Often at sea things do not turn out as expected, a truism recently reinforced on board the replica of HM Bark Endeavour. Sailing from Philadelphia and north along the Atlantic Coast for five days to New York City, I anticipated learning some history and some basics of square-rigger technology. Actually, the lesson was much more far-reaching.
The 18th-Century Endeavour
She was not built for beauty, but when form follows function, it frequently creates beauty as a byproduct. And when constructors added the finishing touches in 1764 to the Earle of Pembroke—later to become HM Bark Endeavour— in Whitby, England, her lines and her scale pleased the eye. The ship’s early career as a collier was a modest beginning for a vessel that, after refitting and renaming, played so important a role in the history of maritime discovery.
The 18th-century Endeavour’s hull and three-masted bark rig were designed for sturdiness. That made her a good choice as the ship to carry Captain James Cook on his around-the-world scientific voyage of 1768 to 1771. With a length overall of just under 110 feet, a breadth of just over 29 feet, and a displacement of 550 tons, the ship had the right combination of durability, cargo space , and sea-kindliness for her mission.
Considered one of modern history’s greatest sea explorers, Cook was an experienced 40-year-old Royal Navy lieutenant when he took command of the Endeavour. His crew and officers—about 90 in all—mostly were under 30 years of age, and they too were veteran seamen. Augmenting the sailors was a 12-man Royal Marine contingent that formed the ship’s security force. After their epic voyage, Cook summed up the quality of his crew: “They have gone through the fatigues and dangers of the whole Voyage with that cheerfulness and Alertness that will always do Honour to British Seamen.”
Cook’s Endeavour also carried a small team of scientists— again, a relatively young group. A 24-year-old botanist, Joseph Banks, funded the botanical part of the voyage, and 34-year-old botanist Daniel Solander lent his own expertise. Accompanying the two naturalists were two artists, on board to record plant and animal specimens and landscapes. The scientific team also included 35-year-old astronomer Charles Green, who, as part of a global effort by the Royal Society of London to record the transit of Venus across the sun, was on board to make observations in the South Pacific.
The basic design features of Cook’s Endeavour are duplicated carefully in the Australian-built replica, completed in a specialty shipbuilding yard in Fremantle in 1994. While the builders made appropriate concessions to modern safety-at-sea requirements and some judgment calls on details not shown in surviving references, they did incorporate many of the original construction methods, such as using trunnels (wooden nails).
No original sail or rigging plans were available, so those features were determined by studying the rigs of similar ships. Both the main and foremast carry three square sails: a course, topsail, and topgallant. The mizzenmast carries a topsail, topgallant, and a fore-and-aft gaff-rigged driver. Forward are two jibs, a spritsail and a spritsail topsail, the latter two being square sails. Several fore-and-aft staysails and square stunsails also can he set in light breezes. The 20th-century Endeavour is nearly as labor-intensive as her predecessor.
The 20th-century crew has a nucleus of full-time professionals—mostly Australians—usually numbering 13, augmented by a voyage crew of about 35 composed of men and women from countries the ship visits. Voyage crew members sign on for specific legs of the ship’s ‘round-the- world journey. A few supernumeraries (paying passengers) also are on board for various voyage segments.
The modern-day Endeavour’s westward circumnavigation began in Fremantle in 1994, and by late fall 1998 she will have completed a tour of the east coasts of the United States and Canada. In the spring of 1999, after a cruise through the Caribbean and a transit of the Panama Canal, the ship will begin a tour of the U.S. and Canadian west coasts. She then will sail for her future home base, Sydney, with a stop in Hawaii. The sponsor for the circumnavigation is the HM Endeavour Foundation.
Crossing the brow from Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia, 1 was struck by how small the Endeavour is. The compact weather deck is crowded with the three masts, a windlass, a capstan, several hatches, four guns, a tender, bits, single timber heads, a large tiller, and the wheel. Moving about the main deck almost always involves going around or over something or someone. The small size of the weather deck is accentuated by the seemingly infinite number of sheets, halyards, braces, and other lines cleated and belayed along the rails and at the bases of the masts.
