"One ship cannot wait while the other uses the channel. There is not time. They pass very slowly, so close that it's almost possible to reach out and shake hands with the other pilot. It's dangerous, but both ships must keep going so that they can pick up the maximum tide on each bar."
Now we were in the most heavily populated rural stretch of the Hooghly. Overloaded ferries, oarsmen straining at huge sweeps, plied between the banks, their stoical passengers standing tightly packed together amidships. From one side of the river to the other, fishing boats stretched delicate blue nylon nets, which by some miracle of primitive design came bobbing back to the surface on their floats after we had passed over them. At the bathing ghats, our roaring wash disturbed the dignity of ablutions in these holy Waters, knocking frail worshippers off their feet, but delighting the small boys who paddled out on planks, dangerously close to our propellers, to catch the waves and ride them back to shore.
Two hours later, as we neared Calcutta, jute mills, brick works and the huge Bata shoe factory filled the banks. We had crossed all the bars. We needed only to round the huge right hand bend at Hangman's Point to put us in the home stretch - Garden Reach. The harbour master's pinnace came fussing out to take us off and to put aboard the pilot who would supervise the ship's docking. Our Pilot ordered ‘Dead Slow’, then put on his white cotton gloves. The voyage was over.
One of the last of the Hooghly's British pilots, Captain Ralph Brice, has chosen to live out his retirement on the banks of the River Severn at Framilode, where in the absence of significant shipping Traffic the greatest excitement is the occasional party of surfers, riding up-river on the Severn bore, a tidal phenomenon that sends a 4-ft wave roaring all the way from the sea to the city of Gloucester. The landscape pleases the old captain. The Severn may lack the exotica and drama of the Hooghly, but it is the greatest river we have.
Captain Brice is a short, thin, straight-backed man, very modest and courteous, but giving off the faintest suggestion that when out of temper he might be formidable. Back in Calcutta he is still revered by the pilots of the older generation, many of whom he trained in the mysteries of the river. He is also deeply respected as the Hooghly's official historian; his ‘History of the Bengal Pilot Service’ is in the care of the Custodian of Manuscripts at the Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
The Hooghly was the artery that channelled life into the British Raj. Without it, Calcutta could not have become the capital of British India. And without pilots to keep the river traffic moving it could be argued that the whole commercial edifice of Britsh rule would have collapsed. That is why, when Captain Brice was on the Hooghly the pilots were the highest paid in the world, and why he was able to own racehorses, compete as a gentleman rider at Calcutta racecourse, and cut a dash in the Calcutta Light Horse, a smart cavalry regiment of volunteers.