Thursday 19 May 2022

Ocean Greyhound by Sheelagh Aston,

Scrunching up the scrappy paper in his fist, Jonathan pushed back the fallen strands of unruly locks from his forehead and lobbed the paper missile into the wicker basket by the door a few feet away. It landed in the middle of a pile of discarded odd shaped paper balls.

He stared in dismay at the essay title. ‘Give an account of a real historical event from the point of view of an eye witness.’

Unable to conjure up any sensible suggestion as to what on earth he could write about, he got up from the tower of books piled high on the oval dining table.  With a dejected sigh, he ambled across the living room to the shelving unit crammed with his father’s maritime books. Perhaps he would find inspiration there? Fingers trailed along the middle shelf until they came to a slim tatty leather book.  With care, he opened the front cover and read the inside page.  ‘Journal of J Moss 1897.’

With an inspired smile, Jonathan settled down on the nearby sofa and started to read.


“Look lively lad.”

Jack rubbed his sore, tired eyes and scanned the marshmallow horizon ahead. To his left, out of the wispy June mist, steamed a bulky cargo ship towards the single-funnelled vessel he sailed aboard. A cargo ship’s hull cut across the smaller ship’s knife-edged bow.  The little turbine engine ship named Turbinia, rolled like a twig as the choppy waves slapped against her shallow hull.

“I said look lively.”  A man stuck his head out from the wheelhouse window below. His black waxed moustache twitched as his eyes blazed up at Jack. “Call yourself a look-out. Way ya could nee see a warship, guns a firing.”

“Sorry capt’n.”

 Jack swayed in tune with the ship as it rocked from side to side.  From his lookout platform, a foot or so back from on top of the wheelhouse, he surveyed the watery landscape ahead. He gripped the steel rails that surrounded him and scouted for traffic coming into their path. From his elevated position, the River Tyne’s murky surface appeared uninviting and cold.

“Aye, so you should be laddie.” Captain Leyland’s thick norther blur shouted out as his hands gripped the ship’s wooden wheel steady.  “We need sharp eyes if we’re going to show what this lassie can do at the Queen’s Regatta. Mr Parson’s relying on us. All of us, Jack lad. All.”

Jack swallowed. Talk on the shipyard hinted that the inventor had plans for his little turbine at a naval event in honour of the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Spithead. Jack reckoned he would need a good night’s sleep if he was to be eagle-eyed the next day, Saturday, June 26th, 1897.  The day the world would see their ocean greyhound fly.

With that thought in mind, fourteen-year-old Jackie Moss stared at the rain-filled clouds.  He flipped up the threadbare collar of his worn coat and tucked his curls of tawny hair under his cloth cap. The cold whip of the wind he could cope with the pellets of rain made it harder to see. Wet droplets formed on his eyelashes as he resumed his watch over the calm river’s waterway.

Bobbling gently in the water, the ship and crew waited on deck until the Royal procession of vessels had slipped majestically past them.

Jack gazed opened mouthed at all the men in colourful uniforms with their shiny buttons and the ladies in floppy hats that peered down as they floated by.  

Against the yachts and naval ships whose masts appeared to touch the overcast sky, their ocean greyhound seemed nothing more than a toy boat, like the ones he played with in the park pond as a child.

Once left alone, engine purring, the little ship stirred from her slumbers.

“Eyes peeled ahead, Jack, We on!” said Captain Leyland, as he emerged from the wheel house and headed to the ship’s bow. Jackie scrambled to his post.  Under his feet, Jack knew, the captain would drive them to glory.

When the surge of power came from the turbine engine’s thrust, Jack grinned and eyed the red pennant flag bearing the greyhound’s name, Turbinia, It fluttered in the blustery wind from the ship’s mast. The narrow 103-foot 9-inch vessel shreaked through the sea like a rocket cannoned out of a battleship’s side. Smoky grey hulls melted into one on either side of him, as the ship sliced through the waves in between the ranks of dwarfing naval vessels and royal ships.

Careful not to take his eyes off the sea ahead, Jack held on to the rails and ignored the violent shudders as Turbinia, raced on.  Horns blared in their wake as the picket and petrol boats, caught napping, gave chase.  Water lashed the deck.  Jack glanced back and saw amber flames from the smoky funnel of the closet boat to them. They leaped up in the air like fallen autumn leaves caught in a breeze.  Their dance told him the Turbinia, had reached its maximum speed of 34 knots, leaving the huffing petrol boat behind them, stranded in the backwash of the little greyhound’s wake. 

