At 1 am, two very different vehicles depart from Madh Island for the final laps of their day. Should you be seated in a BEST bus, it would take you no further than the nearest railway stations in a bumpy ride lasting at least 20 minutes.
But if you are seated in a boat that takes off from the jetty, it would take you no more than 15 seconds, in a ride through pleasant breeze, to reach your destination — Versova.
Miss that last ferry, and it’s no fun making an hour-long journey on road when what you really want is to get across the shore just a few hundred metres away.
“If you miss the ferry and the bus, you’re stranded. You won’t even find autorickshaws here after 11 pm,” says Kishor Sonawane, who manages the operations of a 14-seater boat, an addition to the decades-old Versova-Madh Island ferry service made three years back.
While Versova fishing village’s Koli community had been operating four large wooden vessels to take passengers across the narrow inlet in the Arabian Sea for more than 50 years, it was only recently that they added the smaller boat to the fleet.
The larger boats have a turnover time of at least 20 minutes with a hundred people plus luggage and two wheelers alighting and a similar number of passengers waiting to board, Sonawane’s boat is ready to make the return trip in under a minute.
“Those who want to travel in comfort and peace prefer the smaller boat. Idhar kit kit kam hai aur machchi ka baas nahi hai (There is little noise here and no smell of fish),” says Bhushan Masli, who captains the smaller boat.
While Masli is stuck to the controls, maneuvering the vessel in and out of each jetty, his colleague Ganesh Ambole secures the ropes and assists passengers on and off board. Only bad weather interrupts the ferry, and even then, for an hour at most.
“The distance is very less but there is still risk involved. When the water rises very high, we have to stop sailing. We cannot risk any life,” said Masli. Policemen at chowkies on both jetties have their eyes glued to the boats and passengers.
Meticulous records are kept about each trip the ferries make after dark, with the police noting down the vessel’s name as well as that of it’s crew and the number of passengers.
The ferries are only off the hook if the policemen at each chowki note in their diary that there are “no suspects”.
Masli and Ganesh have been working on the boat for the past two years but they have been fishing for much longer. So, they’re acutely aware of the dangers of night-time sailing.
“The boat has a torchlight but even with that, we can hardly can see farther than two feet. Raat mein andaaze pe hi chalate hain (At night we sail on instinct),” he said.
The clientele also varies greatly after dark. While in the day, the boat ferries villagers, fisherfolk, students and picnickers, at night, it is office goers and others for whom every minute counts.
“A lot of waiters who work in restaurants in Malad take the last ferry. They time their exit from their workplace according to that of the ferry,” said Masli.
While the crew members turn in for a few hours of sleep before resuming the ferry service again at 5 am, they are also required to deal with emergencies.
“If someone is very badly injured or sick and needs to be taken to the hospital, we take our boats for them on request. Many times, we ferry pregnant women, who are about to deliver, in the middle of the night,” said Sonawane.
These trips are only made for medical emergencies. “Passengers really need to have a very good reason to go across after 1 am. The police are watching us all the time, so if someone doesn’t have a good enough reason, we ask them to go by the road. Lots of passengers offer us Rs 1,000 for just one trip. But we tell them to use the money to book a private cab and we even book one for them sometimes,” added Sonawane.