As a child, I used to visit my village home - a 20 km distance - by launch. It took eight hours to reach the destination back in those days, but now it takes only 20 minutes. The second floor of the small launches had an upper class, which took 1.5 times more fare. It was behind the captain's room from where the launch was controlled.
Sometimes, the captain used to give the wheel to his assistant. He used to sit next to him and guide him. If a boat was visible coming from a distance, he warned him in advance.
"Keep it a little to the right," he would say. He would continue his guidance if there was a large ship behind the launch in the river or some bamboos were kept as depth indicators. He would keep a sharp eye on all such things and advise the assistant.
The sea is a different case. Everywhere there is water and water only. There is no shore, only horizon. A ship can be seen on the radar from a distance of 40 to 50 km. Not only that, you can know the speed of the ship 1.5 to two hours in advance, the distance it will cross you and which way it will go.
There is no tension-free work like this.
The water at the bottom is much more important for us than the surface water, especially for large ships, which we call deep draft vessels.
Large ships need 50 to 60 to 70 feet of water to sail. If we look at it from above, it would look like an open sea, but the danger is hidden below.
If a boat gets stuck in the shallow water, people can gather together and rescue it easily. But if I run a ship over a char, I will lose my job instantly. And not only that, maybe no company in the world will give me a job anymore.
And if a captain of an oil tanker does that, it will be a news headline all over the world; and there is a strong possibility that he will not be able to return home after losing his job, he will have to go to jail.
Hence, the bottom of the sea is the most worrisome thing for us. So, how do we sail? Can we see the bottom of the sea? No, we can't.
Only the depth of the sea can be seen from where the ship is. But the ship is always moving, there is no benefit in knowing the volume of water below. We need to know what is in front of us or around us.
Then how do we move? We have underwater pictures, that is how we know what's in front of us or around us.
It is not really a picture, but a map. The coastal map does not show any pictures of the bottom of the sea but it shows the depth, and that's all sailors need.
The yellow part on the map indicates land and there are different colours to indicate water. The white area below is deep water. The light blue area is a little less deep and the dark blue area is shallow water.
The digits on the entire water body indicate the depth. We prepare the route according to the draft of our ship, which is the part submerged under water.
There are maps of all the waters of the earth and on the basis of these maps, the ships sail. These maps indicate the depth of each area of the sea, the features at the bottom, the buoy of the channel and the lighthouse of the shore. Everything is given perfectly and not only that, it is updated every week.
For example, if the light of a buoy on the Karnaphuli River goes out today, the warning will go out to all the ships in a few hours and the correction of the map on all the ships will be updated in a few days.
There are about 4,000 charts for all the ports, coasts and oceans of the world. Ships that perform trips in different parts of the world have to keep all the maps.
New revisions come every week and all the maps are updated after that. It doesn't matter where the ship is or where it will go, all the maps of the ship have to be updated as soon as revisions come.
As a result, a navigating officer who has never visited Chattogram in his life knows the map of the area because he has to update it.
The same is true for the Bay of Bengal and coast of Bangladesh. The country is small but it has a long coast. However, the depth of the coast is very shallow, so it is not at all convenient for large ships.
If you look at the picture, you will easily understand that the blue area along the southern coast means shallow water. To reach Chattogram port, one has to proceed very carefully from Cox's Bazar through a narrow deep-water channel in the middle of the shallow water.
The Mongla Port is not far from Chattogram. But if you want to go by ship, you have to cover a lot of water. From Chattogram you have to head straight south towards Cox's Bazar. From there, you have to head west and along the Sundarbans you have to head north again.
The depth of Chattogram port is only 9.5 meters or 31 feet - equivalent to a three-storey building. This depth is even less in Mongla and recedes even more on the way to the port. The deep-sea ends at Cox's Bazar and after that you have to move very slowly.
The only channel in our whole coastline that has some depth is the Kutubdia Channel, which is about 14.5 meters or 48 feet deep. The small body of water between Kutubdia Island and the mainland is called the Kutubdia Channel.
Although there is some depth here, some parts are still shallow. As a result, it is a huge challenge to come to Kutubdia.
After arriving at Cox's Bazar, the ships are anchored and wait for the tide. The tide reaches its peak after six hours. This means that when the water level rises the most, low tide begins. Ships try to cross the shallow area during high tide.
So, when the tide starts to rise, the captain calculates the speed of the ship and passes the shallow area within six hours. Coming to Chattogram Port or Kutubdia Channel is a huge challenge, which is really unusual for other ports in the world.
I have mentioned the depth of Chattogram, Kutubdia and Mongla ports above in meters. But how much is it in proportion to the size of the ship?
At the Chattogram Port, a ship of 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes may enter fully loaded depending on its size and shape. Large ships are generally crude or crude oil tankers. The smallest crude tankers, approximately one lakh tonne Aframax, can reach Kutubdia, which needs about 14 meters of water.
The term deep draft or deep-seaport is relative, yet we call ships with a draft of 20 meters or 65 feet as deep draft ships, with a carrying capacity of over three lakh tonnes.
