“Four Men in a Boat” by “Shipmate” story – Chapter 3

The Comliebank – where most of this chapter takes place

3 CHAPTER THREE (Calcutta)

The East India Company controlled most of India on behalf of the Colonial occupiers, namely the British Government.  During the late Victorian period, sea entry was r5rf lucrative area.

Lord Inverforth sought access for his cargo ships known as ‘Bank Line’ and eventually was granted some of the less direct routes mainly from Africa, Australia and other colonies including certain parts of the America’s.

This trade eventually developed into a very significant part of “Andrew Wier’s shipping interests and Calcutta became, next to London, the company’s most important center of commerce and trade.

As a consequence, the Senior Marine Superintendent was stationed in Calcutta that became the homeport of many of the cargo ship and the place where their coloured crews were signed on.

The Chief Officer of the Comliebank was very conscious of that fact when ordering stores whist they were unloading on the East coast of Africa.

He had been notified that they were to load certain cargo for India that would undoubtedly mean the usual gunny and tea would be carried from Calcutta.  Their normal maintenance supply of paints had been heavily increased to enable the vessel to be gleaming for her arrival at their Eastern homeport.  Having loaded the requisite stores in Durban, the ship departed and the crew had a little over thee weeks to scrape off the rust and apply a coat of red lead followed by the seawater resistant top coat.  The outer hull had been painted whilst in port so the rest of it was to be smartened up before their arrival in Calcutta.  Luckily there were only three colours, black, white and buff.  For some reason, the funnel had to have special paint, the undercoat being yellow chromate and the topcoat, the most expensive of all, was heat resistant and consequently the purchase had been limited to one five gallon drum.

The storekeeper on an Indian crew ship is known as a ‘cassab’ and favoured his own kind, paricularly when it came to issuing anything even down to cotton waste.  The apprentices were given worn out brushes and soiled rags with the new brushes being reserved for the ‘collassies’ as the deck crew was better known.

To get round this, the apprentices had procured a spare key to the stores but still went through the charade of always complaining about their equipment.

It so happened that during Ramadan (an Indian holiday), to play a joke on the Cassab, the apprentices had taken the much-prized drum of funnel paint and perched it on the gunwhale capping.

The crew all had the day off so the storekeeper was quite put out at being disturbed by having to open up.  He was dressed in his best gear and set out from his accommodation in the after peak at a snails pace.

 To the Cassab, slowly approaching from the after deck, it looked as though the apprentices were about to push the cherished tin of paint over the side.  In fact this is precisely what they did.

The Cassab was horrified.  He turned and rushed back down the deck to report the incident – first to the Serang and then together to the Chief Officer.

Unnoticed by the Cassab, the apprentices had tied some line around the handle and passed it over the side and back through a scupper before securing the end to a bollard. 

They intended to retrieve the paint and return it to the stores and innocently deny all knowledge of anything unusual, when the Serang and Cassab arrived, accompanied by the Chief Officer.

Sadly the lanyard, when pulled in, had only the handle attached so they did the first thing that came into their heads by locking themselves in the store and keeping absolutely quiet.

The old tin of partially used funnel paint seemed very thin when applied later, which was probably due to the turpentine, added by the apprentices in trying to cover up for the missing paint.

Arriving at the forepeak, the Chief Officer was puzzled that, contrary to the Cassab’s insistence, there was no sign of any problem so he put it down to a minor breakdown in relations between the crew and the apprentices who had been working together for some time.

 His solution was to split them up and the following day he instructed the apprentices to clean out the lifeboats, repaint them and repair the covers, a job that would last at least a week.

All went well at first.  The apprentices were pleased with the task especially as they were rewarded a shilling for each rat they disposed of.  The lifeboats were renowned as a hiding place for these rodents who would make nests out of bits of rope and canvas so it wasn’t unusual to achieve a count of thirty or so from each boat including the contents of the nests.  The ‘modus operandi’ was fairly simple.

One apprentice, armed with a broom, would disturb the rat and the other apprentice would dispatch it using a large spanner as a club. 

 The problem came on the second day.

