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  • Writer's pictureL.J. Singh


Updated: May 16, 2021

What is in a name? Sometimes nothing at all, but many a time, a lot of things, especially if it is pronounced differently, as is evident from an anecdote, well explained in the encountered experience.

While serving on a ship as Chief Engineer, I applied to my Company for permission to carry my wife and two sons, then 7 and 11 years respectively, for a round voyage on my ship. The permission came through when I was in Kolkata (then called, Calcutta). After completing all the requisite formalities to carry my family on board, my wife and children reached the Calcutta, well in time, before the departure of the ship. Once the cargo was loaded and other here-there formalities were done, we left the port docks with the morning tide in the Hooghly River. My wife and my sons, especially, were very much elated during the about 90 miles picturesque passage through the river leading to the Sea of Bay of Bengal. The long voyage to the West had just begun.

sea hotels at holland

Our first destination port of (cargo) discharge was Rotterdam in Holland, which is also called the Netherlands, the lowlands, being somewhat below sea level and protected by man-made dykes all around. Our ship sailed through the Indian ocean, Arabian sea, to Aden, where we had a few hours’ stays for bunkering (fuel oil, etc.). Then we entered the Red Sea through which we reached the port of Suez. At this point, we had another short stay, along with many other Northbound ships where a convoy of ships is made and each ship is provided with a pilot to guide the ships, one after the other, through the Suez Canal passage. This 100 odd miles-long man-made canal, an engineering marvel, connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean at Port Said, an Egyptian city. There is a water body called Great Bitter Lake, about 35 miles from the start of the canal passage, where southbound ships wait for the northbound ship to pass by, as the canal was just broad enough to allow only a single lane of one-way traffic. The Suez Canal shortens the distance between India & Europe by about 6000 miles, thus avoiding, the long passage around the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost part of the African continent. The passage of about 15 hours through the canal was quite interesting and it relieved, to some extent, the monotony of a long sea voyage.

After disembarking the Suez Canal Pilot at Port Said, our ship continued the journey to the West through the Mediterranean Sea till Gibraltar, a narrow passage of just a few miles between the two great continents of Europe in the North and Africa in the South. After crossing the Gibraltar passage the ship was in the turbulent waters of the great Atlantic Ocean, from where we headed northwards and in due time were in Bay of Biscay, mostly a stormy area, from where we started our first choppy and rough seas experience. Although my sons were not feeling any sea sickness, but my wife was down and out for nearly the entire stormy passage till our ship entered the English Channel. The Channel was densely fogged with heavy sea traffic, we could barely see anything, but we could certainly hear the fog horns of many ships transiting in this passage leading to the North Sea.

Here the ship was navigated by a Dutch pilot to enter the river Mass, as this part of The Rhine River is so-called, and we docked at Rotterdam, the largest port of Holland, quite early in the morning. My wife and the children were up and about and were eager in anticipation of seeing a port after a long voyage thus ending their boredom. The centre of Rotterdam was destroyed in WWII, the same has been rebuilt beautifully with many shopping centres. My family was able to see and enjoy many sights. We had a few days’ stays in Rotterdam.

After all the departure formalities, our ship left the port with a good and memorable stay at Rotterdam. On our return journey, we entered the Bay of Biscay, with some apprehension. Though the seas, mercifully, were not very stormy and choppy like our outward voyage, due to the empty ship the rolling and pitching of the vessel were very uncomfortable. After entering the Mediterranean, once again, our first port of call was Barcelona in Spain, where the ship’s loading for Indian ports was carried for about four days. The next stoppage in the schedule for more cargo was the Italian port of Genoa. I noticed my wife and sons were always excited whenever our immigration formalities got completed at first hand in both the port stays, they had a good outlook of the city and went shopping.

a perfect picture taken of Barcelona, Spain
Image by Leonhard Niederwimmer

In the evening after dinner, my sons were studying in their room; our ship’s duty officer came to inform me that two Italian police officers wanted to see me about some problem in our Engine & Machinery room. As the captain was not on board, I met the policemen in my office. They straightway came to the point and told me that they have to search our ship’s engine room as they had decoded a secret message about the possibility of bombs being hidden in machinery spaces. Also, the entire ship has to be vacated by all persons on the ship. In the meantime, the local agents of our company were also on board, who advised us to shift our crew and my family to a hotel in the town where arrangements were made for the night stay. Some of us stayed back on the dock to keep a vigil. My wife packed some very essential things, documents, etc; to take along, but my sons were very reluctant to leave behind all the toys. The next morning, after 12 clock's of one full round from the time of receipt of the ‘bomb on board’ message, and thorough search of the ship, the all-clear was sounded. The message was treated as a hoax for the time being. Normal ship activity resumed.

Here a little explanation about the whole episode is necessary to solve the riddle.

this is the picture of indian navy cargo ship

In those days in the seventies, a separatist group of Basque people, from the Bay of Biscay shores area were in conflict with Spain Government and they were launching attacks against the Spanish administration demanding a separate region As per the police version they might have planted bombs in the Spanish port called Alicante, (Spanish[ali‘kante] ) or Alacant (Valencian[ala ‘kant]) a historic Mediterranean port south of Valencia and Barcelona ports. The letter 'J' in the name of our ship ‘JALA KANTA’ IS PRONOUNCED & REALISED DIFFERENTLY IN SOME COUNTRIES, HENCE THE BOMB IN THE 'PORT OF ALI CANTE' MIGHT HAVE BEEN MISTAKEN FOR OUR SHIP, ‘JALA KANTA’, IN THE MESSAGE, INTERCEPTED BY ITALIAN POLICE.

This resulted in confusion and great inconvenience for our ship.

Our ship sailed from Genoa after the completion of loading. The return passage to Bombay was uneventful, where my wife and sons disembarked and returned to our hometown just a day or so after the end of their school vacations. However and anyway, All is well that ends well.'

Written By-

Lal Singh

Retd. Chief Engineer (IMN)

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