The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Nine

Episode 493: The Tenth Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Fishing boat tug of war

The Flying Cloud reached Danang on the morning of the 6th, as planned. The sky was clear with scattered clouds, and a slight offshore breeze helped mooring operations go smoothly. After the ship was on the mast, Everett and MacKiernan escorted Aunt Prodigia and her nieces back to the Stalking Herring. It seemed the gentlemanly thing to do. It also seemed the best way to ensure that Clarice and Emily didn't get into any more trouble.

The tug's crew had set up tables and prepared what they called a `feed' to celebrate the expedition's return. Aunt Prodigia invited the airmen to join them. At first Everett was surprised by her good humor, but then he realized that from the matron's point of view, the sortie had been a success.

"I assume you'll be heading directly back to Darwin now that you've rescued your nieces," he said as he accepted a plate of what his hosts misleadingly called `shrimp'.

"Dink di," replied Aunt Prodigia. "The Herring should get us home in plenty of time for Christmas."

Everett glanced around the deck. The salvage tug might not have been a thing of beauty, but she was a solid piece of workmanship, much like her owner. "I imagine she'll make the passage easily," he said with approval. "How you did happen to decide upon marine salvage as a career?"

The matron grinned and handed him a bottle of beer. "Pop open that stubby and I'll tell you the tale."

"It happened on Boxing Day in Darwin, back in `16," Aunt Prodigia began. "We always held a competition to celebrate the season, and that year's was bigger than most, because we were also celebrating the Peace."

Everett nodded. He was familiar with the Australian passion for sport in any form. It was said that if an Aussie started pushing a pea across the street with his nose, another would show up to race him before he'd cleared the curb. "How did you decide upon teams?" he asked. "In a community as small as Darwin, there wouldn't seem to be any natural divisions."

Aunt Prodigia glanced at the captain as if wondering how anyone could ask such a ridiculous question. "We'd pick a street to split the town in half. That year it was Gregory where it runs into the harbor. I live to the south. Aunt Behema was teamed up with those toffs from the north."

"I take it the rivalry was particularly fierce that year," Everett ventured.

"Bob's your uncle!" the matron said with a grin. "The whole town turned out, hoping for a blue, and we didn't want to disappoint them.

"The first three rounds were an arts and crafts competition for the young larrikins. Gertie Blake won the first for southside with her flower arrangement. I thought the durian was a nice touch, since the wind was from the south. Then Henry Wilcox scored for northside with his painting of great cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths. Emily and Clarice won final round for the south with their toy steam-engine. We still have it down in the old shed next to the dragline. That put southside in the lead.

"The next three rounds were athletics. It began with a game of `Pin The Talons On The Squidbat'. Little Bobbie Olmstead won that one for northside after Lizy Orne was disqualified for stabbing one of the judges. This was followed by the usual footrace to East Point and back. Augie Derleck won that one for the south, and might have set a course record if it hadn't been for the spot of trouble he had climbing out of that pit trap. The rugby match for the older boys was particularly fierce that year, but we didn't have too many broken bones. Northside won that by a single try, winning athletics for the north and tying the day at 3-all.

"The final three rounds were for the adults, and promised to be a beaut. By now, the crowd was getting loud and motza was changing hands because these would decide the whole contest. The first round was a motor race with five points for the winner and a point off for every crash or fire. Ben Orne from southside won that with his modified Holden lorry. Northside wanted to disqualify him because of that problem with the engine, but that didn't happen until he crossed the line. We never did find out what was in those tanks of compressed gas or learn why his mechanic was laughing so hard. The second round was a welding competition to repair all the damage from the first round. We reckoned Stevens would take that one for southside -- that bloke's a genius with a torch -- but Zade Allen from the North Australia Railroad beat him with some bonzer filleting. Now the score was 4-all, with the final round coming up.