Below decks, the reality of tight living space is still more pronounced. Even with the crew numbers reduced from Cook’s original Endeavour, I knew immediately that I was in for five days of extremely intimate living. Just how close became very specific when I was shown where to sling my hammock. The area’s headroom was about four feet. By quick calculation, “personal space” amounted to a bit more than 35 cubic feet, about the equivalent of the average family’s refrigerator-freezer. Rigging and unshipping a canvas hammock, and getting to and from it, required an inverted “L” position. Even a small deviation from the requisite right-angle bend rewarded the uninitiated with a sharp crack on the skull from an overhead beam. Several "reminders” in the learning process drew blood. Knowing the hammock would be slung in a space near what was officers’ and gentlemen’s country in Cook’s Endeavour was absolutely no consolation.
Perhaps for relief from the introduction to the close quarters below, the crew quickly gave us an opportunity to climb to the main top. Since there was no lubber’s hole from the top of the ratlines onto the small platform that comprised the top, the final few feet required a climb outward at an approximate angle of 45° and then a self-boost from under the platform over the futtocks (the edge of the top) to gain the platform. Arm strength suddenly became an issue of transcending importance.
Next came assignment to one of the three underway watch sections. A topman from the permanent crew supervises each of the three groups—identified as foremast, mainmast, and mizzenmast watch sections. Each watch section handles most sail changes and rotates through bow lookout, stern lookout, and tricks on the wheel during its on-watch period. Most watches lasted the traditional four hours, and in true naval style, any off-watch time during the day usually was filled with other meaningful activities.
Along with eight people from the Philadelphia area, two from England, and one from Australia, I was assigned to the mizzenmast watch. Our topman, Todd Vidgen, was a young Australian who not only knew the ship but fortunately also had sound leadership instincts. The leadership part of the equation was especially important, since with minor exceptions no member of our group had serious experience in square-riggers. Basically, it was on-the-job training for the scores of different tasks involved in each watch.
Ship’s Routine Begins
For the mizzenmast watch, the immutable underway watch cycles began in earnest shortly after we left the pier in Philadelphia—an event marked by a booming salute from our two-gun starboard battery. As we began the long transit down the Delaware River channel, in a heavy overcast, light airs, and with bare steerage way, my first trick on the wheel was not exactly routine.
Foremost was the extra challenge of quickly unlearning the rigid sequence and vocabulary for orders to the helm that had been drilled indelibly into my mind 40 years ago. What would have been an order for “Right 10° rudder” on the bridge of a U.S. Navy ship was translated into spokes of the ship’s wheel. A comparable change would be ordered with, “Starboard two”—the “two” relating to how many spokes of the ship’s wheel would pass the amidships position. It sounded fairly easy until it was pointed out that the whole process was cumulative. So, if the wheel was at “starboard three,” and the order was for “starboard one,” the wheel was put left two spokes to arrive at a position of one spoke to the right of amidships. During an extended series of orders to the wheel, and with the very public aspect of your reactions, it was a challenge to keep track of what would have been elementary mental arithmetic under other circumstances. Fortunately, the pilot was experienced and relaxed. Her “well done” when I reported being relieved on the wheel was the first of many seemingly small acknowledgments that were greatly appreciated.
Other routines that had to be unlearned included something as basic as how to take a line to a cleat. The procedure on board the Endeavour turned out to be different from that in a cruising sailboat. For the record, the last cross-over of the line was never to be turned under, and there were always to be three turns on the cleat when finished with the line.
One of the first and best signs that a watch group is coming together is when they begin to look out for one another. The first example of that process came as I was draped over the mizzen topsail yard. We had loosed the gasket lines, and let the sail fall, when Todd said, “Okay, make up your gasket coils and start down.” That sounded good to me, but somehow 1 had missed the demonstration that included gasket coils.