The crew were painting the funnel from stages hung from the top.  The apprentices were clearing the last boat of the vermin and were unsuccessfully chasing a large wily rat that had long sparse hair like a porcupine and it proved very illusive.  The broom man had it cornered in the bows of the lifeboat when, to avoid capture, it suddenly it leap into the air.  His fellow apprentice threw the heavy spanner straight at the escaping rat.  He missed and by pure accident, hit one of the men painting the funnel in the back of his head. 

In spite of profusely apologizing when the crewmember regained consciousness three hours later, both apprentices found themselves to be ostracised.  It didn’t help, however, when shortly after, one of them inadvertently trod on a prayer mat that hadn’t been put away.

Both of them were very relieved that the crew would be replaced as soon as they reached Calcutta.

It is probably unfair and certainly politically incorrect these days, but it has been said by seaman that the River Hooghly is the ‘arsehole’ of the World and that Calcutta is a hundred miles up it.  This of course is quite untrue as Calcutta is at least one hundred a fifteen miles from the sea.


A fifty-ton slab of steel and concrete was sunk into the riverbed and secured to a four-inch chain, itself weighing several tons.  The chain culminated at a conical shaped floating buoy some six feet diameter and ten feet long.  A huge ring was tethered to the buoy to facilitate mooring and a similar buoy was attached at each end of a ship to prevent swinging.

Vessels were moored so their bows were pointed in the downstream direction; ready to face the ‘bore tide’ experienced in these waters every neap and spring tides.

Garden Reach is situated on the River Hooghly about four miles from Calcutta and one hundred and twenty miles from the Delta.  The great river sweeps round the last bend before Calcutta and widens into a wide natural bay used for loading and discharging cargo of all descriptions.

Machinery and foodstuffs from Africa and in return, tea, jute, and bales of gunny with smaller quantities of aromatic herbs and shellac produced by drying beetles wings which is destined to become household varnish or furniture polish.

  The riverbanks are lined on both sides with factories and warehouses and are used to tie up lighters and various craft of a multitude of shapes and sizes.  The river teems with boats most of which apart, from being used to convey cargo and people, are floating homes for living and sleeping on by their occupants.

Bore tides are not uncommon around the world and are caused mainly in areas of a large rise and fall of tide coupled with a swift flowing river with a wide estuary or basin.  At high tides the natural river flow is prevented by the incoming tide causing a wall of water to build up and travel upstream as the tide builds to high water resulting in a wave that increases in height as the river narrows.  By the time it arrives at ‘Garden Reach’, it sometimes approaches ten foot high causing utter chaos in the river and along its banks.

Luckily the event is predictable and well known.  Precautions are taken on the river and all along its banks.  Hundreds of boats leave their moorings for the relative safety of open water and a general atmosphere of carnival abounds.

Large freighters moor-up by detaching the anchor and using the anchor chain to secure to the buoys.  Their crews, on stand–by, take various preventative actions, the main one being to let out about three to four meters of anchor chain, which is then tied to a bollard with a two inch restraining rope.  The idea being that once the bore hits the initial shock is taken up by the restraining rope, which eventually parts, but not before absorbing the initial impact.  The slack is then released and the anchor chain takes up the strain again, easily coping with the diminishing forces.

A mood of anticipation is felt awaiting the arrival and the balmy warm tropical air carries a mixture of aromas of spices, cigarette smoke and Indian cooking.

As if by common consent, chattering ceases and a rare hush descends upon all those in the vicinity.

After waiting expectantly, a sudden a cacophony of ships sirens and car horns shatter the peace warning of the approach of the bore.  It moves up river at between five and ten knots, oblivious to everything in its path and leaving debris and flotsam in its wake.  Nothing is spared from its powerful onslaught and both large ships and houseboats alike are lifted and dashed down like toys.  After the first wall has passed secondary peaks follow with the effect like a giant ‘Mexican wave’, adding to the mayhem before the surrounding upheaval eventually subsides.

Chaos is everywhere, but people, being used to this periodic event, go about their business of clearing up, in harmony with their neighbours who have suffered similarly.  People have been thrown into the river, others have jumped and they all laugh cheerfully as they splash around in the turbulent water-awaiting rescue.

