“Because here begun all our troubles.”—Capt. James Cook / June 11, 1770
Actually, the trouble for Capt. James Cook had started several days earlier when “some Malicious persons” among the crew of Endeavour, unhappy about being served a continual diet of stingray soup, assaulted Cook’s clerk as he lay drunk in his berth. They cut off his clothing, and if that was not humiliating enough, they went back and “cut off a part of both of his Ears as he lay sleeping in his bed,” according to Cook’s journal. [Flying Fish footnote: And some wonder why I sail singlehanded.]
Things got worse for Cook and the crew of Endeavour. On a moonlit night, as they sailed past Cape Tribulation, Endeavour “struck and struck fast” against what is now known as the Great Barrier Reef.
As I read this account in The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific, I am in Flying Fish and also sailing past Cape Tribulation under a full moon. The narrative of Cook and the Endeavour raises the hair on the back of my neck as Flying Fish pushes onward along this hazardous coastline.
Cook had been asleep in his cabin when the ship impacted the reef. He raced to the Quarter deck, according to the diary of the ship’s botanist Joseph Banks, and in his underwear Cook began managing the crisis. He ordered sails reduced and lowered the ship’s longboats to carry kedging anchors offshore in an attempt to pull the ship off the reef. The Endeavour did not move.
Next Cook ordered the ship to be made lighter and guns, ballast, food, and water were jettisoned overboard. More than 50 tons of critical supplies were thrown into the sea. Still the ship remained hard aground.
The following day as the tide rose the ship was finally kedged off the reef and pulled into deeper water. Now, however, there was an even greater peril aboard Endeavour. The ship was flooding and four pumps could not keep up with the incoming sea water. “This was an alarming and I may say terrible Circumstance and threatened immediate destruction to us as soon as the Ship was afloat,” Cook wrote.
Then two amazing and fortuitous things occurred. First, a coral head had lodged in a hole in the hull. Had it dropped out, Endeavour would have sunk on the spot. Still, water was coming in faster than the pumps could remove it. A midshipman named Jonathan Monkhouse came up with a brilliant idea: He suggested wrapping a sail around the damaged hull like a diaper, a technique known as fothering. Cook gave the order to coat the sail was in oakum, wool, and “sheeps dung or other filth” to help it adhere to the hull. The temporary repair worked. Endeavour was severely wounded, but not lost.
Cook needed a secure place to careen his ship. He looked to the northwest and saw two small islands. He named them Hope. He and his crew looked longingly at Hope Islands but with an unfavorable wind they could not maneuver the damaged ship to safety there.
Cape Tribulation and the continent of Australia loomed only 15 miles to the west but it was a mountainous and unwelcoming shoreline. Endeavour struggled into Weary Bay but it was too shallow to bring the ship ashore. Cook was despondent. He named one local landmark Mount Misery, another Mount Sorrow. Cook wrote that the damaged ship “would not work.” After a week of being “entangled among shoals” a scouting party finally found a river mouth deep enough to accommodate Endeavour’s 12-foot draft. His ship and his crew were safe, but repairs would take nearly two months before they could sail once again.
Two and a half centuries of full moons have passed over Hope Islands where Flying Fish has dropped anchor in a pocket of deep water surrounded by an endless labyrinth of coral reef. It is a lonely and beautiful anchorage. A relentless wind blows from the southeast. In the falling darkness under a rising moon I dinghy ashore. At low tide I wade along a trail of rock and rubble that lays exposed for several hundred yards in the direction of Endeavour Reef. I feel the weight of history here, and it gives me strength.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019