An Unqualified Pilot

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An Unqualified Pilot  (1895) 
by Rudyard Kipling
First published in the Windsor Magazine, February 1895.


Almost any pilot will tell you that his work is much more difficult than you imagine; but the Pilots of the Hugli know that they have one hundred miles of the most dangerous river on earth running through their hands—the Hugli between Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal and they say nothing. Their service is picked and sifted as carefully as the bench of the Supreme Court, for a judge can only hang the wrong man, or pass a bad law; but a careless pilot can lose a ten-thousand-ton ship with crew and cargo in less time than it takes to reverse her engines.

There is very little chance of anything getting off again when once she touches in the furious Hugli current, loaded with all the fat silt of the fields of Bengal, where soundings change two feet between tides, and new channels make and unmake themselves in one rainy season. Men have fought the Hugli for two hundred years, till now the river owns a huge building, with drawing, survey, and telegraph departments, devoted to its private service, as well as a body of wardens, who are called the Port Commissioners.

They and their officers govern everything that floats from the Hugli Bridge to the last buoy at Pilots Ridge, one hundred and forty miles away, far out in the Bay of Bengal, where the steamers first pick up the pilots from the pilot brig.

A Hugli pilot does not kindly bring papers aboard for the passengers, or scramble up the ship’s side by wet, swaying rope-ladders. He arrives in his best clothes, with a native servant or an assistant pilot to wait on him, and he behaves as a man should who can earn two or three thousand pounds a year after twenty years’ apprenticeship. He has beautiful rooms in the Port Office at Calcutta, and generally keeps himself to the society of his own profession, for though the telegraph reports the more important soundings of the river daily, there is much to be learned from brother pilots between each trip.

Some million tons of shipping must find their way to and from Calcutta each twelvemonth, unless the Hugli were watched as closely as his keeper watches an elephant, there is a fear that it might silt up, as it has silted up round the old Dutch and Portuguese ports twenty and thirty miles behind Calcutta.

So the Port Office sounds and scours and dredges the river, and builds spurs and devices for coaxing currents, and labels all the buoys with their proper letters, and attends to the semaphores and the lights and the drum, ball and cone storm signals; and the pilots of the Hugli do the rest; but, in spite of all care and the very best attention, the Hugli swallows her ship or two every year. Even the coming of wireless telegraphy does not spoil her appetite.

When Martin Trevor had waited on the river from his boyhood; when he had risen to be a Senior Pilot, entitled to bring up to Calcutta the very biggest ships; when he had thought and talked of nothing but Hugli pilotage all his life to nobody except Hugli pilots, he was exceedingly surprised and indignant that his only son should decide to follow his father’s profession. Mrs. Trevor had died when the boy was a child, and as he grew older, Trevor, in the intervals of his business, noticed that the lad was very often by the river-side—no place, he said, for a nice boy. But, as he was not often at home, and as the aunt who looked after Jim naturally could not follow him to his chosen haunts, and as Jim had not the faintest intention of giving up old friends there, nothing but ineffectual growls came of the remark. Later, when Trevor once asked him if he could make anything out of the shipping on the water, Jim replied by reeling off the list of all the house-flags in sight at the moorings, together with supplementary information about their tonnage and captains.

“You’ll come to a bad end, Jim,” said Trevor. “Boys of your age haven’t any business to waste their time on these things.”

“Oh, Pedro at the Sailors’ Home says you can’t begin too early.”

“At what, please?”

“Piloting. I’m nearly fourteen now, and—and I know where most of the shipping in the river is, and I know what there was yesterday over the Mayapur Bar, and I’ve been down to Diamond Harbour—oh, a hundred times already, and I’ve——”

“You’ll go to school, son, and learn what they teach you, and you’ll turn out something better than a pilot,” said his father, who wanted Jim to enter the Subordinate Civil Service, but he might just as well have told a shovel-nosed porpoise of the river to come ashore and begin life as a hen. Jim held his tongue; he noticed that all the best pilots in the Port Office did that; and devoted his young attention and all his spare time to the River he loved. He had seen the nice young gentlemen in the Subordinate Civil Service, and he called them a rude native name for “clerks.”