I had to come to Kutubdia channel at the beginning of my career. The two and a half lakh tonnes heavy supertankers could not come to Kutubdia with a full cargo. Half of the cargoes were unloaded at the Thai or Burmese ports and the ships used to anchor at the Kutubdia Channel with the remaining ones.
I used to unload goods in eight to ten trips with fifteen thousand tonnes lighter ships of Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. Lightering is always very risky and expensive.
A truck carrying goods from Nawabpur to Mirpur may cost Tk2,000, but the last 500 meters of the destination may be a narrow alley where trucks cannot enter. The goods will then have to be carried via vans, which would cost more money than the truck fare.
It would also take more time. That's why having a deep-seaport is a big advantage for a country and I know from the beginning that Kutubdia is the only area where it is possible to have a port for large ships.
A long time has passed since then. My relationship with Chattogram and Bay of Bengal ended after my cadet life. Twenty years ago, I suddenly heard that a deep-sea port was being built at Sonadia near Cox's Bazar. The area cannot even host a 100 tonnes bay cruise ship, how can it host lakh tonnes ships?
I could not digest the news. I heard that long channels would be cut to make way for the arrival of ships.
Anyway, I almost forgot about it. Years ago, the issue of the deep-seaport arose again while I was chatting with my friends. I heard that a deep-seaport was going to be built at Payra. My friends told me that it will be a huge deep-seaport with the most modern facilities. The news was very shocking to me.
Building a port is a very complicated task. You have to look at the features on the bottom of the sea, the nature of siltation or sedimentation, the movement of currents, the ebb and flow of the tide and the protection from storms.
But the main point is depth. Sailors are not water experts, but ports are built for sailors. The comparative practical analysis of hundreds of ports is well understood by sailors. I'm a sailor, so some of my friends wanted to know about the Payra project from me.
I tried to explain that Payra cannot even be on the list of possible candidates for building a deep-seaport because of the low depth of the coast, the approach channel and the siltation. I was describing this from my own point of view and experience.
My friend Shyamal was standing behind me and listening attentively. After I finished, Shyamal said very calmly, "The port is already being constructed and you are saying that it's not possible to build a port there? Do you think those who plan are crazy? Are they building such a big port without understanding anything?"
Then I learned that it was going to be one of the most important deep-sea ports in South Asia. And I was really shocked because such a big project can never be built like that. You need to study for years. A lot of research should be done before such a port is built.
The movement of water at different times of the year, the type of sedimentation and the nature of wind speed - everything needs to be observed. Another thing that is done nowadays is simulation. During training at the Advance Research Institute in Delhi last year, they were showing simulations of the planning stages of some ports.
Anyway, I was shocked after hearing my friend's words. I tried to search my memory - is it possible? Maybe nothing is impossible
I heard a story as a child. A king was walking along the pond with his prince. Suddenly the two were surprised to see a snake going from one side of the lake to the other, with a frog sitting on its back.
Returning to the palace, the prince said to the vizier, "Uncle, today I saw a frog sitting on the back of a snake and crossing the lake." The vizier said, "It's not possible. The snake will eat the frog first." The prince replied, "Dad was also with me."
The king was coming that way. The vizier asked him, "Your majesty, is it true that a frog was crossing the lake on the back of a snake?" The king smiled softly and said, "It must have been an illusion. Otherwise, it's not possible."
The boy was surprised by his father's answer. When the vizier left, he asked his father, "Father, we both saw the incident together. Why did you deny it then?" The king said, "If your truth seems unusual to everyone, it is better not to argue about it. Everyone will think you are mentally ill."
I realised that the whole nation knows that the Payra deep-seaport is going to be a famous port in South Asia. Hence, it cannot be wrong, rather I must be wrong.
But after that, Payra became my academic interest. I started to follow its progress regularly. I tried to find out how this port was planned, when it started and when it would end.
I first heard about Payra in 2016 when it was about to be inaugurated. I started studying its progress from local and foreign news sites and it is still going on.
I am providing a brief summary of what I have learned from various local and foreign media reports on the construction of Payra seaport:
- The work of the port was inaugurated in 2013, but the construction of the port has not gained much momentum.
- In 2015, the work of the port started with a cost of Tk1,128 crore. But it was increased to Tk3,350 crore in the first revision.
- Inaugurated on a limited scale in July 2017 for small ships.
- People started buying land around the port after being inspired by its construction.
- In 2017, the project was changed again. The allocation for land increased from Tk1,118 crore to Tk2,336 crore in a year and a half as people tripled the value of the land.
- In 2018, a new jetty was added to the project and Tk3,982 crore was added for this.
- Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) was added as a consultant for the project.
- The construction work of Payra seaport was identified as a fast-track project. To expedite the work, the most experienced naval officers in port management and operation of large ships were appointed.
- On 27 December 2016, Prothom Alo reported in detail about the current and future location of Payra Port. Bangladesh once again presents itself as a role model of development.