"We've had some fairly crook final rounds over the years. The worst was that jumbuck-throwing meet we held before the War. Barnie Williams won that with something he called a `sentry-fyuge'. There was also that arm-wrestling competition. You'd think they could come up with more of a challenge. But this year's contest was the bee's knees. It was a fishing boat tug-of-war."

"A fishing boat tug-of-war?" blurted MacKiernan, who hadn't been in the Service for quite long enough to take such things in stride.

"Dinki-di!" said the matron. "Me versus Aunt Behema in two 35' trawlers, 19 gross tons each. We were supposed to be evenly matched, with identical triple-compound engines from John Fowler & Company in Yorkshire, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve." The matron gestured at the article of clothing in question. It had room for a considerable amount of strategy.

"How was this competition managed?" asked Everett.

"We brought our boats into Francis Bay, close to the shore so everyone could watch. Judges from Government House made a hawser fast to our towing bits, lined us up, and signaled the crowd to get ready. Then they dropped the green flag.

"I'd spent a bloody year practicing for that moment. When that flag came down, I cranked open the throttle as fast as I could. Steam hissed, pistons hammered, and foam boiled as our screw churned the water, but we didn't move an inch. It seemed Aunt Behema had also been practicing.

"We both poured on the coals, but neither of us made ground, so I decided it was time for my first trick. That morning, after the judges had finished their inspection, I'd sneaked aboard and added an oil system to our boiler. I cracked open the valve, and smoke billowed from our stack as oil sprayed into the furnace. The engine shook, our RPMs climbed, but we didn't move forward an inch. I looked back and saw that more smoke was also pouring from Aunt Behema's stack. She'd installed an oil system too.

"I watched until it became clear neither of us had an advantage. This seemed like a good time for my next trick, so I pulled the lever I'd rigged to disconnect the governor."

Everett raised an eyebrow. "Surely this was accompanied by an element of risk."

Aunt Prodigia laughed at this suggestion. "Steam engines are tougher than you think. Usually. The bearings glowed red, smoke started rising from the packing box, soon the whole boat started shaking, but our RPMs continued to climb until they were past the redline. I was sure this would give us the edge over Aunt Behema, but we still weren't moving. It seemed she'd done the same thing to her machinery.

"We weren't going to win that way. There was only one thing left to try. I grabbed a wrench and bolted down the safety valve."

Everett raised his other eyebrow. "This would seem to raise the possibility of a boiler explosion."

The matron gave snort of disdain. "This was sport, mate! And it was sure thing Aunt Behema was bolting down her safety valve as well. But neither of us expected what happened next."

"I take it this involved some form of mishap," Everett said cautiously.

"Strewth!" said Aunt Prodigia. "The hawser snapped, neat as neat. Since we'd been running at full power in the mouth of a narrow bay, we were both aground in an instant. Fortunately it was soft mud."

"What happened next?"

"It took some time for everyone to stop laughing," said Aunt Prodigia. "Then Stevens rocked up with his tug to pull us free. On the way back to his yard, he and I had a chinwag. It seems he'd been getting tired of hauling people off mud flats and I'd been getting tired of fishing, so we swapped boats and I set myself up in the marine salvage business."

Everett smiled as he considered his hostess' story. He imagined it might contain some exagerations, but he saw no reason to doubt the substance of the tale. Like their passion for sport, this readiness to make major life-altering decisions on the spur of the moment seemed to be an Australian characteristic. "I gather you've been pleased with this vessel," he remarked.

The matron gave the railing an affectionate pat. "She's a good little ship," she said fondly. "Life offers us these gifts. It's important to appreciate them."

Clarice and Emily with their steam engine

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of the Flying Cloud! We hope you all enjoy the holidays and are looking forward to the coming year. His Majesty's Airship R-505 will be on a cruise to New Zealand in January, but if all goes well... and we don't have too much trouble with kiwis... Season Eleven will begin on 21-Jan-2019. Until then, best wishes for the season!

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit