As I served in the Burmese navy for decades, I am very familiar with tidal currents in the Rangoon River and I have followed the story of the Dhammazedi Bell with great interest as controversial news has been appearing in our daily papers.
According to recent news in the local Standard Times, U San Lin, the leader of the salvage team declared that the missing bell has been found using local technology, and will soon be brought up on an auspicious day announced by Natsintayar Sayadaw.
I would very much like to believe this news, which has been keenly anticipated by the general public.
However, I do have my own reservations. I do not claim to be a salvage expert. But as a professional seaman of 70 years, a retired first-grade Rangoon harbor pilot who has frequently navigated maximum 29-foot fully laden ships of 10,000 tons across the treacherous Monkey Point channel with barely 1-foot clearance under ship’s bottom, I am quite familiar with tidal currents and the seasons of the year at this confluence where the four rivers meet.
I subsequently served as Harbor Master of the Port of Rangoon for five years and I have experienced some salvage jobs in the river carried out by the port’s diving section under my charge. The largest salvage operation we successfully undertook was the lifting of IWT (Inland Water Transport) double-decker steamer “Wei-Bu-La,” which sank in the Twante Canal and blocked navigation of all river traffic including teak rafts destined for export. This operation took three months, despite clearer water and weaker tidal currents than the location where the bell is thought to be located.
Without modern underwater photographic equipment, it would be extremely hard to identify the object—even if it is found—as the waters are completely muddy.
There were a few A-Class ship-mooring buoys (as seen in a photo in the Standard Times) sunk in this vicinity during World War II that in size could be similar to the bell, were never salvaged after the war and are deeply embedded in the silt along with mooring chains and anchors. These buoys also have a ring on top, and perhaps the hardworking Salone (Moken) divers might have found one of these rings and put through their lifting ropes awaiting a lift on the next auspicious day!
Incidentally, I know of no capable crane or derrick on a local floating barge that can do the job. The “lifting” operation can only be achieved by using what we call a “tidal lift Camel”—using mother nature’s gift of high and low tides, and fully tightening wires or nylons around the sunken object during the lowest tide, letting the rising tide do the lifting. You would need to repeat this method a few times by raising the object about six feet each tide, tightening the ropes again and again, and moving the object nearer to the shore, until it can be visible. This is an age-old salvage method adopted all over the world before the hi-tech age.
I trust this information helps, and hope it is not another “Spitfire” wild-goose chase.
Captain Kyaw Thein Lwin is a master mariner (ex-first grade Inner Pilot 1954-59, ex-Rangoon Harbor Master 1959-63) and former principle at the Institute of Marine Technology.