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The International Writers Magazine
: History and Darwin's Endeavour

James Skinner is all at sea

‘The men are the heroes, the ships the heroines. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea’, wrote Nicholas Monserrat in his famous epic about the ‘Battle of the North Atlantic’. Thousands of ships and seamen were lost during the convoy runs in WWII in what was probably the worst ever maritime destruction campaign in history. A quasi documentary, the book describes in detail the horrors of war at sea, yet reveals the discipline, camaraderie and respect of those humans praying for survival in a never ending nightmare.

Past naval conflicts have been no different. The constant disputes in earlier centuries between European imperial powers such as France, Spain and Britain, created many illustrious figures scavenging the oceans in pursuit of wealth. Sir Frances Drake and Horatio Nelson were part of an elite who excelled in both bravery and carnage and entered the history books as icons for future schoolchildren to idolise and follow. Yet man’s love affair and passion for the sea has not always been belligerent. His quest for knowledge beyond the known boundaries led to the discovery of our modern world. We owe our present welfare to the daring, compassionate, orderly and above all humane young sailor-scientists of the past who exchanged a musket for a botanical flask, a sword for a quilt pen and possessed the driving force within an unbreakable spirit of adventure. Captain James Cook, master of the ‘Endeavour’ was one of them.

Having survived as a master mariner during the seven year war between Britain and France (1756-63), Captain Cook was requested by the Royal Society in London to take a group of scientists headed by a wealthy gentleman named Joseph Banks on an expedition to Tahiti. In 1768 he set sail on a small coal-hauling bark, 368 tons and 98 feet long renamed HMS ‘Endeavour’ with a specific request to observe the passage of the planet Venus across the Sun. Three years later, not only did he complete the original mission, he went on to chart the east cost of Australia, New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queens land, a long standing navigational hazard. His navigational skills and entrepreneur spirit were not his only assets. Thanks to his insistence on a varied food diet and strict cleanliness aboard ship his crew did not suffer from scurvy, the dreaded killer of most seamen in the early centuries. But it was the wealth of scientific knowledge ranging from plant species to records of aboriginal customs and dialects brought back by the ‘Endeavour’ that caused the greatest impact on their return to Britain. This was the real reason why the three year long voyage remains today as the reference chapter on discoveries in most of the world’s history books.

It is not surprising, therefore that in the late 1980’s the Australian Maritime Museum proposed building a replica of the vessel to present as a commemoration of Cook’s achievements for mankind. Despite initial financial hardships, the ship was eventually built, and to the exact measurements and characteristics of the original design. Apart from a 'few' new safety elements such as a diesel engine and computer navigational equipment, nobody visiting or sailing on her today could tell the difference. She is a magnificent replica of the 18th century original vessel. But enough historical jargon, the real joy is actually venturing on a voyage with the new Captain Cook and his crew, Captain Chris Blake, Chief Operating Officer of the H.M.Bark Endeavour Foundation, Master and Commander of ‘Endeavour’.

Below Decks
As I waited patiently at the docks to board this floating antique, First Mate George Lemann was ticking off the names on the passenger list and taking their money as the slow onslaught of local guests arrived for the voyage. ‘At least this group won’t have to work. It’s a sailing, eating and drinking day only!’ he said. ‘The norm is that when we go to sea for several days, the majority of our paying passengers are taught to actually man the vessel. This is the beauty of it all. We immerse them in the life aboard exactly as it was in the old days. Not only do they learn to hoist the sails, scrub the decks, paint the woodwork, grease and tidy the rigging and repair any damages they also take watches and navigate this floating beauty across the seven seas.’ This particular trip was a sail around the bay of Vigo, but believe me, it was sufficient to appreciate George’s short dissertation.

I must confess, I don’t know the first thing about boats. It was all new to me. My first impression was that I would be constantly in the way of humans running around doing things. I looked at the other passengers and am sure they felt the same. There were ninety of us useless extras hanging about either on deck or down below. Once we left the dockside, using the diesel of course, the Captain shouted a set of indecipherable orders. ‘250 degrees North-by-North West. Hard astern. Steady!’ Two big guys, either side of the steering wheel turned it in strict obedience to the instructions, whilst another fiddled with the engine’s speed. The younger crew members began to pull and pull at an endless number of different size ropes. Nothing seemed to be happening until suddenly the numerous sails curled up at the top of the masts began to unravel and slowly flow down towards the deck. The vessel looked like a huge flower bursting into bloom. ‘The idea is to give her enough room to set her sails, point her in the direction towards the open ocean, and with enough ‘wind’ sail her across and in view of the whole city. About 5 knots should do it,’ said George. ‘If you say so,’ I thought.

Once on our way, as a sleuth journalist, I thought I’d first check out the ship and have a go at the passengers later! As per the brochure, in describing the foredeck, the bowsprit extended over the bow keeping the tension to hold the masts in place. The sailor’s lavatories, the quaintly named ‘seats of ease’ sat either side. In the old days, there was no toilet paper, so the crew used the end of a rope, rags and water! You dropped your ‘deposits’ straight into the sea. Down in the galley, all food was cooked in a huge iron stove called a firehearth sitting on stone set in tin to protect the deck. And when it was bedtime, each sailor had around 14 inches in which to sling his hammock in the mess deck. By the way, you had to be about 3 feet tall to walk around below deck. The officers and gentlemen had their own mess and miniscule cabins and shared a so called ‘Great cabin’ specially built as a sort of captain’s conference room for use during the original scientific missions. Above deck the impression was like sailing aboard a huge cobweb with crewmembers scrambling up and down the rigging like spiders. All in all it was very quaint and exactly as per the original design.

The first passenger to literally bump into me was eight-year-old Manuel, all dressed up like ‘Peg Leg Pete’ including a plastic sword. ‘He’s been waiting for this day for weeks,’ said his father, ‘all he does is think, read and dream about ships. His bedroom is full of pictures and models of every kind you can think of. It’s the day of his life.’ I took him straight to the captain who let him take a hand at ‘steering’ the ship. The kid was petrified. Then I met Kurt and Gretel, a couple from Germany. They had actually flown all the way from Munich just to take this short voyage. ‘We could not do it any other way.’ I wondered why.

I came across a television crew doing a documentary, a press reporter whom I knew from the local rag and the usual comedian who kept boasting about his seafaring knowledge. He owned a small yacht to go fishing over the weekends. Big deal! But what about the odd paying crew members? Well, most were youngsters with strong muscles and calluses on their hands. They came from various parts of the world including Australia and Britain. One of them told me he turned up in his tuxedo after a London dinner party just before they departed for Vigo.

A cannon was suddenly fired. I forgot to say that the ship also carried cannons in order to scare away any intruders. That’s the story line. It was ‘climb the rigging time’. Not for me as I have a gammy leg, but I watched in amazement as a great number of passengers ventured up into the ‘crows nest’ for a better view all round. Pretty tricky exercise but not as dramatic as the Titanic. There were no icebergs around. Approaching midday it was mealtime. Casually, we were informed to go below deck to a buffet lunch. Plenty of salads, hams and cold chicken sloshed down with wine, beer or soda kept all of us quiet for a couple of hours. Then the wind died down. We virtually sat in the middle of the Bay of Vigo not moving an inch. Everyone began to look at each other. ‘This is the worst thing that can happen on a voyage,’ said George. ‘The other is obviously gale force winds.’ The engine started up and reluctantly the captain set the course back to the Vigo docks. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.

Curriculum Vitae: The ‘Endeavour’ is currently based at Whitby, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Information regarding voyages or catering parties are available on their website
Have a nice trip!
© James Skinner. Avril 2004.

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