- The cost of the bay terminal, which is bigger than Chattogram port, is estimated at Tk21,000 crore.
- The cost of Cox's Bazar Matarbari deep-seaport is estimated at Tk15,000 crore.
- The cost of dredging the channel for the arrival of ships at Payra port is estimated at Tk45,000 crore.
- The dredging cost of Payra port is 1.25 times more than the combined cost of Matarbari deep-seaport and bay-terminal.
- The construction of Tuas Megaport, Singapore, started in 2016 at a cost of Tk38,000 crore.
- China has set a budget of Tk60,000 crore for the construction of a deep-seaport in Rakhine, Myanmar.
- Many more development projects have been added to the Payra port. The long-term project now has an estimated cost of USD807 crore for the port and USD905 million for the associated infrastructures. Overall, the estimated cost is USD1,834 crore or Tk1 lakh 54 crore, which is currently the second-highest costly port in the world - two and a half times more expensive than the Rakhine deep-sea project.
-On 22 April 2019, Prothom Alo published a report citing a research study on Payra Port by five researchers from Germany, Belgium and Bangladesh. The research, led by Hermann R Kudras, a former head of the German government's Geological Survey and a professor at the University of Bremen in Germany, was published on 11 January.
Kudras has been doing research on sediment and water flow in the Bay of Bengal for almost 20 years. In 2011, Bangladesh's application for maritime dispute with Myanmar and India was based on data from his research. He said that about 1.1 billion cubic meters of silt per year comes through the Meghna Basin. Of this, 400 million cubic meters are deposited on the banks of the Payra River alone and about Tk8,000 to 10,000 crore will be required to remove this silt every year.
In the study, Kudras further said that due to a moderate storm, the port may become completely useless after siltation.
To summarize, he said that Payra port is not very suitable as a deep-seaport. However, the state minister for shipping said in his speech that such experts bring negative reports in any big project but the government makes all the impossible possible.
- 21 January 2021: Dredging work for the 75 km long Rabnabad Channel for ships to enter the Payra port was inaugurated. After the completion of the 18-month dredging project at a cost of Tk438 crore, large ships will be able to come to the deep-seaport. At the end of the dredging, the depth of the channel will be 7.3 meters (Chattogram 9.5 meters), and at this depth, supertankers of 6,000 tonnes will be able to enter the port effortlessly.
- In 4.5 years, the port will generate a revenue of Tk253 crore (the annual dredging cost of the port will be several thousand crores.)
- On 18 March, 2021, Bangladesh Economic Development Fund launched for the first time by borrowing from the country's foreign exchange reserves. Payra port will get the first grant from this fund. Initially, the port will get Tk5,417 crore from this fund.
- On 21 April, 2021, according to The Business Standard, the government moved away from the plan to make Payra a deep-seaport. The state minister for shipping said that in the new plan, Payra will be kept as a regular seaport. Matarbari in Cox's Bazar will be the only deep-seaport of the country from where goods will be brought to Payra by lighter ships.
Anyway, Payra port has thousands of acres of land, four-lane highways, marine parks, aquariums, resorts for tourists and recreation centers but there is no depth for ships to enter the port.
However, it has been a big benefit to me. Five years ago, after talking with my friend Shyamal, I was doubtful about my mental health. But now I think I am alright.
I will end this long uninteresting story with another silly joke.
A Bangladeshi came to America to live permanently. He went to work in a mega-shop in Florida. The shop owner said that some of their salesperson posts are vacant and he can give the Bangladeshi man a chance for one day, but whether the job will be permanent will depend on his performance.
The shop owner asked the Bangladeshi man to work the whole day. He'll come and check in the afternoon.
The owner asked the gentleman in the afternoon, "How many customers have you been able to sell to all day?" The Bangladeshi gentleman replied, "One." The owner was disappointed and said, "Look, my salespersons sell to an average of 25 to 30 people every day and you got only one customer?"
The Bangladeshi gentleman stood with his head down. "Well, how much did you sell?" asked the owner. The salesman replied, "101,587 dollars."
The owner was surprised, "What? Did you really sell goods worth that much to one person? What did you sell?" The Bangladeshi salesman replied, "First I sold him a small fishing rod, then I told him that he needs the medium and big fishing rods, too. So, I sold him those two fishing rods. Then I told him that fishing in a boat is great fun. He didn't have a boat, so I went to the boat section and sold him a double-engine fishing boat. But it was not possible to pull the boat with his small car, so I took him to the car section and sold him a heavy pickup van."
The owner asked, "But what did the gentleman come to buy?"
The Bangladeshi salesman replied, "Sir, he came to buy a case of beer. I said that in such beautiful weather, drinking beer while fishing will be a great experience. But later he forgot to buy the beer."
"The gentleman came to buy beer and you sold him a double-engine boat and a pickup van? Well, brother, where did you work as a salesman before?" asked the owner.
"Sir, I have never worked as a salesman. I was involved in the Payra Port project while living in Bangladesh," the Bangladeshi answered.
The author is currently working for American Eagle Tankers.