He became as well known as the Bankshall itself; and the Port Police let him inspect their launches, and the tug-boat captains had always a place for him at their tables, and the mates of the big steam dredgers used to show him how the machinery worked, and there were certain native row-boats which Jim practically owned; and he extended his patronage to the railway that runs to Diamond Harbour, forty miles down the river. In the old days nearly all the East India Company’s ships used to discharge at Diamond Harbour, on account of the shoals above, but now ships go straight up to Calcutta, and they have only some moorings for vessels in distress there, and a telegraph service, and a harbour-master, who was one of Jim’s most intimate friends.

He would sit in the Office listening to the soundings of the shoals as they were reported every day, and attending to the movements of the steamers up and down (Jim always felt he had lost something irretrievable if a boat got in or out of the river without his knowing of it), and when the big liners with their rows of blazing portholes tied up in Diamond Harbour for the night, Jim would row from one ship to the other through the sticky hot air and the buzzing mosquitoes and listen respectfully as the pilots conferred together about the habits of steamers.

Once, for a treat, his father took him down clear out to the Sandheads and the pilot brig there, and Jim was happily sea-sick as she tossed and pitched in the Bay. The cream of life, though, was coming up in a tug or a police boat from Diamond Harbour to Calcutta, over the “James and Mary,” those terrible sands christened after a royal ship that they sunk two hundred years before. They are made by two rivers that enter the Hugli six miles apart and throw their own silt across the silt of the main stream, so that with each turn of the weather and tide the sands shift and change under water like clouds in the sky. It was here (the tales sound much worse when they are told in the rush and growl of the muddy waters) that the Countess of Stirling, fifteen hundred tons, touched and capsized in ten minutes, and a two-thousand-ton steamer in two, and a pilgrim ship in five, and another steamer literally in one instant, holding down her men with the masts and shrouds as she lashed over. When a ship touches on the “James and Mary,” the river knocks her down and buries her, and the sands quiver all around her and reach out under water and take new shapes over the corpse.

Young Jim would lie up in the bows of the tug and watch the straining buoys kick and choke in the coffee-coloured current, while the semaphores and flags signalled from the bank how much water there was in the channel, till he learned that men who deal with men can afford to be careless, on the chance of their fellows being like them; but men who deal with things dare not relax for an instant. “And that’s the very reason,” old McEwan said to him once, “that the ‘James and Mary’ is the safest part of the river,” and he shoved the big black Bandoorah, that draws twenty-five feet, through the Eastern Gat, with a turban of white foam wrapped round her forefoot and her screw beating as steadily as his own heart.

If Jim could not get away to the river there was always the big, cool Port Office, where the soundings were worked out and the maps drawn; or the Pilots’ room, where he could lie in a long chair and listen quietly to the talk about the Hugli; and there was the library, where if you had money you could buy charts and books of directions against the time that you would actually have to steam over the places themselves. It was exceedingly hard for Jim to hold the list of Jewish Kings in his head, and he was more than uncertain as to the end of the verb audio if you followed it far enough down the page, but he could keep the soundings of three channels distinct in his head, and, what is more confusing, the changes in the buoys from “Garden Reach” down to Saugor, as well as the greater part of the Calcutta Telegraph, the only paper he ever read.

Unluckily, you cannot peruse about the Hugli without money, even though you are the son of the best-known pilot on the river, and as soon as Trevor understood how his son was spending his time, he cut down his pocket money, of which Jim had a very generous allowance. In his extremity he took counsel with Pedro, the plum-coloured mulatto at the Sailors’ Home, and Pedro was a bad, designing man. He introduced Jim to a Chinaman in Muchuatollah, an unpleasing place in itself, and the Chinaman, who answered to the name of Erh-Tze, when he was not smoking opium, talked business in pigeon-English to Jim for an hour. Every bit of that business from first to last was flying in the face of every law on the river, but it interested Jim.

“S’pose you takee. Can do? “Erh-Tze said at last.

Jim considered his chances. A junk, he knew, would draw about eleven feet and the regular fee for a qualified pilot, outward to the Sandheads, would be two hundred rupees. On the one hand he was not qualified, so he dared not ask more than half. But, on the other hand, he was fully certain of the thrashing of his life from his father for piloting without license, let alone what the Port Authorities might do to him. So he asked one hundred and seventy-five rupees, and Erh-Tze beat him down to a hundred and twenty. The cargo of his junk was worth anything from seventy to a hundred and fifty thousand rupees, some of which he was getting as enormous freight on the coffins of thirty or forty dead Chinamen, whom he was taking to be buried in their native country.

