One Week Before the Mast
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Those who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for pastime.
- EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY APHORISM
When I was thirteen, my parents bought a used sailboat, a ten-foot wooden dory that I christened Wet Dream. For several summers, I tacked around the waters off Cape Cod, imagining myself one of the whalers who plied Nantucket Sound in the nineteenth century. I read Moby-Dick, tied a bandanna around my head, even tried my hand at scrimshaw. This fantasy life offered escape from the fact that I could barely sail-or caulk, or knot anything except a shoelace. One day, bailing frantically with a sawed-off milk jug after gashing the Wet Dream against a rock, I found my whaling dream had become real. I was Ishmael, the Pequod sinking beneath me.
This hapless memory returned to me as I studied an application for a berth on His Majesty's Bark Endeavour. An Australian foundation had built a museum-quality replica of Cook's first vessel and dispatched it around the globe in the navigator's path. At each port, the ship's professional crew took on volunteers to help sail the next leg and experience life as eighteenth-century sailors. This seemed the obvious place to start; if I was going to understand Cook's travels, I first had to understand how he traveled.
The application form asked about my "qualifications and experience," with boxes beside each question, marked yes or no.
Have you had any blue water ocean sailing experience? Can you swim 50 meters fully clothed? You will be required to work aloft, sometimes at night in heavy weather. Are you confident of being able to do this?
I wasn't sure what was meant by "blue water ocean." Did it come in other colors? I'd never swum clothed, except once, after falling off the Wet Dream. As for working aloft, I'd climbed ladders to scoop leaves from my gutter in Virginia. I checked "yes" next to each question. But the last query gave me pause: "Do you suffer from sea sickness?"
Only when I went to sea. I opted for the box marked "moderate," rather than the "chronic" box, fearing I'd otherwise be judged unfit.
A week later, I received a terse note confirming a berth in early autumn from Gig Harbor, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia. The letter came with a "Safety and Training Manual." A page headed "Abandon Ship" offered this helpful tip: "Stay together in waters-stay calm." Other pages dealt with "burns and scalds," "sudden serious injury," drowning, and seasickness: "You may feel like you're dying but you will survive." In case you didn't, there was a liability waiver to sign ("I understand and expressly assume these risks and dangers, including death, illness, disease ...").
The safety tips, at least, were stated in plain English. The training section read like a home appliance manual, badly translated from Korean, with "some assembly required." A typical diagram showed intersecting arrows and loops, allegedly explaining the layout of "Bits & Fife Rail to Fwd. of Mainmast Looking from Starboard Side."
I quickly gave up and spent the weeks until my voyage studying history books instead. Among other things, I learned that the original Endeavour was a mirror of the man who commanded it: plain, utilitarian, indomitable. Like Cook, the ship began its career in the coal trade, shuttling between the mine country of the north of England and the docks of east London. Bluff-bowed and wide-beamed, the ninety-seven-foot-long ship was built for bulk and endurance rather than speed or comfort. "A cross between a Dutch clog and a coffin," was how one historian described it.
The tallest of the Endeavour's three masts teetered a vertiginous 127 feet. Belowdecks, the head clearance stooped to four foot six. The Endeavour's flat bottom and very shallow keel-designed so the collier could float ashore with the tide to load and unload coal-made the ship exceptionally "tender," meaning it tended to roll from side to side. "Found the ship to be but a heavy sailer," wrote the ship's botanist, Joseph Banks, "more calculated for stowage, than for sailing." He wrote this in calm seas, two days after leaving England. When the going turned rough, Banks retreated to his cot, "ill with sickness at stomach and most violent headach."
Duly warned, I sampled a seasickness pill on the flight to Seattle. It made me so listless and wobbly that I almost fell down in the aisle. This seemed a bad state in which to work aloft, at night in heavy seas. I flushed the rest of the pills down the airplane toilet.
The pier at Gig Harbor, an hour south of Seattle, teemed with gleaming new yachts. In this sea of sleek fiberglass, the replica Endeavour was easy to spot. The original ship had been made almost entirely from grasses and trees-hemp, flax, elm, oak, pine tar-with bits of iron and brass thrown in. The replica appeared much the same. With its sails furled and its masts poking skeletally into the damp air, the vessel looked boxy and brittle, a boat built from matchsticks. At a hundred feet long, it wasn't much bigger than many of the nearby yachts.
