Cairns: The coast where Cook's voyage almost came unstuck

By Graeme Lay

Graeme Lay heads to Cairns to research Captain James Cook's mishap on the Queensland coral, and boards a replica ship to get a real sense of the explorer's intrepid journey.

The replica Endeavour. Photo / Supplied
The replica Endeavour. Photo / Supplied

Only minutes after the ship's leadsman had called out a safe "Seventeen fathoms!" came the sound all seamen dread: the graunching of hull on rock. James Cook's bark Endeavour, while cautiously sailing through the labyrinthine shoals of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, had become impaled on the coral.

It took all of Cook's seamanship to release Endeavour from the reef's grip. Cannons and iron ballast were jettisoned, along with one of her bower anchors. Once free the ship was "fothered" - the hull patched with a giant canvas bandage - then refloated and sailed into the sanctuary of a river estuary on the adjacent mainland.

There it was careened and repaired, at the place now known as Cooktown. Endeavour resumed her voyage, eventually returning to England in July 1771.

Long fascinated by this near-shipwreck, I recently travelled to north Queensland to see what, if anything, remained of Cook's enforced stopover in the area.

Aiding my research was the fact that the replica of the Endeavour would be docked in Cairns harbour in the course of a circumnavigation of Australia, which will continue until May 2012.

Endeavour is an instantly recognisable sight, even though I've not set eyes on her before. She's tied up at Trinity Wharf, in the Cairns River. Cobwebbed with rigging - she has 29km of cordage - her three masts have their sails furled.

The original Endeavour carried 94 men, mostly Royal Navy sailors, but some gentlemen, led by the wealthy botanist Joseph Banks. With a deck length of 33.3m and weighing 397 tonnes, all the replica's dimensions are faithful to the original, but from the water this one's brown strakes and snub nose remind me of a stubby of VB.

The original Endeavour sailed well clear of what is now Cairns to avoid the threatening reef. However, Cook named a nearby coral sand cay Green Island, after one of the expedition's scientists, Charles Green, who assisted Cook with his astronomical observations.

I spend a day on Green Island, travelling from the Cairns marina by fast ferry along with hundreds of other day-trippers. The visitors snorkel in the island's lagoon, observe its reef and fish life through a glass-bottomed boat and wander through its rainforest.

A meandering walkway and information boards provide useful information about the island's tropical flora and fauna. I lunch at one of the island's several snack bars, observe the visitors' feeding habits and see that there's a park on the island where you can watch saltwater crocodiles being fed.

In 1770 Cook and his crew had no time for such frivolities. They were too concerned with working the ship, constantly taking depth soundings, charting the coastal features and, in the captain's case, bestowing names on landmarks the ship passed, such as Thirsty Sound, Weary Bay, Hope Island and Cape Tribulation, place-names which are with us still.

A team of local volunteers shows visitors over the Endeavour replica. Firstly the foredeck, with its pair of huge bower anchors, the windlass and the sailors' two "seats of ease" (ie toilets).

Below decks we're taken through the galley, the crew's cramped cabins, the midshipmen's and officers' messes and their sleeping quarters. These areas are complete with hammocks, dining benches and even a cat 'o nine tails.

Endeavour was first a Whitby collier, the type of vessel on which Cook learned to sail. When the Admiralty had her converted to a bark for Cook's 1769-71 world voyage, the cross-bracing timbers of her hull were retained and the deck planks laid over them. This means that as we pass along below decks from one section of the ship to the next, only the small children among us don't have to bend their necks to avoid bumping their heads. Moving around the original ship in contrary seas - her rounded hull meant she was prone to rolling - must have been a staggering, head-banging exercise.

The Great Cabin is at the stern. The preserve of the captain and officers, this more generous space was shared for work and meals among Cook, Banks and the other gentlemen, such as artist Sydney Parkinson. The recreated cabin contains Banks' writing desk, a library and copies of Cook's charts and coastal drawings.

There are special gifts from the region's indigenous people around the cabin walls, including a taiaha from New Zealand Maori.

With the Great Cabin's sash windows open and admitting the breeze from the Cairns river, it is not difficult to imagine Cook and his colleagues seated around the cabin's table, discussing the progress of the voyage and speculating on who and what they would encounter next.

Although foundering on the omnipresent reef must have been a thought suppressed, it was always a likelihood, given the myriad coral shoals through which they were sailing. However conscientious the soundings taken, undetected reefs were lurking, threatening to tear Endeavour's oak hull apart as if it was tissue paper. As happened on the night of June 11, 1770.

Back up on deck we're shown a slab of pig iron tied to the midships pillar. This was part of the ballast thrown overboard that night, and salvaged in 1969, along with the cannons and one of the jettisoned anchors. The replica's bower anchors were cast from the salvaged original.

Endeavour's current circumnavigation of Australia, sailing anti-clockwise, is taking her on a course similar to that of the 1770 section of Cook's voyage. Stops include Cooktown, Thursday Island, Broome and Darwin. As she draws 3.6m of water, the ship will anchor off the smaller ports-of-call. During the voyage the 36 volunteer crew members are trained in all aspects of 18th century sailing: climbing aloft, setting the sails, navigating and sleeping in hammocks.

In spite of the comforting knowledge that this Endeavour carries engines (unseen and unmentioned, two 404 horsepower Caterpillars) and modern navigational equipment, the voyage is still a challenging one.

First Officer Dirk Lorenzen nods ruefully in response to my question about whether she's difficult to sail through the Great Barrier Reef. "She sails like a pig." Voyage manager Trish Pascuzzo adds, "Makes you realise what a remarkable navigator James Cook was. To negotiate the original Endeavour right along this coast, with only the one mishap. The man must have been a genius."

Cairns commemorates Cook's sail-by. The main road north to Port Douglas is the Captain Cook Highway. The campus of James Cook University lies just north of the town. There's a giant statue of him in naval uniform alongside his eponymous highway, providing an unflattering likeness but a conspicuous presence.

Cooktown also has a statue and holds an annual Cook Festival, featuring a re-enactment of the Endeavour's arrival on the bank of the town's Endeavour River. Everywhere in the region, there are reminders of the man and his ship's enforced sojourn in north Queensland, 241 years ago.

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