How about the tour of a shipping museum, live demo of ancient shipping technology and a rocking party, all while aboard a river cruise?
The Bengal Paddle is the latest ship on our shores. Soon the plush boat will head out of the Kolkata River Traffic Police jetty and head to Chandannagore, Serampore or wherever destination it is that you book it for. But the ship has as much to offer on the inside as the scenic beauty that lies outside.
Old ship, new cruise
Bengal Paddle was actually a British era ship — named PS Bhopal — that had been languishing with the Kolkata Port Trust and has been renovated by a private company.
A paddle and its driving mechanism that was used to propel the steamer when it was in service in its original form
While the interiors are opulent now and the mechanism state-of-the art, they have retained the now-obsolete technology that this “paddle steamer” ship once used. The same will be demonstrated for passengers, who can also tour the shipping museum that has come up inside the ship.
The PS Bhopal was part of six paddle steamers that were imported from Scotland in the 1940s. Coal would be shoved into a furnace in the belly of the ship to produce steam that would spin metallic paddle wheels — about 10ft in diameter — built on either side of the ship. These would push the water and propel the vehicle forward.
Basant Singhee, director of Eastern Navigation, demonstrating some of the controllers and fittings that have been retained to show how things used to be although they are not functional anymore
“This ship would ferry passengers across the Hooghly. Over the years two of the six imported ships went to Bangladesh and three got scrapped. Today this must be the only paddle steamer left in India. It’s part of maritime history and we have preserved it for guests to appreciate,” says Basant Singhee, director of Eastern Navigation, which took the ship from the Port Trust on a long-term lease in 2019.
Work staggered during the pandemic but they have now replaced 300 tonnes of steel and the ship is ready to roll. It has two decks with open-air as well as air-conditioned space for private parties, weddings, etc., but what sets it apart is its antiquity.
A model of Bengal Paddle on display at the onboard museum. It was earlier known as PS Bhopal
King of the world
The grand old paddles on either side of the ship have been painted bright red and can be turned on to demonstrate how they once worked. Guests can watch from the sides or from the glass tops installed over them. The entrance to the coal furnace has been retained and oars, polished old pipelines and spokes have been used for the decor. The original winch, anchor and searchlights on the deck make great props for visitors looking to ape the famous “I’m the king of the world” pose from Titanic.
Then there’s the museum in the belly of the ship where coal once used to be stored. “This has anchors of yesteryears, brass lights that used to burn on either side of ships, copper lifebuoys that are no longer used given how expensive they were and six-foot-wide steering wheels ripped off our own 100-year-old ship that got scrapped,” Singhee shows.
Some of the old components and things like anchors that were in use earlier
The steamer’s propulsion system is explained here, there are scaled-down models of different ships and pictures of the renovation of this very steamer. One can even try out the mechanism once used by captains on the deck to send messages to the workers down below about when to increase, decrease or stop the influx of coal into the furnace and modulate the ship’s speed.
Bengal Paddle makes a strong case for itself as an event venue with a different flavour
A 65-year-old company, Eastern Navigation, already runs two vessels on the Hooghly — the Riviera and the Desire, but this one, with a passenger license of 500, is the largest. “The route can be customised but we shall focus on heritage tours to say Chandannagore and Serampore that have been French and Danish colonies. We particularly expect foreign tourists and NRIs to patronise the service,” said Singhee.
The PS Bhopal has got renamed Bengal Paddle but they have retained the original registration number for the sake of nostalgia. It is docked at Kolkata River Traffic Police jetty and booking can be made through thebargecompany.com.