From his crouched seat by the bow, Captain Leyland roared with laughter. Under his thick moustache his teeth gleamed as he glanced back up in the direction of the lookout.  Jack raised his hands in triumph. They had shown them.

They had beaten the navy.  Heat flamed Jack’s face, burning his cheeks.

From the shore lady’s bonnets, helmets and shock stares followed them, and the fleet of ships dotted on either side of their little ocean greyhound.  

“Hold on, Jack, lad, “Leyland’s voice sounded like a whisper over the sloshing of the waves.

Turbinia spun round and dashed back down the lines, the Admiralty’s own petrol boat in their sights. For a heart stopping moment, Jack’s throat shrivelled as he watched its bow come in line with theirs. The words he needed to shout lodged in his dry throat.  Leyland ignored his frantic arm waves. Remembering that he could not swim, Jack shut his eyes tight and prayed. They were going to be crushed to smithereens, and it was all his fault. Too excited by the thrill of showing off, he had missed sight of the Admiralty boat, and now Turbinia, would forever be remembered as the ship that sunk.

Wind whipped across his cheek.  Aware that he was very much alive, Jack opened his eyes to spy the petrol boat’s captain unbuckle his sword. Over his shoulder, Jack saw the punctured stern of the boat, slide into the icy sea and the flagstaff snap in two as the crew rushed to its sides to jump ship. Would they have to stop and rescue to crew? That was the protocol.  To his relief they threw the lift boats out and the crew got into them.

 Turbinia, cruised past the sinking boat’s stern.  Full of pride for the little ship he stood on, Jack laughed.  From behind a neighbouring battleship’s bow, a sleek French yacht sailed into view.  A crude blast of a horn from it, startled Jack, making him stagger back and topple off the roof of the wheelhouse look-out post, onto the deck. A violent shudder sent him reeling to the side as Turbinia spurted forward out of harm. Jack shut his eyes and waited for the sea to swallow him whole.

A strong pair of hands hauled him back to safety.

“You alright, lad?” the captain asked, keeping a tight hold of Jack’s upper arm with one hand and clinging to the side rope with his other.

“Sorry, cap’tn.”

“Nay, laddie. You did grand.”

The greyhound slowed down. There were no flames dancing. Cold splashes of water wet his face.

“And so, did our ocean greyhound,” smiled Leyland.

When Jack stood up, he could see all the shocked faces. Some even waved. Horns blared from the other competitors in admiration; for the dare, the courage and the amazing speed of small their little ship. Pride swelled Jack’s heart to the size of a pumpkin.

When Jack went to climb back to his post, Leyland rested a hand on his shoulder and shook hi head.

“Please sir,” Jack asked looking up at the look-out.

For the first time in the four years Jack had worked as a cabin boy, he saw something other than a roaring fire in the captain’s eyes.

Standing on the tiny ship’s wheelhouse roof, Jack surveyed the body of his sea faring mistress and felt his heart balloon. This time with something other than pride. It would be years, he recalled, before he understood what others might called the feeling.   That day, it did not matter to Jack Moss as he surveyed deck of the prettiest, fastest lady of the seas. The North Sea’s ocean greyhound; Turbinia.

* * *

She rested in her cradle, warm and dry inside the museum’s light airy foyer, every bit as lovely as Jonathan had imagined.  The ship’s hull’s shiny black, the deck clean, the cabin and wheelhouse painted a shade of halo white and the funnel clean of soot.

With a quick step, Jonathan bounced up the stairs behind the display of pictures and memorabilia surrounding Turbinia to the spectators viewing bay of the museum. 

Heart pounding, he stopped dead when he reached the top of the stairs. Across the bay, a thick steel bar separated him from the object of his desire.

He leaned on the bar and looked longingly at the narrow deck.

“Quite something isn’t she?” The mark of admiration was unmistakable in the familiar voice of the attendant who drew alongside him.

“It’s a good replica,” Jonathan observed.

“Replica?” his father said with a grin.  “That’s no replica son. that’s George Parson’s very own ocean greyhound.”

Jonathan tried to picture the galloping waves tossing her fragile frame in the vast northern sea surrounded by the giants ships of her day. Salty smells filled his senses.


The bar lifted. With one long leap, Jonathan jumped over the two-inch gap between him and the past.

With his feet firmly on the deck, fourteen-year-old Jonathan Moss pushed his unruly strains of hair from the eyes, stared at the jutting roof of the engine room in front of him and traced the footsteps of his ancestor, Jack.




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