I’d been out East for just over a year and the Company decided that I should start making my way home.
I signed off the Chanda (black & white picture above) and made my way to a hotel in Karachi called the Beach Luxury Hotel.
This hotel was much better than the Bristol Hotel in Kuwait; at least I could buy a beer. It also held floor shows in the evening. I’d never seen a real floor show in a hotel or restaurant, except via the cinema, courtesy of Hollywood. The nightly show guaranteed at least one person in the audience.
I was to await my next ship the Chakdara, (top coloured photograph), which was a ‘home-line’ vessel i.e she was based in London rather than Bombay or Singapore, and did the UK to India run. I waited eighteen days in Karachi before signing on Chakdara.
The two things that I do remember about Karachi in 1964 was a three-legged jackal in the Karachi zoo, and visiting a horse racing meet and watching a horse called Solomon Star, and in brackets (formally Woodland Star). Never having been very good at gambling I thought the last horse to bet on would be an animal linked to me – so I didn’t bet on Solomon Star, but of course it romped home, thus confirming my lack of skill at gambling.
Fortunately I didn’t receive the same welcome that Paul McCartney received a week or so before my arrival. He’d been mobbed at Karachi Airport and police had to protect him from screaming girls. The Beatles were on the way to Hong Kong for a concert as part of their world tour. I think their transit stop at Karachi airport was supposed to be a secret . . . .
I joined the Chakdara for the voyage back to the UK. She was more modern than my two previous ships, having been built in 1951. She had a very different ‘feel’ to her because she was a ‘home line’ ship, and she carried twelve passengers. She would receive visits from Head Office, whereas the Eastern line vessels never came in contact with HO, and so the onboard atmosphere was a little more relaxed on Eastern line vessels..
We sailed to Ceylon, as it was then – Ceylon didn’t become Sri Lanka until 1972. After which we sailed to our first Indian port of Madras (now called Chennai).
The day after arrival in Madras, I and another cadet were allowed ashore. We were under strict instructions that we had to be back on board no later than 6.00 am the following day, at which time we would sail for Calcutta.
Madras was a pleasant place, but it could not hold our interest until 6.00 am the following morning, so we decided to return to the ship around 11.30 pm.
On entering the dock area we noticed that our ship was no longer at the same berth as she was a few hours earlier. We looked along the quay thinking that she had been moved to a fresh berth – we couldn’t see her.
On reaching the original berth a well-dressed Indian stepped out of the shadows and asked if we were cadets from the Chakdara, with him was an armed soldier.
We agreed that we were from the Chakdara and asked where our ship was berthed. He pointed to a vessel turning in the outer harbour.
‘You are booked on the next train to Calcutta, and an armed guard will accompany you’ said the agent.
‘How were we to know she was going to sail early?’
He shrugged his shoulders and spoke to the guard, who moved towards us to make sure we were not illegal immigrants trying to enter India.
As he did so we noticed a small rowing boat passing near the steps that led from the quay to the water, and we both ran down and jumped in to this boat. The dozing boatman was suddenly wide-awake.
We waved money at him and pointed to our ship in the outer harbour, and we set off in hot pursuit. Behind us the armed guard was not at all happy at losing his prisoners, but at least he didn’t fire at us.
Our ship was turning very slowly in the harbour, and the boatman was pulling on his oars like mad, in an effort to catch the Chakdara. While the boatman rowed, my friend and I stood in the stern shouting and waving like demented fools, in an effort to attract attention.
The ship completed her turn and was now pointing out to sea through the harbour entrance. We could see the white disturbance of the water caused by her propellers as she began to move ahead.
Suddenly the disturbance stopped and a Jacob’s ladder was lowered down to the water’s edge – they’d seen or heard us. The harbour and the quay were all brightly lit so perhaps someone was keeping an eye out, just in case.
We paid off the boatman and began the climb up the steep side of the ship, via the ladder.
The picture shows Chakdara with the Jacob’s ladder hanging over the side – our problem was that it was half past midnight – not daylight as in the photograph. At least the deck crew shone a light over the side to assist our climb.
On nearing the top of the ladder the sound of the engines could be heard as half ahead was rung on the telegraph. Time was money.
As the senior cadet I was ordered to report to the Captain, to explain our lateness.
Even though I’d been told that we were not due to sail until after 6.00 am the following day, I was told that I should have known that we would have sailed early. At that comment from the Captain, I kept my mouth shut – I was not sure if he was joking or blaming us.
Next port was Calcutta.
It was not a long voyage from Madras to Calcutta, but the river transit of the Hooghly was interesting due to the constant changing of the sandbanks. The distance from the sea to the docks is about 126 miles (203 km). We anchored at night and completed the river journey the following day.
Two BI ships working cargo from barges.