My watchmate to the right quickly realized my dilemma, stepped to his left on the horses (foot rope), took my coil, and said quietly, “like this,” while accomplishing the last step in making up the line. One’s perspective somewhat sharpens while hanging over the deck on a yardarm, and my immediate take was that this simple act of assistance, especially the quiet way it was accomplished, demonstrated how people become shipmates. It is not a matter of a mutual assignment, it is a matter of mutual support.
The coming together of the mizzenmast watch did not extend only horizontally within the group, it extended upward to our topman. One of the ways this was expressed
was the attitude that developed during daily cleaning stations. Truly menial, sweeping-scrubbing-polishing tasks were done thoroughly by people surely not accustomed to cleaning shipboard living spaces, heads, and galleys. And it was not just because the members of the watch wanted to get the onerous work over with. And it was not because the individuals wanted to look good for the first lieutenant’s inspection. It was even more important that our topman, who was responsible for our performance to the first lieutenant, not look bad.
The Drive to Discover
One of the aspects of my Endeavour experience was the realization that the urge to discover new lands and people is still very much alive. For example, a genuine excitement buzzed among the young members of the full-time crew in anticipation of arriving in New York City.
You could feel it about the deck when we anchored in Gravesend Bay, off Brooklyn, the night before entering New York harbor. And interestingly, that evening it was not demonstrated in visible excitement, it was evident in the opposite, a special quiet. As I particularly watched the full-time crew members, more of them than usual seemed to be practicing the sailor’s most popular off-duty pastime, leaning on the rail and staring out from the ship. That night they were not looking out at the ocean’s expanse, or a distant shore, they were focused on the dramatic setting sun directly behind the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
In contrast, the following morning, visible excitement abounded. It was clear during the controlled frenzy of making, then quickly taking in sail. All of which was overlaid by our passing under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the mystical emergence of lower New York’s skyline from the morning haze, passing the Statue of Liberty with the traditional fireboat salute, and finally easing into a tight berth in lower Manhattan’s North Cove Harbor. Matching the departure from Philadelphia, our approach to the pier was marked emphatically with a booming gun salute from the Endeavour that echoed among the canyons of lower Manhattan.
The Real Meaning of The Endeavour
By the time I crossed the brow and stepped ashore in New York City, 1 had learned some of the basics of a legendary ship. But most important, 1 had come to realize that the essential stories of both Endeavours are more about people than things. The real Endeavour story is about the seamen who gave—and give—her life.
The physical challenges to the crew of Cook’s Endeavour had to have been mind-boggling. After my five days, I had only the barest inkling of what it must have been like to handle sail aloft in heavy weather and in the dark, as they did routinely. After only five days of standing one-in-three watches, including a midwatch from midnight to 0400, and a morning watch 0400 to 0800, I experienced the almost-forgotten deep fatigue that goes with the routine of life at sea. Again, it was a mere taste of the demands placed on the crew during Cook’s voyage of more than 1,000 days.
The combined skill and toughness of those unheralded sailors was the prime ingredient of the Endeavour’s success. It was the sailors, simply doing their duty through the dangers and numbing fatigue, that made one of history’s great achievements possible.
It has been said that the Endeavour replica captures the spirit of the Age of Discovery. So it does. But more important, it is a living, teaching monument to the ordinary sailors who, with “cheerfulness and alertness,” have made history’s great achievements at sea possible.
Two statements from my brief voyage stick in my mind. The first, spoken by our topman at the end of a particularly demanding watch, was a quiet, “A proper job, gang.” The second, spoken by the first lieutenant, Jeff Kerr, as I said good-bye in New York, was, “Joe, I’d sail again with you anytime.” For me, those two lines were about doing one’s duty to the best of your ability. They were reward enough for five days that turned out to be much harder—and much better—than expected.