A dozen sailors, mostly tanned young Australians in navy-colored work clothes, stood coiling ropes on the dock and bantering in the matey, mocking fashion I knew well from my years in Sydney. "Press-ganged men over there," one sailor said, pointing me to a waterside park. My fellow recruits numbered forty, mostly Americans and Canadians, including six women. Chatting nervously, I was relieved to discover that some of them had little more sailing experience than I did.
Then again, they seemed a fit lot, accustomed to hard labor, or at least hard exercise: construction workers, military veterans, sinewy joggers. "This'll be like a week at a dude ranch," a broad-shouldered carpenter assured me.
A trim, brisk figure strode over from the ship and barked, "Listen up!" This was our captain, Chris Blake, a mild-featured man much shorter than Cook but no less commanding in manner. "We'll get on with a very fast learning curve," he said, handing us over to the ship's first mate, a gruff Englishman named Geoff.
"This will be like going back into the Army, if you've ever been there, with a lot less sleep," Geoff began. "Your straight eight, you're not going to get it on this ship, so when you have a chance to put your head down, do it." He also told us where to put our heads when seasick. "Make friends with one of our plastic buckets and make sure you chuck it over the lee side so you're not wearing your pizza. And no throwing up belowdecks, because you'll have every other person throwing up beside you."
A safety officer followed with a brief talk about abandoning ship. "Hold your nostrils when you jump overboard because it's a long fall and can break your nose," he said. "Blokes, keep your legs crossed when you go over, same reason. Also, try to huddle together in the water. It's not going to save you, but it might give you a few more minutes." Then he warned us about the "gasp reflex." As he explained it: "The water's so cold that you gasp and suck a lot in."
After this orientation, we split into three "watches," each one assigned to a mast and a captain-of-tops, our drill sergeant for the week ahead. My watch was mainmast, by far the tallest of the three, commanded by Todd, a raffishly handsome Australian with a ponytail, earrings, and a red bandanna wrapped round his unshaven neck. "Okay, you scurvy dogs and wenches," he said, "let's start with the slops."
"Slops" was the eighteenth-century term for naval gear. Sailors on the original Endeavour wore no prescribed uniform, nor would we dress in period costume. Todd tossed us each a set of brown oilskin pants and jacket. "In Australia they're called Driza-Bone, but we call them Wet-as-a-Bastard. As soon as they get wet they stay that way." He also issued us orange night vests, and safety harnesses that looked like mountain-climbing belts.
Then Todd led us across the ship's deck and down a ladder, or companionway, which plunged to a dark chamber called the mess deck. We squinted at tables roped to the ceiling, as well as vinegar kegs, a huge iron stove, and sea chests that doubled as benches-all packed into a room the size of a suburban den. This cramped cavern would somehow accommodate thirty of us, with the other ten recruits in a small adjoining space.
Todd tossed us canvas hammocks and showed how to lash them to the beams above the tables. We were allotted just fourteen inches' width of airspace per sling, the Navy's prescribed sleeping area in the eighteenth century. "If you don't know knots, tie lots," Todd said, as I struggled to complete a simple hitch. He also showed us how to stow the hammocks, snug and tightly roped, in a netted hold.
Stumbling around the dark deck, colliding with tables and people, and bending almost double when the head clearance plunged to dwarf height, I tried to imagine spending three years in this claustrophobic hole, as Cook's men had. Incredibly, the original Endeavour left port with forty more people than we had on board-accompanied by seventeen sheep, several dozen ducks and chickens, four pigs, three cats (to catch rats), and a milk goat that had circled the globe once before. "Being in a ship is being in a jail," Samuel Johnson sagely observed, "with the chance of being drowned."
THE ENDEAVOUR'S MISSION was as daunting as the conditions on the ship. Though Ferdinand Magellan had first crossed the Pacific two and a half centuries before, the ocean-covering an area greater than all the world's landmasses combined-remained so mysterious that mapmakers labeled vast stretches of the Pacific nondum cognita (not yet known). Cartographers knew so little of the lands within the Pacific that they simply guessed at the contours of coasts: a French chart from 1753, fifteen years before the Endeavour's departure, shows dotted shorelines accompanied by the words "Je suppose."
One reason for this ignorance was that most of the ships sailing after Magellan followed the same, relatively narrow band of ocean, channeled by prevailing winds and currents, and constrained by poor navigational tools. Also, geography in the early modern era was regarded as proprietary information; navies kept explorers' charts and journals under wraps, lest competing nations use them to expand their own empires.
Not that these reports were very reliable. Magellan's pilot miscalculated the longitude of the Philippines by 53 degrees, an error akin to planting Bolivia in central Africa. When another Spanish expedition stumbled on an island chain in the western Pacific in 1567, the captain believed he'd found the biblical land of Ophir, from which King Solomon shipped gold, sandalwood, and precious stones. Spanish charts, and the navigational skills of those who followed, were so faulty that Europeans failed to find the Solomon Islands again for two centuries. No gold and not much of economic value was ever discovered there.
Pacific adventurers also showed an unfortunate tendency toward abbreviated careers. Vasco Nzqez de Balboa, the first European to sight the ocean, in 1513, was beheaded for treason. Magellan set off in 1519 with five ships and 237 men; only one ship and eighteen men made it home three years later, and Magellan was not present, having been speared in the Philippines. Francis Drake, the first English circumnavigator, died at sea of dysentery. Vitus Bering, sailing for the czar, perished from exposure after shipwrecking near the frigid sea now named for him; at the last, Bering lay half-buried in sand, to keep warm, while Arctic foxes gnawed at his sick and dying men.
Other explorers simply vanished. Or went mad. In 1606, the navigator Fernandes de Queirss told his pilot, "Put the ships' heads where they like, for God will guide them as may be right." When God delivered the Spanish ships to the shore of what became the New Hebrides, Fernandes de Queirss founded a city called New Jerusalem and anointed his sailors "Knights of the Holy Ghost."
But the most persistent and alluring mirage of Pacific exploration was terra australis incognita, an unknown "south land," first conjured into being by the wonderfully named Roman mapmaker Pomponius Mela. He, like Ptolemy, believed that the continents of the northern hemisphere must be balanced by an equally large landmass at the bottom of the globe. Otherwise, the world would tilt. This appealingly symmetrical notion was embellished by Marco Polo, who claimed he'd seen a south land called Locac, filled with gold and game and elephants and idolators, "a very wild region, visited by few people." Renaissance mapmakers took the Venetian's vague coordinates and placed Locac-also known as Lucach, Maletur, and Beach-far to the south, part of the fabled terra australis. The discovery of America only heightened Europeans' conviction that another vast continent, rich in resources, remained to be found.
So things stood in 1768, when London's august scientific group, the Royal Society, petitioned King George III to send a ship to the South Pacific. A rare astronomical event, the transit of Venus across the sun, was due to occur on June 3, 1769, and not again for 105 years. The society hoped that an accurate observation of the transit, from disparate points on the globe, would enable astronomers to calculate the earth's distance from the sun, part of the complex task of mapping the solar system. Half a century after Isaac Newton and almost three centuries after Christopher Columbus, basic questions of where things were-in the sky, as well as on earth-remained unresolved.
The king accepted the society's request, and ordered the Admiralty to fit out an appropriate ship. As commander, the Royal Society recommended Alexander Dalrymple, a distinguished theorist and cartographer who had sailed to the East Indies, and who believed so firmly in the southern continent that he put its breadth at exactly 5,323 miles and its population at fifty million. The Admiralty instead selected James Cook, a Navy officer whose oceangoing experience was limited to the North Atlantic.
On the face of it, this seemed an unlikely choice-and, among some in the establishment, it was unpopular. Cook was a virtual unknown outside Navy circles and a curiosity within. He had spent the previous decade charting the coast of Canada, a task at which he displayed exceptional talent. One admiral, noting "Mr. Cook's Genius and Capacity," observed of his charts: "They may be the means of directing many in the right way, but cannot mislead any."