breaking off every now and then to call out compass bearings to the helmsman, told me that in some places between Hooghly Point and Calcutta there is only a 500ft width of channel, in which ships sometimes have to pass hair-raisingly close to each other going in opposite directions.