Once along side we began to work cargo. The problem was the monsoon season. We had to contend with heavy rain that stopped after about an hour allowing work to resume, and then perhaps half an hour later the rain would start again. We had a system of tarpaulin tents attached to the ship’s derricks and as soon as the rain started the tent was hauled up to cover each of the hatches to protect the cargo. Our time in Calcutta should have been for a few days, but turned in to more like a fortnight, all due to the monsoons. Even visiting Calcutta itself was no longer a pleasure, due to flooding and heavy rain.
Street flooded in Calcutta 1964
Due to our inability to keep dry, when out and about, we entertained ourselves onboard, and of course the entertainment revolved around beer. Each evening around 10.00 pm one of the cadets would go ashore and buy curried suppers for those involved in the entertainment. We used to toss a coin for the first and second nights and after that took it in turns.
I lost the toss on the first night and trudged ashore to the local street stall just outside the dock gates. The food, various curries and rice, was packed in banana leaves, and tied with strong cotton. I hurried back with my load and handed the parcels around, and sat to enjoy my own with another cold beer. Unthinkingly I used the banana leaf as a vegetable. I thought the leaf was edible, forgetting that it was in place of a newspaper wrapping that we used in the UK for fish and chips. Fortunately I didn’t finish too much of the leaf, just enough for me to realise my mistake, but enough to keep me ‘regular’ for the next two days. Of course the others noticed me eating the leaf, but didn’t say anything – friendship?
During the day it was the cadets’ duty to keep an eye on the loading, and that the cargo was being loaded correctly, and in the right order for discharge. This was well before containerisation.
As you see in the photograph it was all manhandled and loaded via the ship’s derricks. One time I remonstrated with the dockside supervisors about the stacking of the cargo on to the pallet, before the pallet was lifted from the ground to be deposited in the hold.
With indignation the supervisor raised himself to his full height, he came up to my shoulder, and stared in to my eyes, while saying with great dignity in his sing song Indian accent, ‘you think I know damn nothing, when in fact I know damn all!’
I nodded as if in agreement, turned and made my way to the officer’s accommodation where I could no longer hold in the laughter.
Finally, in spite of the rain, we managed to load all our cargo in a dry state, as well as a number of passengers who were returning to the UK. The additional faces in the dinning room and saloon expanded our conversational subjects beyond the sea and ships.
Three nuns joined us on their way home for retirement after they’d spent most of their lives in the hills of northern India as medical assistants, and spreading the gospel. They brought two dogs on board, and intended to pay for the six months quarantine in the UK, and keep them as pets. Part of our duties, as cadets, was to look after these animals, feed them, hose down the deck area that they were allowed to use, and make sure they didn’t fall overboard. The problem was that these dogs were vegetarians because the nuns could not afford to feed them meat during their time at hill station.
We had other passengers, which included a couple of teenage daughters who were around eighteen years of age. It was going to be an interesting voyage.
It was the 4th August before we eventually sailed out of the Hooghly River in to the Bay of Bengal.
For the next few days I was as sick as could be, due to the corkscrewing motion of the ship in the monsoons conditions. I hardly ate anything and would get sick cleaning my teeth. One way of losing weight I suppose, but when one is seasick and you are offered a gun to shoot yourself, you’d thank the gun giver. Seasickness is the most horrible feeling I’ve have ever experienced, because you can not stop the corkscrewing motion of the ship.
It was not until we were close to Ceylon that the ship’s corkscrewing changed to a steady roll, which was much easier on the body, allowing me to get used to an even roll in the ocean swell.
Finally we entered Trincomalee harbour, which is a natural beautiful circular harbor on the north east side of the country. We moored to a buoy and began to load chests of tea from barges, using our own derricks.
The loading was very labour intensive – loading a few chests of tea in to a cargo net, which would be brought on board and lowered in to the hold. A different labour gang would unload the net and then stack the tea chests in the appropriate area of the hold. In the meantime the empty cargo net is sent back for another load. This process started in the cool of the morning until lunchtime. After a lunch break the loading carried on until late afternoon. At night we would rig the cargo tents over the holds just in case of rain.
We were quite happy at the slow loading because it allowed us time to use the lifeboat to go ashore for picnics and a BBQ, along with some of the passengers. The lifeboat was powerful enough for me to be taught to ‘water ski’. I used a cargo pallet from the ship; a long rope from the lifeboat and my friends dragged me around the harbour behind the lifeboat.
I must admit it was great fun, and it didn’t take me long to find my balance riding the hatch board, and to bounce over the lifeboat’s wake. The next time I tried water skiing would be in Victoria, Australia, twenty years later, so this small introduction at Trincomalee came in handy.
A small part of the beautiful beaches at Trinco where we had a BBQ.
Our next port was Madras – again, but this time I didn’t go ashore.