WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Is Captain Cook receiving visitors today?
Alastair Shaw, standing on the deck of Cook’s glorified (nonetheless illustrious) sailboat called the Endeavour, replies, “Sorry, you’re 222 years too late. The good captain departed this earth in 1779. Actually you’ve missed him by 232 years, since the Endeavour reached New Zealand in 1769.”
Oh, I knew that.
But surely the ghost of the extraordinarily curious and capable Captain James Cook of the British Navy lurks somewhere on, or in, this voyaging woodpile that circumnavigated so spectacularly during a nearly three-year journey of discovery. Right?
“Perhaps,” says Shaw, a member of the latter-day crew. Touring, they find themselves moored at a downtown dock in the port of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city at the south end of the North Island. “Perhaps. We hope so. But I must tell you this is not the deck that heard and felt Cook’s footsteps.”
No, this is his Endeavour’s much younger sister ship, the merely seven-year-old Endeavour. She was built not in England, like the original, but at Fremantle, Australia – a replica. Nevertheless, a seaworthy and faithful reincarnation in every way. “Except,” Shaw says with a smile, “she has an engine and full electronic gear, and is never in danger of being becalmed or lost.”
Oh well. A Cooked-up counterfeit is better than none. Far better.
“You have to see it,” a concierge at the hotel had advised. “Only a short walk to the harbor, and you can go aboard. And I think it’s leaving town in a day or so.”
He was right on both accounts.
“We sail in a few hours,” says Shaw. “Heading back to our home port, Sydney. We’re practically downtown there, too. At the Australia National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour. But she’ll sail again, often.”
On her last day in this one, sails are crackling, timbers shivering and creaking, the current edition jiggling like her namesake.
The name Cook is a powerful presence in this part of the world where it has become the ID of assorted islands, towns, bodies of water, and the tallest mountain in New Zealand.
So highly regarded is Cook in Australia that the rudimentary stone cottage where he grew up in the rural village of Marton-in-Cleveland has been carted away and reassembled in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Garden. Winds and his navigational skills made the captain one of the greatest planetary wanderers and explorers during his three far-flung excursions between 1768 and 1779. The Pacific was his wet backyard. He would die there on his third voyage, killed by natives in Hawaii.
While he didn’t discover New Zealand and Australia (though generally given credit), Cook charted those islands and claimed them for future colonization by Britain. Australia was pretty much a rumor known as Terra Australis Incognita until the Endeavour pulled into Botany Bay in 1770.
The man has intrigued me, as did this born-again Endeavour, of which I’d been unaware. Endeavour the first, costing about $10,000, was built as a small merchant ship at Whitby in Yorkshire, and named the Earl of Pembroke. The E’s remake, with a price tag of about $10 million, took its first globe-circling trip (with more to come) last year under the auspices of the nonprofit HM Bark Endeavour Foundation, which raised the wherewithal and maintains this floating link to a brave past.
How a poor Yorkshire farm boy became a saltwater giant is an incredible tale available in several books such as Peter Aughton’s “Endeavour.” Formally speaking, 40-year-old Cook wasn’t even a captain when, over considerable objection, he was appointed master of a naval ship to undertake an expedition of scientific inquiry into the Pacific, as well as secretly scouting for prospective British possessions.
In that time, when well-heeled aristocrats generally held command, it was felt by many in the navy that Cook, who had worked his way up as an enlisted man, didn’t fit as an officer. However his reputation as a superior navigator won him the position and a commission of first lieutenant. The captaincy was to come.
As humble as its master, the three-masted Endeavour had begun its career toting coal, but the compatible couple would become all-timers. The name Earl of Pembroke was scuttled and the rebaptized Endeavour refitted under Cook’s direction. The cocoa brown hull was trimmed with coats of Royal Navy blue and gold.
Only 106 feet long and 29 feet across the beam, the Endeavour is hardly a sleek warship. But it is sturdy in its squatness, and has a certain appeal – if you don’t have to live for months in quarters that would make canned sardines seem as isolated as hermits.
Cook liked the shallow draft, enabling the ship to slide onto a beach for repairs if in desperate straits. The most desperate, a hull-ripping collision with Australia’s then-unknown Great Barrier Reef in 1770, could have rendered the ship and the crew missing in action and from the history books.
With everybody, including the astronomer Charles Green and upper-class scientists, botanists Joseph Banks and Dr. Daniel Solander, manning the pumps, the cool Cook got the ship off the reef and onto the sandy shore for rehab that saved them. Thanks to Cook’s charts and experience, neither the new Endeavour nor anybody else should get hung up on the Barrier Reef.
Despite that clash, the old Endeavour made it to age 29 before retiring as kindling. This one should endure a lot longer. The hardy old lady, classified as a cat-built bark, and built to work in the tempestuous North Sea, was an oaken bucket with Baltic pine decks. Because oak is subject to rot and oceanic borer creatures, its successor is made of West Australian jarrah and Douglas fir as well as such other Aussie woods as blackbutt and karri.
Flaxen sails have been replaced by a Scottish synthetic called Duradon. The present E is a faster boat (9 knots an hour, opposed to Cook’s 7), probably because Cook seldom unfurled all his sheets. He had to conserve material on such an extended mission.
I ate a precautionary orange before going aboard, since scurvy was rampant on such ships.
“Scurvy’s been banished, silly. As usual you’re out of date,” says my friend, Aurelio. “Besides Cook was a unique captain in that he never lost one of his crew to scurvy, a common cause of death among seamen. He understood that they had to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Including, of all things, sauerkraut. Among the Endeavour’s provisions was 3 1/2 tons of sauerkraut. Apparently ‘kraut keeps your teeth from falling out.”
Falling out of hammocks would appear to be an occupational hazard of seamen, suspended above dining tables in their claustrophobic abode below deck. They must have seemed a race of hunchbacks, bent over to walk beneath 4 1/2-foot ceilings most of the time. Privacy was only a word in a dictionary.
Cook, his fellow officers, and the scientists lived and ate better in cabins, but those are depressingly low-ceilinged 5-by-6 cubicles. Today’s crew has small bathrooms, but it was chamber pots for yesteryear’s officers, and “seats of ease” (openings at the bow) for seamen.
Creeping down skinny gangways and through the labyrinth that housed 94 men, pet dogs and cats, and the ship’s goat, you admire the Cookies’ persistence and efficiency, their steadfast spirit in the face of so much difficulty over such a seemingly interminable stretch. The daily ration of a gallon of beer probably helped. Though hardship was an 18th-century sailor’s lot, the captain brought home a very high percentage of his starters.
Several were lost to malaria and dysentery. One deserted. Two were drowned accidentally. Booze got one, and another was an overboard suicide. Sometimes they were understandably afflicted by what the ship’s physician called “nostalgia”: homesickness. Still Cook, a disciplinarian, yet benign, kept them on a fairly even keel.
It wasn’t a pleasure cruise. Not like the ramblings of this Endeavour-come-lately. But the Cookies had their moments, as in the three-month layover at Tahiti, a definite morale-builder. Despite the straight-laced Cook’s abstention, he was tolerant of his guys, writing that the beautiful Tahitian women were “very kind to us . . . very generous with their favours.”
“It’s amazing that Cook got them back on board,” says Aurelio. “But maybe they missed their sauerkraut.”