Voyage of Endeavour: Two centuries on

By Mike McCoy 3 May 2010
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Following the Endeavour’s course simulates life leading up to colonial Australia.

TODAY’S THE DAY. Everyone is on deck early, revelling in the taut sails and the heave of the ship as it drives at a cracking 8 knots through the tropical sea. The talk is light, casual; but occasionally people glance over the bow and search the water for hints of our destination. Not me, though – I’ve barely time to tap into the feeling of anticipation when the familiar voice of Captain Chris Blake crackles over the ship’s speakers. “Would Mike McCoy go to the chartroom – Mike to the chartroom please.”

I hurry down steps to the lower deck. In the dimness of the tiny cubicle that’s the heart of the ship’s directional system, navigator Terry Russell points to brightly lit images on a screen and says in a voice taut with excitement: “You’ve got to get a picture of this! There’s Endeavour Reef and here we are – we’re on exactly the same course that Cook was on when he hit this reef. It’s incredible!”

The voyage of Captain Cook

THREE DAYS’ SAILING north of Cairns and 225 years after Lieutenant James Cook gingerly negotiated this treacherous inner passage of the Great Barrier Reef, a collusion of wind and current and judicious navigation has brought our replica of Cook’s ship, Endeavour, onto precisely the course that nearly finished the great navigator’s explorations. Back on deck, I see Cook’s nemesis lying a scant 200 metres off our bow – a 5-kilometre-long coral shoal, dull green under the windwhipped whitecaps.

On the weather deck high above the stem, John Longley, chief executive officer of the HM Bark Endeavour Foundation, is reading from Cook’s description of the serene moonlit night of Monday 11 June 1770. During the day Cook had been sailing north along the coast, about 15 km offshore, but as night fell he veered north-east to avoid two small islands spotted to the north-west.

Just before 9 p.m. the crewman sounding depth with a lead line called out that the water was rapidly getting shallower, from 21 fathoms to just 8 fathoms (1 fathom =1.83 m), Cook instructed his men to prepare the anchor, but then the water quickly deepened again — a “not so fortunate” circumstance, Cook later reflected, because he decided to keep the Endeavour under sail. John takes just a few seconds to read the lieutenant’s brief description of following events: “Before 10 o Clock we had 20 and 21 fathom and continued in that depth untill a few Minutes before 11 when we had 17 and before the Man on the lead could heave another cast the Ship Struck and stuck fast.”

For those who’ve been with the Endeavour replica since her launch at Fremantle in December 1993, their meeting with this reef is a deeply moving occasion. The ship’s mate, Ted Lysons, looks out over the reef and says quietly, almost as if to himself: “Of all Cook’s writings, the part I’ve re-read most often is the account of his striking this reef. I’ve been up through this area many times in motor vessels, but to come here in Endeavour makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”

Everyone on board knew the significance of Endeavour Reef and that winter night in 1770. Had the Endeavour not survived its encounter with the coral, had Cook and all hands been lost, Australia may not have been claimed for the British Crown and our history may have been quite different. Cook was roaming the seas in a period when European powers with colonial aspirations had unleashed numerous expeditions of exploration and discovery. The French explorer La Perouse arrived at Botany Bay on 24 January 1788, a scant six days after the advance party of Captain Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet. Without Cook’s prior claim, La Perouse may have run up the French flag on the east coast.

The HMB Endeavour

THE ROYAL NAVY Bark Endeavour left England on 25 August 1768, under the command of Lieutenant Cook, ostensibly to travel to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. But sealed orders from the British Admiralty also directed Cook to search for the much-discussed Great Southern Land. So in a vessel roughly the length of one and a half cricket pitches, accompanied by 94 men and carrying supplies that included sheep, goats, pigs and ducks, Cook set off for Cape Hom and the largely uncharted Pacific Ocean.

Take a tour of the Endeavour

Take a tour of the Endeavour  View Large Map

He observed the celestial transit, circumnavigated and mapped New Zealand’s coastline, then decided to fulfil his orders by sailing westwards back to England, around the Cape of Good Hope. On 20 April 1770 the Endeavour encountered land, near present-day Mallacoota, just south of the Victoria-NSW border. From that point Cook sailed north, charting the coastline and making his celebrated landing at Botany Bay on 29 April. By late May he had ventured deep into the treacherous coral shoals of the Great Barrier Reef.

UP NEAR THE REPLICA’S helm, John continues reading from Cook’s spare, no-nonsense narrative. Moments after the Endeavour shuddered to a halt the captain was on deck. As the hull timbers ground on the coral he strode the stricken ship in his drawers, ordering that the sails be taken in and boats lowered to take stock of the ship’s situation. It was dire. They had struck at high tide, and the ebbing sea stranded the ship hard on the coral.

In the hours that followed the crew heaved overboard more than 50 tonnes of cannons, ballast and stores. Next morning’s high tide failed to free the ship, instead filling the holds with water as fast as the crew could pump out. Botanist Joseph Banks packed a few treasured belongings in the belief that all was lost, but Cook resolutely refused to give up. Shortly after 10 that night a big tide came up and floated Endeavour free.

Water more than 1m deep lay in the holds and more was pouring in through the smashed planking. A mid-shipman who had lived through a similar crisis in the Atlantic led the crew in draping a sail covered in oakum and animal dung over the hole. “Soon after the leak decreased…” Cook wrote. “…this fortunate circumstance gave new life to everyone on board.”

Now it was essential that Cook find a suitable place to make repairs. For 24 sleepless hours the longboat crews plied the shoreline, spurred on by their predicament. One man wrote: “We were…many thousand leagues from our own land, and on a barbarous coast, where, if the ship had been wrecked, and we had escaped the perils of the sea, we should have fallen into the rapacious hands of savages.”

