I grew up in West Demerara when, unless you owned a boat, the only way to cross the Demerara River was the various government ferryboats operating between Georgetown and Vreed-en-Hoop. Running usually from daylight to dusk, the ferryboats moved everything, from passengers to cargo to motor cars and even trucks. The only bridge across the river was some 50 miles or so upriver at Linden (formerly Mackenzie). In town, to get to West Dem, it was the ferryboat, or small private boats or, if your name was Jerry Goveia (the Banks one), you could swim it.

soitgoThe ferry boats were a lifeline, as well as a social experience – there were passengers you saw every day – and any delay in the schedule was a major inconvenience for the thousands using the service. Although generally calm, the river, at that crossing area, could become very rough at times, particularly when the tide was falling, creating substantial waves and strong currents. One example was the day the ferry Lady Northcote, coming across from Vreed-en-Hoop, got caught in one of those currents and was headed straight for an American Navy vessel anchored in the river. I had crossed earlier, but my two sisters Celia and Mell, were on the ship that morning and it was a hair-raising experience for them. I believe the Northcote slammed into the navy’s ship anchor chain and the two vessels ended up in a collision. Several passengers from the Northcote, my sisters included, scrambled over to the deck of the US ship – the smaller Guyanese ship could have been in danger – and were later moved safely to the Georgetown stelling, albeit somewhat late for work.

The ship usually operating the ferry service was the Querriman (it’s now a derelict on a mudflat on the west bank of the Essequibo River) which was bigger than the Northcote and could accommodate a large number of cars and cargo trucks. The upper deck was strictly for passengers, and it was often a very festive place, all the seats taken, and a lot of early morning socializing taking place. Cyclists would leave their bikes on the lower deck, and take the stairs to the cooler upper deck for the trip across the river. Back then, no one was concerned about the possibility of coming back later to find your bike missing – it’s a sign of the changing times that that sounds implausible today.

Given the limited capacity for vehicles, one of the sideshows on the ferry was to watch the sailors directing the delicate manoeuvering required to fit the vehicles into the space; most of the time they would end up literally only inches apart, following the most complex back-and-forth jockeying. This motorized dance would draw a crowd, let me tell you, and I remember one Englishwoman from the West Bank, who drove a small sports car, and was known for her ability to swing her machine back and forth like a yoyo at the sailor’s instructions. Sometimes the parking would be so tight she would be unable to open her car door and would have to wait in her MG until the trip was over to back out.

When the steam-driven Querriman was out of service, other vessels like the Northcote or the MV Hassar would fill in and the grumbling when the latter ship was in use was considerable. The Hassar, which looked as if it had started out as a fishing boat, was the smallest vessel doing the service (I believe it could take only 2 cars and no trucks) which made it difficult for motorists, but worse yet was the vessel’s tendency to roll (she was probably flat-bottomed) which made for some very scary moments when the river got rough. There was one incident where a car parked, with the wheels chocked, slid sideways in one of those Hassar rolls, and was headed for the sea via the ship’s gangway – only a chain across the opening saved the day, but you can imagine the uproar. Even more frightening was the time, in especially rough weather, when the Hassar’s rolling was such that passengers ended up running to the high side of the ship as a counter balance, and would then go rushing back as the ship rolled the other way. I was on board for one of those, and scary doesn’t begin to describe the scene. In fact, on the days when the Hassar showed up for service, some people were known to actually go back home from the Vreed-en-Hoop stelling rather than face another scary ride across the river.

The class of the fleet in those days was the fittingly-named Lady Northcote with her slim lines as opposed to the almost dumpy Querriman or the industrial Hassar. Her upper deck was open and spacious and sported marine-varnished wood fittings and brass porthole fittings. To my impressionable eyes, even the sailors on the Northcote seemed of a higher calibre, with sharper uniforms, and a more professional look. Also, she was faster, not given to the laborious movements of the Querriman.

This week I’m seeing in the press that the Northcote, 78 years old, has been reconditioned by government with approximately $140M in repairs carried out on the hull, deck, passenger walkways, and operating equipment. Although she’s now on the Port Kaituma route, I can’t help but raise a shout for the old girl. As a young man I spent some spirited times on her decks, watching the sailors at work, gaffing with my Vreed-en-Hoop pals (Joe Henry, Fazil Rayman, Neville deRamos), admiring the Englishwoman’s driving, enjoying the Demerara breeze, and of course eyeing the young ladies. Perhaps, as she continues to sail our waters, the young Guyanese of today are doing the same things I did in those long time Demerara Ferry days.