Rich Chinamen will pay fancy prices for this service, and they have a superstition that the iron of steamships is bad for the spiritual health of their dead. Erh-Tze’s junk had crept up from Singapore, via Penang and Rangoon, to Calcutta, where Erh-Tze had been staggered by the Pilot dues. This time he was going out at a reduction with Jim, who, as Pedro kept telling him, was just as good as a pilot, and a heap cheaper.

Jim knew something of the manners of junks, but he was not prepared, when he went down that night with his charts, for the confusion of cargo and coolies and coffins and clay-cooking places, and other things that littered her decks. He had sense enough to haulthe rudder up a few feet, for he knew that a junk’s rudder goes far below the bottom, and he allowed a foot extra to Erh-Tze’s estimate of the junk’s depth. Then they staggered out into midstream very early, and never had the city of his birth looked so beautiful as when he feared he would not come back to see it. Going down “Garden Reach” he discovered that the junk would answer to her helm if you put it over far enough, and that she had a fair, though Chinese, notion of sailing. He took charge of the tiller by stationing three Chinese on each side of it, and standing a little forward, gathered their pigtails into his hands, three right and three left, as though they had been the yoke lines of a row-boat. Erh-Tze almost smiled at this; he felt he was getting good care for his money and took a neat little polished bamboo to keep the men attentive, for he said this was no time to teach the crew pigeon-English. The more way they could get on the junk the better would she steer, and as soon as he felt a little confidence in her, Jim ordered the stiff, rustling sails to be hauled up tighter and tighter. He did not know their names—at least any name that would be likely to interest a Chinaman—but Erh-Tze had not banged about the waters of the Malay Archipelago all his life for nothing. He rolled forward with his bamboo, and the things rose like Eastern incantations.

Early as they were on the river, a big American oil (but they called it kerosene in those days) ship was ahead of them in tow, and when Jim saw her through the lifted mist he was thankful. She would draw all of seventeen feet, and if he could steer by her they would be safe. It is easier to scurry up and down the “James and Mary” in a police-boat that some one else is handling than to cram a hard-mouthed old junk across the same sands alone, with the certainty of a thrashing if you come out alive.

Jim glued his eyes to the American, and saw that at Fultah she dropped her tug and stood down the river under sail. He all but whooped aloud, for he knew that the number of pilots who preferred to work a ship through the “James and Mary” was strictly limited. “If it isn’t Father, it’s Dearsley,” said Jim, “and Dearsley went down yesterday with the Bancoora, so it’s Father. If I’d gone home last night instead of going to Pedro, I’d have met him. He must have got his ship quick, but—Father is a very quick man.” Then Jim reflected that they kept a piece of knotted rope on the pilot brig that stung like a wasp; but this thought he dismissed as beneath the dignity of an officiating pilot, who needed only to nod his head to set Erh-Tze’s bamboo to work.

As the American came round, just before the Fultah Sands, Jim raked her with his spy-glass, and saw his father on the poop, an unlighted cigar between his teeth. That cigar, Jim knew, would be smoked on the other side of the “James and Mary,” and Jim felt so entirely safe and happy that he lit a cigar on his own account. This kind of piloting was child’s play. His father could not make a mistake if he tried; and Jim, with his six obedient pigtails in his two hands, had leisure to admire the perfect style in which the American was handled—how she would point her bowsprit jeeringly at a hidden bank, as much as to say, “Not to-day, thank you, dear,” and bow down lovingly to a buoy as much as to say, “You’re a gentleman, at any rate,” and come round sharp on her heel with a flutter and a rustle, and a slow, steady swing something like a well-dressed woman staring all round the theatre through opera-glasses.

It was hard work to keep the junk near her, though Erh-Tze set everything that was by any means settable, and used his bamboo most generously. When they were nearly under her counter, and a little to her left, Jim, hidden behind a sail,would feel warm and happy all over, thinking of the thousand nautical and piloting things that he knew. When they fell more than half a mile behind, he was cold and miserable thinking of all the million things he did not know or was not quite sure of. And so they went down, Jim steering by his father, turn for turn, over the Mayapur Bar, with the semaphores on each bank duly signalling the depth of water, through the Western Gat, and round Makoaputti Lumps, and in and out of twenty places, each more exciting than the last, and Jim nearly pulled the six pigtails out for pure joy when the last of the “James and Mary” had gone astern, and they were walking through Diamond Harbour.

