Sailing the Endeavour: Day one

Life on an 18th century ship involves heaving, climbing and grunting, not to mention keeping track of the historical jargon.
By Aaron Cook November 7, 2013 Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page

AG writer Aaron Cook steps aboard the Endeavour replica to relive the beginnings of Australia’s colonial era, and learn a bit about sailing an 18th century ship. Tune in for his daily blog, thanks to Australian National Maritime Museum.

JAMES COOK LEFT ENGLAND aboard Endeavour on 26 August 1768, for the first of three voyages around the world. Onboard was a crew of 94, many of whom would never see their families again.

The ship’s quartermaster drowned in 1768, two servants froze to death in 1769 rounding South America, and one marine committed suicide after he was ostracised by the other 11 marines for stealing. Things got really bad when people started to die of tropical diseases and dysentery on the way home from Australia.

More than a third of the crew perished during the three year voyage and on 31 January 1771, Cook wrote in his journal of the ship’s troubles: “In the course of this 24 Hours we have had 4 men died of the Flux [dysentery] … a melancholy proof of the calamitieous situation we are at present in, having hardly well men enough to tend the Sails and look after the Sick, many of whom are so ill that we have not the least hopes of their recovery.”

Today, I will board the replica Endeavour with 53 others for a five-day, round-trip voyage from Sydney, 50 km north to Broken Bay. I assume we’re safe from malaria or dysentery, but to ensure that we return in one piece, we’re spending a day moored in Sydney Harbour learning how to sail the replica 18th century ship. Of three groups, I’m placed in ‘mizzenmast’ watch, which means I am to keep watch of the mast that sits at the rear of the ship behind the wheel. The other groups are ‘mainmast’ and ‘foremast’.

WE LEAVE DARLING HARBOUR, Sydney, aided by ‘iron staysails’ (otherwise known as diesel engines). The first thing we learn is how to safely climb the rigging to furl or unfurl the sails. We attach ourselves to a ‘fall arrester’, which is connected to a rope line that runs all the way up the rigging. If we start to fall, it should sense the rapid downward acceleration and lock itself to the line to bring us to a sudden stop. It’s supposed to do this fast enough that the sudden stop won’t snap our spines. I make a vow not to test it.

The second big lesson of the day is how to set the sails in the right position. Several people and a lot of brawn are needed to haul the lines so as to tighten them. To add a bit of team-work, the first person on the line hollers, “Two! Six!” and then everyone behind them is supposed to yell, “Heave!” as they pull in unison.

After we have braced the largest yard (the spar atop the mast, from which the sail hangs), the professional crew decide that’s enough for today. As the sun sets over North Sydney we’re called to dinner. Tomorrow we will start early; my team is on watch from 4 a.m.