The bore moves upstream preceded by the warning sirens that seem to give off a higher note as they fade into the distance.

For some reason lights are turned off at the approach of the bore.  Presumably, this was to afford a better viewing of the wave.  After it has passed, lighting is switched back on and having secured the vessel, everyone stands down.

A party mood prevails as witnesses share a common experience and having remained awake and alert, people take the opportunity to eat.  drink and make merry well into the night.

In spite of the late night activities normal work continues on time and the usual hustle and bustle is the order of the next day.

The Chief Officer was a very portly Scot’ from Fife and had called on his tailor to make some new tropical whites consisting of two shirts with breast pockets and epaulets and two pairs of shorts to match.  The tailor had certain misgivings because due to the officers proportions a great deal of material was needed which ate into his meager profit.  Nevertheless with dignified aplomb he called out the measurements to his assistant who noted them down in a cheap exercise book.  A deal was done and the garments were to be completed in two days, just prior to sailing.

On the morning of departure, two Indians bearing a large paper package turned up and advised the gangway guard that they had a package for the chief officer and it was important that they see him.  They waited outside his dayroom and after a short while he appeared.  He took the package to try his new clothes for size and when they proved satisfactory he paid the men and contrary to common belief that Scot’s are mean, he even gave a small tip.

Three quarters of an hour before the ship was due to sail, a rickshaw was seen to halt adjacent to the ship on the Chow Ringey side of the river and the occupants hurried to board a tiny ferry to bring them aboard the ship.

Stevedores were frantically loading the remaining cargo.  The crew was making ready to sail and the engines were being tested in advance of them being used.

The gangway watchman reluctantly escorted the two men to the Chief Officer knowing he is very busy.

“Who are you’?’ asked the Chief Officer.

“We bring your white goods Sahib,” said one of the two men.

“You already delivered them!” the Chief Officer exclaimed.

‘No, they are in here,” the man replied indicating the package.

“Follow me,” instructed the Officer leading the way to his quarters.

He went in and came out a few moments later bearing the package delivered earlier.

A puzzled expression appeared on the face of the tailor as he examined the contents.  After a while the frowned and then his eyebrows lifted with enlightenment, he turned to his assistant and in a high-pitched tirade appraised him of his conclusions.

For the benefit of the Officer, he translated his speech into English.

“ When I called out your measurements to my very able assistant, Rabul Haque was hiding nearby and noted them down.  He must of rushed away and made the garments quickly.”

The two men returned to the shore minus their package and were no longer in a hurry.  They appeared to passers by to be somewhat downhearted

On the other hand, the portly Chief Officer had acquired an extra set of tropical whites at half price, because it was very unlikely that anyone would match his measurements

No one will ever know whether or not he had orchestrated the entire episode but he was known to boast that, “I’ve seen it all before”, having spent many years travelling to the Sub Continent.

After casting off from the buoy, accompanied by two ancient tugboats, the ship headed downriver towards the sea.  The European pilot explained that the treacherous sandbanks in the river often changed position, causing constant updating to be required.

The ship successfully entered the Bay of Bengal and having dropped the pilot off came round to starboard on a southerly course bound for Madras where final loading would take place.

From Madras their passage took them in a southeasterly direction towards Australia, entering the Straits of Malacca and stopping at Singapore for bunkers.

The first port of call in Australia was Brisbane, which although humid, still made a welcome relief from the monsoon climate experienced in India.  On the downside, Australia still had restricted licensing hours and the evening session became known as the ‘seven o’clock’ swill.

The Dockers had limited time to slake their thirst, when finishing their day’s work and tried to drink their sufficiency in a relatively short time

The bars near the docks had few seats and were a totally male domain.  There were no tables,’ just shelves around the walls and the draft beer would be dispensed by the barman using a petrol-pump type nozzle at the end of a long rubber hose which avoided delays in getting refills.  Often the noisy Stevedores were double and triple banked and as can be imagined, the gatherings were sometimes far from peaceful.

The ship unloaded all around the East and South Australian coast ending up at Newcastle about 200 miles north of Sydney, where it was decided by the London Office that the time had come for her to be scrapped. 