From there to the mouth of the Hugli things are not so bad—at least, that was what Jim thought, and held on till the swell from the Bay of Bengal made the old junk heave and snort, and the river broadened into the inland sea, with islands only a foot or two high scattered about it. The American walked away from the junk as soon as they were beyond Kedgeree, and the night came on and the river looked very big and desolate, so Jim promptly anchored somewhere in grey water, with the Saugor Light away off toward the east. He had a great respect for the Hugli to the last yard of her, and had no desire whatever to find himself on the Gasper Sand or any other little shoal. Erh-Tze and the crew highly approved of this piece of seamanship. They set no watch, lit no lights, and at once went to sleep.

Jim lay down between a red-and-black lacquer coffin and a little live pig in a basket. As soon as it was light he began studying his chart of the Hugli mouth, and trying to find out where in the river he might be. He decided to be on the safe side and wait for another sailing-ship and follow her out. So he made an enormous breakfast of rice and boiled fish, while Erh-Tze lit fire-crackers and burned gilt paper to the Joss who had saved them so far. Then they heaved up their rough-and-tumble anchor, and made after a big, fat, iron four-masted sailing ship, heavy as a hay-wain.

The junk, which was really a very weatherly boat, and might have begun life as a private pirate in Annam forty years before, followed under easy sail; for the four-master would run no risks. She was in old McEwan’s hands, and she waddled about like a broody hen, giving each shoal wide allowances. All this happened near the outer Floating Light, some hundred and twenty miles from Calcutta, and apparently in the open sea.

Jim knew old McEwan’s appetite, and often heard him pride himself on getting his ship to the pilot brig close upon meal hours, so he argued that if the pilot brig was get-at-able (and Jim himself had not the ghost of a notion where she would lie), McEwan would find her before one o’clock.

It was a blazing hot day, and McEwan fidgeted the four-master down to “Pilots Ridge” with what little wind remained, and sure enough there lay the pilot brig, and Jim felt shivers up his back as Erh-Tze paid him his hundred and twenty rupees and he went overside in the junk’s one crazy dinghy. McEwan was leaving the four-master in a long, slashing whale-boat that looked very spruce and pretty, and Jim could see that there was a certain amount of excitement among the pilots on the brig. There was his father too. The ragged Chinese boatmen gave way in a most ragged fashion, and Jim felt very unwashen and disreputable when he heard the click of McEwan’s oars alongside, and McEwan saying, “James Trevor, I’l! trouble you to lay alongside me.”

Jim obeyed, and from the corner of one eye watched McEwan’s angry whiskers stand up all round his face, which turned purple.

“An’ how is it you break the regulations o’ the Porrt o’ Calcutta? Are ye aware o’ the penalties and impreesonments ye’ve laid yourself open to?” McEwan began.

Jim said nothing. There was not very much to say just then; and McEwan roared aloud: “Man, ye’ve perrsonated a Hugli pilot, an’ that’s as much as to say ye’ve perrsonated ME! What did yon heathen give ye for honorarium?”

“’Hundred and twenty,” said Jim.

“An’ by what manner o’ means did ye get through the ‘James and Mary’?”

“Father,” was the answer. “He went down the same tide and I—we—steered by him.”

McEwan whistled and choked, perhaps it was with anger. “Ye’ve made a stalkin’-horse o’ your father, then? Jim, laddie, he’ll make an example o’ you.”

The boat hooked on to the brig’s chains, and McEwan said, as he set foot on deck before Jim could speak, “Yon’s an enterprising cub o’ yours, Trevor. Ye’d better enter him in the regular business, or one o’ these fine days he’ll be acting as pilot before he’s qualified, and sinkin’ junks in the fairway. He fetched yon junk down last night. If ye’ve no other designs I’m thinkin’ I’ll take him as my cub, for there’s no denying he’s a resourceful lad—for all he’s an unlicked whelp.”

“That,” said Trevor, reaching for Jim’s left ear, “is something we can remedy,” and he led him below.

The little knotted rope that they keep for general purposes on the pilot brig did its duty, but when it was all over Jim was unlicked no longer. He was McEwan’s property to be registered under the laws of the Port of Calcutta, and a week later, when the Ellora came along, he bundled over the pilot brig’s side with McEwan’s enamelled leather hand-bag and a roll of charts and a little bag of his own, and he dropped into the sternsheets of the pilot gig with a very creditable imitation of McEwan’s slow, swaying sit-down and hump of the shoulders.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1936, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.