Travelling From Bombay To Goa By Steamer In The '60s & '70s - Homegrown

Travelling From Bombay To Goa By Steamer In The '60s & '70s

Remember those long car journeys you took with your family as kids, backpacks stuffed with chips and treats, loo breaks and daal fry at the dhaba pit stops? Being from a landlocked city in the north, driving up through the hills, windows down (with your mother occasionally yelling at you to get your head back inside the car), it seems like a distant memory of another time.

In our age of instant gratification, we often lose out on these little splendours of life. At the drop of a hat we grab our phones, and using some app or the other, book a ticket out of whichever city we’re in. Taking a train journey for most has become the cheaper, but more tedious process. We forget that there was a time when just heading on out to Goa at a moment’s notice for the weekend wasn’t as easy as getting a cheap flight but a 24-hour-long journey by steamboat along the coast. Mention this travel trail to a member of the older generation and their eyes will sparkle with nostalgia. Onboard the two Konkan Ships - Konkan Shakti and Konkan Sevak - it was a microscopic world of its own, a melting pot of cultures and mixed faces. In this era of mass air travel, we thought who better to take us on this merry trip down memory lane than someone who has experienced it first hand. Wilfred Barretto writes on his incredible experience on the steamer heading from Bombay to Goa. We see the majesty of the waves, feel the heat of Sun’s rays as they bounce off the wooden deck, and a kaleidoscope of people travelling as a harmonious group, picnic baskets in hand.

[The following text was first seen on Wilfred Barretto’s website, and has been re-published here with permission from the author.]

I still remember the days when my father would take us every summer to Divar Island (Goa) from Wadala, Bombay - by steamer. Back in the sixties, seventies, and till 1991, there was a pair of steamers which used to ply from Bombay to Goa, carrying loads of passengers on a charming journey along the Konkan coastline. One was called the Konkan Sevak and the other the Konkan Shakti; one left from Goa for Bombay and the other from Bombay for Goa at 10:00 AM.

What an exciting trip that used to be! The passengers were a motley group of Goans, tourists, hippies and Konkan coast travellers - all in a festive, picnic-like mood. Out would come guitars and other instruments, along with packed food, and it would be one long party all the way. The ship would make various stops at Vengurla, Malvan, Ratnagiri, among other places, to take on more passengers who would arrive in large hand-rowed canoes. There would then take the disembarking passengers. Most old timers who have experienced these journeys feel very nostalgic.The entire experience was a thrill to the boot, something today’s journeys to Goa by plane, train or bus don’t give you. And all that for a small price.

Konkan Shakti photographed by Lars Erlandsson
Konkan Shakti photographed by Lars Erlandsson

There were a few cabins for those who wanted privacy and were willing to pay a high price. Then there was an upper deck for those who could afford it, and a lower deck for everybody else. You bought your ticket at ferry wharf (Dockyard Road - Mazagaon) and stood in a long line waiting for the gates to the gangplank to open. Once they did you ran clutching your bedsheets, trying to spread them out on the life rafts that were spread out on the deck - this staked your claim. The ship would sound its foghorn and the great voyage would commence.
You would settle in and eye your neighbours who a half hour ago you would have run off the gangplank and quarrelled if they stood in your way. Now, you open your alcohol bottles and lunch packs, and invite them to share. The Goan spirit will slowly begin to show. You’d see guys strumming guitars, and some young Goan boys even getting friendly with Goan girls. There is singing in some corners with spirits getting a bit high by midday. You would definitely see a lot ‘hippies’ on these journeys, travelling to goa haversack, guitars et al. A typical sight during those days.

The ‘bucket man’ comes around with a bucket piled high with Limca’s and Thums Up, and in his many pockets he has quarts of Feni. These Feni bottles would sell at Goa prices, even though you can still see the Gateway in the distance. The bell is sounded for lunch in the canteen. You get fish curry and rice with fish that tasted so fresh they probably jumped straight out of the Arabian Sea and into the kitchen.