Most of the Officers and crew were to be transferred leaving a skeleton crew to take the ship to the breakers in Karachi.

A temporary but very amicable relationship had been built up between the Officers on board the ship and the girls from the Seaman’s Mission.

It was therefore decided to celebrate their imminent departure with a dance and party.  It would start with a procession from the ship to their favourite ‘watering hole’ where they would gift the ship’s large brass bell to the local pub.  After sufficiently ‘christening ‘ the bell they would move on to the mission for the remainder of the evening, eating, drinking and dancing with their hostesses.

Even the best of plans can go wrong.

The large engraved brass bell was lashed between two oars manned by a person on each corner in the manner of natives carrying something through the undergrowth of the jungle.

The Mission band had been encouraged by free drinks to precede the procession that was followed by the sailors dressed in bizarre costumes and accompanying the musicians with a ‘squeeze box’, flute and a dustbin lid being rather tunelessly played by the inebriated Radio Officer using a sash brush.  Their arrival at the hostelry was met with a suitable round of applause by the clientele who joined in the fun and stood the first round of drinks or in Aussie parlance, the first ‘shout’.  A heavy session had begun as round after round followed in rapid succession

It wasn’t until about nine in the evening that someone remembered the dance and they all piled out into three taxis.

Their arrival at the hall caused something of a stir mainly due to the fact that the band were supposed to be performing earlier.

The exhausted disc jockey was extremely pleased and relieved to see his colleagues.

An alien from outer space would have looked on in bewilderment at the scene that was not uncommon in those days.

All the men were congregated at the end near the bar, laughing and telling stories and jokes.

Some of the girls were dancing with one and other while others sat and watched while occasionally sipping their drinks.

At the interval, records were resumed and many of the girls, including a few boys, jived to the latest hits from England and America.

Food was passed round and as the dance progressed well into the evening a sort of ritual pairing began.  It was unusually subtle at first, as Australians are not noted for their finesse.  Nevertheless it was only about half an hour until the last dance before the dance floor became packed.

The second tripper was in his element.  He was young, fit and presentable, as well as being almost sober.

He had noticed a particular girl jiving with her female friend during the interval.  She was tanned golden brown by the sun, which had bleached her long fair hair that was held back in a ponytail by a white silk elasticated bow.  He couldn’t help being smitten when she swirled to the music and her dress momentarily rose up to permit a glimpse of her brief white underwear, which matched the silk bow in her hair.  Her ponytail seemed to dance in rhythm and keep pace with the tempo of the music. Her shapely bronzed legs danced in perfect time to the music.

He chose his moment perfectly.  The live band were playing Glen Millar’s wartime hit titled,  ‘In the mood’.  Couples’ had paired off and were smooching and shuffling around the floor.

“Would you like this dance?”

“Why not!”

They made a handsome couple.  She was delighted to find that his quickstep was surprisingly good.

As they chatted it got even better when he discovered that not only was she a qualified nurse at the ‘Mater Misericordiae’ Hospital but also she had the following day off.

They were partnered for all of the remaining dances and he ignored the jibes from his less fortunate shipmates as they passed.

He knew from experience at the Church Hall dances back in England, that the last dance was the best time.

Tom Jones song ‘ ‘the last waltz with you,’ echoed around the hall.

She smiled, revealing even white teeth as she accepted his invitation to the last dance.  Her emerald green eyes were sparkling with pleasure when he swung her around as they neared the band.

“Can I pick you up about ten tomorrow?” he asked.  “I’ll know where you live after I’ve taken you home.”

“Yes, that would be lovely.”  She said.

“We could go for a swim and perhaps to the Cinema after dinner.”

“I can’t make it in the evening,” she said.

“My boyfriends’ home on leave about seven.”  Her lips pouted briefly,

“His ship gets in at five and all the Marines have been given a month off in recognition of their six month’s in Korea.”

He couldn’t face his mate’s derision, so he went out on his own the rest of their time they were in Newcastle which fortunately was only three more days before he received orders to join another ship in Freemantle.  His presence aboard for the final trip was not needed either!

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