Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER

HOOGHLY RIVER PILOTAGE (iii)

As experienced by Arthur David Linklater c. 1910-16


At this time (ca. 1910) the Port of Calcutta was expanding rapidly. A report by the Deputy Conservator, Captain F.A.Lovell, was published in ‘The Statesman’, a Calcutta broadsheet, on 21 February 1914 and bears witness to this. Lovell cites comparative figures for various aspects of Port activity for the year 1903 up to 1914 which can be summarised as follows;

  1903 ca 1914
Navigation marks 165 210
Survey marks 25 70
Buoys - river approaches 126 Same?
Light vessels - river approaches 7 Same?
Cask buoys - Diamond Hbr. to Calcutta 47 51
Gas buoys - port 4 6
Gas buoys - lower reaches 5 15
Semaphores with tide gauges 5 7
Plans & notices published 823 1,021
Soundings taken 261,648 1,245,017
No. of vessels 64,288 85,348
Deepest vessel   28’ 10”
Longest vessel   520 ft

Calcutta 1901 The length of vessels was limited by the room for manoeuvre at Garden Reach, the turning ground for Calcutta Port itself. It is that stretch of the river running roughly east-west shown at bottom left on the map, dated about 1900. Space was very restricted. Garden Reach was only about ¼ to ½ a mile wide and vessels could only be turned using a combination of their own power and that of the river and tidal current. There was insufficient room for the use of tugs or lines. The principal on which the manoeuvre is carried out is, that the vessel is turned by the action of the ebb tide which flows strongly along the left or Calcutta side of the channel; that by manipulating her engines and keeping the vessel's stern in the slack water she gradually turns as she drifts down the Reach, the manoeuvre being completed in sufficient time to enable her to straighten up before reaching shoal water. It will be readily understood that with the present breadth of turning ground (800 feet) there is very little room to spare when turning a 500 foot ship drawing 28 feet, particularly when it is remembered that this manoeuvre is carried out throughout the year and during the strongest tides.

From the above figures it can be seen that not only did the river traffic increase dramatically from 1903-1914 but so too did the concomitant surveying, dredging and buoyage work necessary to keep things running smoothly. The need for more surveyors and pilots was doubtless a factor in Arthur securing his post with the Calcutta Port Commissioners. The whole approach from Saugor to Calcutta was surveyed once a month; the more important bars [unavoidable obstructions across the bed of the channel caused by sand banks and general silting] were surveyed at least once a fortnight. The "more important bars" were Moyapore, Ninan, Eastern Gut - also called Hooghly Point, Gabtola, Balari and James & Mary. Of these, the Eastern Gut, Ninan and Moyapore were sounded daily and the information telegraphed to Calcutta and Diamond Harbour. Not only were these all surveyed regularly, they were also dredged to admit deeper vessels. The Eastern Gut required the most time from dredgers, but dredging could only happen under favourable weather conditions. On average the Eastern Gut was dredged four months of the year. Dredging on the lower reaches was limited to the "two fine months of the year." In 1907 "the powerful suction dredger" Sandpiper was put into commission, mainly to deal with the bars on the Upper Reaches, while the suction dredger Balari was commissioned in 1913 to deal with the Lower Reaches. Lovell also proposed acquiring a third dredger in his report. The alternative to dredging was the construction of ‘training walls’ but these were deemed prohibitively expensive.

Night navigation of the Hooghly was of considerable strategic benefit to the port of Calcutta. Before it was adequately dredged and lit in 1914-15, vessels could only proceed so far on each tide before it turned against them or the level of water dropped to such an extent that no further progress could be made when the vessel in question would have to anchor and await the next tide. Speaking generally, vessels leave Calcutta about two hours before low water; it is therefore necessary that the bars first to be crossed including Moyapore, should be dredged to a sufficient depth to permit of vessels crossing at low Water; they then proceed on the rising tide, cross the Eastern Gut Bar as soon as they can on the rising tide, crossing Balari again on a falling tide and thence to Mud Point Anchorage; Balari must therefore be dredged as may be required. Vessels will then leave Mud Point, according to the draft, on the rising tide; the better the Gabtola Channel, the earlier they cross on the tide, and thence to sea. Dredging the bars and lighting the channel permitted vessels to proceed from Calcutta as far as Mud Point in one day i.e. without having to wait for ‘high water’ and by lighting the river between Mud Point and Saugor, ships were enabled to proceed to sea the same night. More ships obviously meant more port dues for Calcutta, and more work for pilots, stevedores etc.13 new gas buoys and 2 gas boats will shortly [1914-15] be placed in the Lower reaches between Mud point and Saugor to permit of night navigation.

Also requiring attention and maintenance were the tidal semaphores and guages. These were located at Moyapore, Hooghly Point, Balari, Phuldobie, Kedgeree, Ulubaria, Royapore, Fulta, Kidderpore, Panchpara, and Gunga Saugor Creek.

In 1914, the two principle survey vessels were the paddle steamers Diligence for the upper reaches i.e. from Fulta point to Pir Serang and Industry for the lower reaches, Diamond Harbour to Saugor. There were also the single screw launches Sadie and Waterwitch; steam cutters Ethel, Wasp, Gnat, Reajuddy and Bee; and the dispatch vessel Retriever - D.V.Guide having been requisitioned for war service. There was also a twin screw vessel named Vigilence which was used if one of the other vessels was out of commission. Until 1904 the Retriever had been commanded by the River Surveyor, but thereafter had a permanent Commander appointed, one of whom was my grandfather Captain Arthur David Linklater from 1913-1917.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater