Linden boat service hangs on despite economic downturn
Life without boats in Linden you say? Well, that is well nigh impossible- at least in the foreseeable future anyway.
And the reason is quite obvious- the community is split through the middle by the Demerara River.
So not even the Mackenzie/Wismar Bridge that spans the divide, can replace the services rendered by the ‘ferry boats’, unless of course all residents acquired vehicles- a long shot, in a town plagued by unemployment.
Such has been the perpetual love affair with these boats, that life without them is unthinkable to put it mildly. Most Lindeners can attest to going without running water in their homes for days and without electricity for hours on end, but to go without the ferry boats? Inconceivable!
Long before cars, buses, bicycles and motorcycles became popular, there were the boats.
As a matter of fact, our boating history most likely began even before bauxite mining began in 1916.
Before many of us were born, the boats provided passage for early bauxite workers from Wismar to Mackenzie where they boarded the train that took them to the various mining sites.
However, in those early days, crossing the river was hard work, but fun too, because even though each person in the boat had to be equipped with a paddle and had to paddle, passengers often engaged in ‘racing’ to see who would get to the other side faster. And of course each person had to pay a fare of three cents, this was later increased to five cents. The sole responsibility of the Captains of these boats was to steer them- no paddling for them!
Later the Demerara Bauxite Company (Demba) established a boat landing in front of what is now the Wismar Police Station to accommodate company workers and their families.
Waiting Sheds were erected on both sides of the river to protect passengers from the weather, while they awaited the boats.
Private persons also established other landings, and so it was that ‘hand powered’ boats were gradually replaced by engine powered ones.
Even though boat landings remain a permanent feature of our riverfront, there are no ‘waiting sheds’ today. And instead of each passenger being equipped with a paddle, the only requirements for utilising the boat services are a $50 boat fare, and the donning of life jackets. The latter rule is seldom if ever adhered to, however.
And ironically the boats today which are far sturdier, and more river worthy than some of their predecessors, are all equipped with life jackets, which is a prerequisite for obtaining and keeping one’s operating licence.
Not surprisingly, a few persons lost their lives, as a consequence of those ill equipped boats.
One of the more memorable cases involved a boat which plied the route between Lui Ken Pen on the Wismar shore and the old ration store at Mackenzie, adjacent to the bauxite plant.
According to a survivor, Theodore Adams, himself a ‘boating entrepreneur’, that accident occurred some time in the early sixties.
‘’It was during the lunch break, and myself and a few other Demba workers were on our way home.
“A ship, it might have been the Saguenay, or one of those popular bauxite boats that used to come, was just going out, and we were sort of riding the ‘swells’ in its wake, when the powerful pull of the propeller sucked our boat down.
“That boat went right down, and was never recovered. I of course remained in the boat until the very last holding onto my bicycle, and I somehow made it ashore with that bicycle, which was very expensive as it cost me $35.
“My Demba helmet floated away though, but I was thankful to have survived, as three persons were not so lucky. They went right down with the boat.’’
That accident triggered a sort of inordinate fear of the big boats (ships) in the minds of many who utilised the ferry boats, and some either refused to cross the river while the ships were in proximity, or urged the operators to ‘stay put’ until the ‘danger’ had passed.
Such was this fear that one man, in his bid to escape the ‘dangerous’ ship, which was coming while the boat in which he was crossing was still midstream, that he jumped out, and drowned as a consequence. That incident occurred some time in the late ‘60’s – early seventies.
Another boating accident which occurred during that same period involved a boat purportedly owned by a man named Gilkes. Shock waves reverberated throughout Linden that day, as news of the tragedy spread. At least four persons lost their lives that day after a Schooner ran over the Gilkes boat, according to reports.
Gilkes Boat Service, was sort of the unofficial designated service for workers attached to the then functioning Alumina Plant, as the landing on the Mackenzie shore, was a mere five minutes walk from that facility.
The few accidents that were attributable to the ships, resulted in persons developing a sort of love/hate for these huge boats, which on the one hand meant economic progress- more ships meant more bauxite sales, which meant more money, and on the other hand more ships also meant a waterway that was sometimes fraught with danger.
Today with the global financial crunch having a negative impact on bauxite sales, ships plying the Demerara River have declined drastically. The number of boats crossing the river has also declined, and even passengers and boat operators see this as a general reflection of the economic downslide.
‘’Business nowadays can in no way compare to long time- in dem times we used to make money. On Monday nights after work, a lot of us used to go down at the ‘’Edge’’ and party, and that was no sweat, cause the money was there. Now things so slow, that passengers hardly ‘running’.
“In those days things were a lot easier, as more money was circulating- so people were moving freely, not now,” an old timer named Jerry reminisced.
Another boat operator, Kellon Norton, who at 24 is probably the youngest boat service Manager, said that business at present just barely keeps one’s head ‘above water’!
But most significantly, most operators lamented the uncouth and inconsiderate behaviour of some passengers, who sometimes refuse to pay the stipulated $50 fare.
The fares of these passengers are always short according to the operators, who said that many times they have even been subjected to both verbal and physical abuse by these people, who are ‘wrong and strong’.
Even school children are guilty of gross inappropriate behaviour, it was related, and some of those students belong to one of the more prominent Secondary schools on Wismar.
A particular incident was cited where a student in school uniform who was crossing with one of the more popular boats, was behaving in the most unbecoming manner, right in the presence of a teacher from the said school, who failed to reprimand him.
Nonetheless, despite the economic challenges of keeping their businesses afloat, and literally their boats, and other challenges, operators continue to ply their trade, even sometimes with one passenger.
This service they provide 24/7. And even when no boats are available to take one over to the opposite shore, all it takes is for one to holler ‘boat’, and the operator cranks the engine and the boat chugs across the murky and now mostly tranquil Demerara River, which these days, is hardly broken by the powerful swells of a ship’s propeller.