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Peter Blashill/The Province

History and a Hero kept Afloat
When James Cook felt there was a lot more to life than becoming a grocer, he had no way of knowing how much his decision to explore other options – and captaining voyages on H.M.B. Endeavour – would alter destiny

By MIKE RANDOLPH

   On the Thames River near London, England, in the damp grey spring of 1768, a transformation was about to place. A facelift, you might say. A change of identity, an alteration of destiny. Not just one destiny, actually, but many.

    There was a ship. A stout, dirty, coalhauling ship called the Earl of Pembroke. The flat-bottomed Earl of Pembroke was in dry dock at the Deptford Naval Shipyards, by order of the Lords of the British Admiralty, the department of government that administers the Royal Navy

    There was a ship. A stout, dirty, coalhauling ship called the Earl of Pembroke. The flat-bottomed Earl of Pembroke was in dry dock at the Deptford Naval Shipyards, by order of the Lords of the British Admiralty, the department of government that administers the Royal Navy .

    The order came right from the top. Get her up out of the water and get her ready. Lash a new layer of planking on the hull. Rebuild the interior. Fit her with more storerooms. The Earl of Pembroke was about to embark on a long, demanding voyage. A voyage, it turned out, that would change the world. Make it smaller.

    The job of commanding this coalhauler fell to a man who was once destined to be a grocer. He was the son of a Yorkshire farm labourer, one of nine children. But this man did not become a grocer because the store where he worked as a clerk was in the village of Staithes. And Staithes was a fishing village. On the ocean, of course. And when this man looked out on to the ocean, he felt something inside him. That something made him realize that he didn't want to be a grocer.

    So what he did, this man, was to get his apprenticeship changed. Details of how he managed this are sketchy, but the point is that he did it. He apprenticed to a ship owner instead. Coincidentally, a coal ship. Not the Earl of Pembroke, but one just like it.

    For a span of years, he plied the merchant marine trade routes from Whitby in the terrible North Sea to London, hauling dirty black fuel for British factories. When he was 27, he joined the Royal Navy.

   Michael Freeman/Corbis James Cook's first appointment was a four-year journey to the coast of Newfoundland. He was a meticulous surveyor and charted the waters with astonishing precision. He was an invaluable asset to that voyage and the Admiralty took notice. James Cook rose through the ranks quickly.

   By 1768, when the Earl of Pembroke was refitted and renamed the H.M.B. Endeavour, the Admiralty decided to give command of the ship to Cook.

    Captain Cook, now. Perhaps you've heard of him. He sailed the Endeavour to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean and became one of the greatest explorers of all time.

    Though the Endeavour was heavy (366 tons) and slow (thanks to its blunt shape) it was good at what it was built for - hauling lots of cargo. A long journey such as this one would simply not have been possible in a ship that carried any less. A partial list of supplies: 17 tons of biscuits, five tons of flour, 2,500 pounds of raisins, 1,500 pounds of sugar, 500 gallons of vinegar, 1,200 gallons of beer, 1,600 gallons of brandy. Fully loaded, there was hardly much room left for the crew of 94. They slept wherever they could.

    At only 35 metres long, the Endeavour was also nimble, and this trait proved invaluable for navigating through tricky passages. Cook was not the first explorer to sight Australia, but he was the first to map its eastern shore. From the southern end of Australia, Cook sailed tight to the coast, unwittingly winding up on the inside of the longest barrier reef in the world.

    The Great Barrier Reef is not one reef, but many. A labyrinth of sharp, shallow, hull-crushing coral. At one point, the depth of the ocean rose suddenly from a comfortable 17 fathoms to three. By dispatching the anchor immediately, however, Cook was able to save the ship from going aground.

    A few weeks later, however, Cook was not so lucky. It was June 10, 1770. Cook had noted that the depth of the ocean's floor was erratic, but by night fall, the Endeavour was once again sailing in deep water.

    Reassured, he went to bed. He awoke to the sound of wood splitting against coral. The ship was hard up against a reef, but that was not the worst of it. The tide was high, so things could only get worse. The first thing he did was to send boats to the stern to drop the anchors. The idea was to try to winch the Endeavour backward off the reef. It didn't work. It was time to lighten the load. Deck hands started pitching ballast, old supplies, casks, whatever they could.

    By dawn the ship was still stuck and leaking at an alarming rate. All hands on deck pumped out water furiously, but they could barely keep up with the water coming in. By nightfall the situation was desperate, but there was one last hope. The evening tide was higher. At 10 p.m., the entire crew converged on the capstan, the cylinder used to winch in the anchors, and they pushed with all their collective might. Slowly, the Endeavour inched off the coral and with the help of a sail coated with sheep dung and oakum, the hole was stanched and the ship remained afloat.

   The Endeavour's crew included a team of naturalists led by an aristocrat botanist, the distinguished Oxford natural scientist Joseph Banks. Over the course of the journey, from Tahiti south to New Zealand, across to the continent of Australia and then on to New Guinea, Banks collected thousands of hitherto unknown plants.

   By the time the Endeavour returned to England, they had amassed one of the richest collections of exotic plants, vegetables and fruit ever known. All thanks to the genius of the son of a farm worker, a man who once apprenticed to be a grocer.

    As for the Endeavour, she was left behind on Cook's subsequent Pacific voyages. Eventually, she was sold and fell into disrepair. For a while, the ship was used as a prison off the coast of Rhode Island, then in British hands. When the French joined in the American effort to capture Rhode Island, the British scuttled a number of ships to prevent French warships from approaching the harbour too closely. The Endeavour is still down there somewhere, probably off the coast of Newport.

    Today, there is another Endeavour afloat, however. It is an exact replica of the famous coal-hauler that conquered the Pacific. Since Captain Cook's voyage forms such an important part of the modern history of Australia, in 1987 the Trustees of the Australian National Maritime Museum decided to build a full-scale museum replica of the Endeavour.

    The plans were obtained from the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and with the help of corporate sponsors, the Endeavour project came alive.

    For the past year, the Endeavour has been on a voyage from Australia to North America. Right now, she is making her way from Gig Harbour, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., a voyage that will take six days.

The article above was published in the National Post,
Wednesday, September 29/99

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