After dark on 14 June, a boat returned to report that it had found a safe harbour in the mouth of what Cook was to name the Endeavour River, 50 km north-west of the reef and the site of modern-day Cooktown. Three days later the Endeavour limped into the river estuary. There the ship was beached on a bank at high tide, pulled over on its side using blocks and tackle made from dismantled masts, and the laborious repairs were begun.

Retracing Cook’s voyage

EARLY IN 1995 a painstakingly constructed replica of the Endeavour began retracing Cook’s voyage up Australia’s east coast. I joined the ship at Cairns as its crew prepared for a three-day trip to Cooktown — as history tells us, the most crucial section in the original Endeavour’s voyage. On our first night out I was put at the helm, from where I got a tantalising insight into the life of an 18th-century seafarer.

Low, heavy cloud obscured the stars: the only lights were those of reef markers, passing ships and the distant glow of Cairns astern. Windblown rain hit my face and trickled down my neck, chilling me inside my oilskin; at regular intervals I had to wipe away beads of water clouding the big compass by the wheel. But no discomfort could detract from the eerie thrill of the moment. Shrouded in darkness, feeling the wind and rain and listening to the ship creak as it breasted the swell, I had travelled back in time. It was as though the silhouetted figures that shared the watch with me were those sailors of two centuries ago come to life, and the commands that whipped back from the foredeck were echoes from the first Endeavour: “Heave on the halyards! Belay that line there!”

At my elbow, the very contemporary voice of Ted Lysons jerked me back to the present. “She wants to come into the wind so you have to keep a little port rudder on, but bring her back well before she comes onto the course.” I gave up the past and, until our watch was relieved later that night, concentrated on getting a feel for the living ship.

AT DAWN, AS WE spilled from our gently swinging hammocks, I heard someone on deck say, “Man, it’s snore city down there.” I hadn’t heard a thing through my slumbers – perhaps I was one of the snorers.

We made it on deck in time to catch a clamorous greeting from the residents of Port Douglas. I watched as hundreds of people crowded the headland and bobbed past in pleasure craft, smugly conscious of my privileged position. Later the illusion faded slightly — as in Cook’s day, daily shipboard routine left little time for idle reflection. We swept, scrubbed, scraped, polished and painted, and interminably hauled on and eased lines as the sails were reset for our regular changes of course. To be working the image of Cook’s ship with my own hands was an extraordinary experience, equally relished by my crewmates. Daphne Rudd of Woolgoolga, NSW, told me her fascination with sailing ships harked back to the seafaring tales of her grandfather, who sailed from England to Australia in the late 1800s. “I spent a couple of hours on this ship when it came to Coffs Harbour,” Daphne said. “That really clinched it — I had to make a trip.”

Late in the afternoon we passed Cape Tribulation, so named by Cook “… because here begun all our troubles”. I wondered whether the crew of the original Endeavour was as awed as I by the spectacle of the rainforest clothed hills falling steeply to white sandy beaches and fringing coral reefs. Throughout the night, under reduced sail, we tacked slowly back and forth across the wind. We wanted to make an early morning arrival at Endeavour Reef.

Australian history

SAILS BELLYING BEFORE the 28-knot south-east trade wind, we bore down on that fateful line of coral. At the critical moment the ship came round, the rigging writhed with ropes and sails, and we set a new course along the reef, the Endeavour heeling with the wind. For a few minutes we paid public and private homage to the long-dead navigator. Tributes over, we set sail for Cooktown, arriving at the Endeavour River mouth in three hours where it had taken Cook three days.

On the riverbank the artisans of the original Endeavour had inspected their ship’s damaged hull. Cook’s journal recorded that ” … a large piece of Coral rock was sticking in one hole and several pieces of the fothering [the coated sail draped over the hole], small stones, sand &c had made its way in…and stoped the water forceing its way in …”

When tides permitted, the ship’s carpenters replaced smashed timbers with wood cut from the surrounding bush, while ” … the Smiths were busy makeing bolts nails &c”. The invaluable longboats were sent to find a passage through the reef.

Cook and his men made numerous forays into the bush to gather food and explore. Cordial relations between the Endeavour crew and the local Aborigines — the Guugu-Yimidhirr people — were probably fostered by intense mutual curiosity. Cook, unusually for a European of his day, described the Guugu-Yimidhirr as having “…features far from disagreeable, the Voices soft and tunable…” From these people the Europeans learned that “…an animal something less than a greyhound…of a Mouse Colour very slender made and swift of foot,” was a “Kanguru”.

The Endeavour, repaired with perhaps the first Australian timber felled by Europeans, weighed anchor and departed the Endeavour River estuary on 6 August. Nearly a year passed before the ship docked in England.

I LEFT COOKTOWN on the commuter flight to Cairns. Gaining altitude, we passed over the town; the Endeavour River, silver in the afternoon light, snaked from low hills in the west to the sea – and there was the Endeavour replica, beating to windward under full sail. It looked magnificent. Further to the south, almost lost in the haze, I could just make out the light green of Endeavour Reef. I recalled the words of the replica’s bosun Scott Fell-Smith, who’d reflected: “Cook’s speed around the world averaged two and a half knots; we’ve recorded up to 10 or 11 knots under sail. We know what’s ahead, we have charts; Cook was in uncharted waters. But you know, it’s something I would deeply love to do — to go back 200 years and sail on the original Endeavour.”

Aye … aye.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 44 (Oct – Dec 1996)