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Sandbanks of Burma

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SANDBANKS OF BURMA submitted by Theodore and Alice Tanoue

The announcement from the ship’s Purser crackled over the public address system: Due to special circumstances, Happy Hour would be extended today. This was a supremely wise move as the mood among the passengers of the Kalaw Pandaw was feisty and grumpy. We were well into what would be an unscheduled 26-hour stop on a muddy bank on the Irrawaddy river somewhere between Mingun and Pagan. This wasn’t our first visit to this particular mud bank.

We’d grounded at exactly the same spot on the upstream leg of our seven-day journey. Then, our crew had managed to free the boat after a few hours’ effort. This time we were stuck—bad—and the crew’s efforts only seemed to make matters worse.

Our sailors first tried the same technique that worked last time. A small team paddled out with a huge log with a stout rope tied to one end. They dug the log into the mud and two or three crew members would balance precariously on the log, their extra weight anchoring it to the river bottom. In the meantime, the rope would be attached to a winch and the ship would attempt to drag itself against the resistance offered by the log. After several hours, the crew switched tactics and used a fire hose to direct a stream of water against the tenacious mud holding the boat fast. It was to no avail, as the river currents filled the mud and sand back in as quickly as it was dislodged. We heard the boat groan once and felt it move. The passengers erupted in a collective cheer, but we’d only drifted in a direction that shifted more of our hull on the mud bank. Meanwhile we caught glimpses of other river traffic filled with curious passengers as they streamed by. They waved goodbye as they disappeared downstream.

A government river boat arrived the next morning to help. It was roughly the same size as ours and built to the same basic design, but it carried itself far more lightly on the water than our teak-and-brass floating palace.

Our lovely ship was a modern recreation of the classic river boats plying the Irrawaddy during the heyday of the British Empire. It bore a brass plaque bearing the name of one of its forbears from “Wm Denny and Bros, Shipbuilders” in Dumbarton, Scotland. The battered no-frills government boat looked like the real thing, a floating ghost from the days of the British Raj.

Our rescuers set to work right away. Ropes were thrown and they tried to pull us off the river bank. It didn’t work. They circled around and pulled in the other direction. Nope. After an hour or so, they changed tactics. The government boat gently floated alongside and attempted to push us off the sandbar, a more risky maneuver since they too might get stuck. We were so close now that I could have switched boats in midstream. I noticed a woman and child on the other boat, perhaps the cook or wife of one of the sailors. I gestured and handed over a napkin filled with cookies from our ship’s pantry. She smiled and gave the cookies to the boy who dashed off to enjoy the treats.

After several hours the government boat ran low on fuel and steamed off, defeated. Now we were really up the creek without the proverbial paddle. Good thing that it was still Happy Hour aboard the Kalaw Pandaw.

We were finally freed thanks to two tiny fishing boats that arrived in the late afternoon. I thought they had come to take us off of our trapped steamer but I was told that they were going to free us. I was skeptical, but they quickly set matters to rights. It was an impressive demonstration of seamanship and Newton’s Second Law of Motion (“…the acceleration of an object is produced by a net force proportional to the magnitude and direction of the force…”). By constantly triangulating the forces applied to our boat, the two little fishing boats working together managed to apply the right forces in the right direction at the right time to nudge us out of our jam. It took less than an hour and we were on our way. Genius.


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