The passengers take turns to eat in the canteen. You bought your coupon for a lunch service and carried your Feni to the table with you. The ship would meander along the Konkan coast all this while. Occasionally, one would spot dolphins along the route.

A man would come around announcing Housie and everyone who was tired of looking at pristine beaches, at swaying coconut trees, at the rise and swell of the sea would head for the mess, now cleared of fish curry and rice. Tickets would be sold, the electrical engineer would be deputed to call out the numbers. The Housie would get underway with Jalsi fives lines and full houses helping to defray the cost of your ticket.

Back onto the deck to watch the sunset, while this little world unto itself chugged on towards Goa. The bucket man had run out of Limca so now you were drinking Feni with nimbu pani and after the third peg of Feni the talk turned to God and love and who made the best Goan sausages. Goan spirit at its best, again!

Along the Konkan coast, towards the late night, the ship reached its port of call it would pull a little closer to the coast. Little canoes would come out from the harbours of Vijaydurg, Sindhusurgh, Jaigadh and Ratnagiri to ferry the passengers to these port. They would get down on a rope ladder along the side of the ship. The ladies making sure their saree didn’t snag in the rungs. With the passengers having disembarked at their destination, the ship would sail again along the coast line towards Panaji, Goa.

Onboard the Konkan Sevak, photographed by Lars Erlandsson
Onboard the Konkan Sevak, photographed by Lars Erlandsson

Dinner was announced in the now familiar, like your own house, dining hall cum housie room. Back to the deck post dinner where the rosary would commence -all five decades - the whole litany. Petitions at the end for everyone and everything, including Fluffy whom the neighbours were looking after, because they didn’t allow dogs on the ship.

The life rafts that had doubled up as card tables, bar counters and nappy changing tables, were now converted into beds. And you lay your weary head to rest. Somewhere in the night we’d pass the sister ship, a toot from one Captain to the other would let him know all was well with the world.

Sunrise would wake you up with smiles to everyone around you. Now you can see the silhouette of our beloved Goan coastline. Sand strewn beaches in the distance, lined with palm trees. What sight it was in the fresh morning air! Some of us will never forget the scenes, engraved in our heads forever.

Between 8:30 AM and 9:00 AM you were sailing past Chapora fort, then Anjuna, followed by Baga hills in the distance, with the Jesuit retreat house at its peak. Onwards to Calangute, and Candolim. Then around the Fort Anguada, and finally, a grand entry, up the Mandovi River, past the barges loaded with iron ore. A beautiful experience, etched forever in our memories!

It’s time to disembark - pack your stuff and exchange telephone numbers, addresses with the friends you just made last morning. And of course, promises to stay in touch, best wishes exchanged for the holidays and pending land disputes. Then there was another sight to watch; relatives waiting at the Panjim dock to receive visiting families, nephews, cousins, uncles, and what have you. As we step onto the jetty at Panjim, a sign of the cross and a prayer is mumbled in thanks for a safe and happy journey.

The two steamers - Konkan Shakti and Konkan Sevak were co-opted for the Sri Lanka War in the late 1980s, and the grand Goan party was over. One of them is now somewhere in the Andaman Islands. Although, Damania Shipping started a hovercraft service on the same route in 1994, it was never really the same thing, in every aspect, and the thrill you got in the old sea transport couldn’t be matched. Damania used a beautiful Scandinavian-built vessel, with aeroplane-style reclining seats. The trip from Bombay used to take seven hours to reach Panaji. The catamaran too, travelled around 40 km offshore, giving travellers a glimpse of the palm-fringed Konkan coast.

After the service’s last voyage in 1991 the two vessels that operated on the route were sent to ferry the armed forces to Sri Lanka at the behest of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Today, you will be lucky to find one Goan or a Goan family travelling with you in the same train, bus or flight. What surely makes the difference is the cultural aspects of us Goans.

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