Sunday, March 18, 2018

With celebrations being planned next year for the 250 year commemoration of Captain Cook’s first landfall in New Zealand, I dusted off my account of my brief experience aboard the “Endeavour” replica during her millennium voyage in the year 2000.

You may wonder what carrots, Wally the engineer and a 18th century ship have in common, but there is a connection. They all came together for me in March 2000 when, despite my advancing years, I joined an enthusiastic group of people who had answered the call to help assist taking the replica HM Bark Endeavour across New Zealand’s Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton. It usually takes three or four hours by ferry; but this voyage would take us more than three days. Not a leisurely crossing though. Amongst general information given in exchange for the NZ$580 I had paid was the statement “This is not a cruise but is hard work and you will have very little free time.” How true.

For readers who do not know Endeavour, this magnificent replica of an 18th century vessel, with an overall length of just over 33 metres, was built in Western Australia from jarrah and Oregon pine rather than the original’s oak, elm, spruce and fir. She was launched in 1993, with only minimal deviation from the original specifications of Captain Cook’s converted collier, in order to comply with 21st century insurance demands. Modifications included laminated masts, synthetic mooring lines, an electric windlass and a means of propulsion (twin-screw no less). Her ‘canvas’ which looked and presumably felt like the original, was synthetic. There was also a modern galley, messroom and ablution facilities in what would have been the hold in Cook’s day. When I joined her she had just completed a successful voyage to the northern hemisphere.

As a volunteer guide during her stay in Wellington, I had a working knowledge of the ship, but when I presented myself on the afternoon before departure, I was under no illusion that putting theory into practice would be both a physical and mental challenge.

“Over here, sir”, called the crew member (they would all seem so young!) posted at the gangway. He almost looked the part of an 18th century seafarer complete with a knife in his belt and shaggy haircut but, no doubt, there was a mobile phone concealed on his person, and there was no sign of scurvy. I put down my modest bag of gear and identified myself. “You’ll use locker No 26 – that’s all you need to know for the moment”, he said, marking his clipboard. “Richard will show you where to stow your bag.”

I told him I had been a volunteer guide on the ship, spending nights aboard during both her visits to Wellington, and could find my way down to the “21st century” hidden in the bowels of the ship. He agreed and added that there would be a briefing over at the office shortly, nodding vaguely in the direction of a large shed on Queen’s wharf, and turned to greet the next recruit.

I made my way below feeling rather smug as I passed some of my recent peers – including my younger sister – who were guiding the last of the visitors. I dumped my bag and returned to the wharf to see if I knew any of the others. I did not, but chatted to a few who, like me, were waiting for the briefing. There was a farmer from Taranaki, and a younger man who had already done a short voyage and was boasting of being there, doing that, which made me feel a little inadequate. I need not have worried as it turned out. And I would meet the rest of the temporary hands later.

The briefing started late in a stuffy room with an atmosphere of nervous anticipation. Before handing us over to the mate, Captain Blake, serious of expression, not very tall and with fair receding hair welcomed us. He introduced his permanent crew who stood quietly at the back of the room no doubt contemplating, with resignation, yet another bunch of inept amateurs to whom they would have to explain the difference between a clew and a buntline – and what to do with them. I mused that our captain looked nothing like Cook. But then his Endeavour did not have twin diesels below either! Nor an engineer.

Geoff, the mate, was a Lancastrian and full of good natured banter. Blue eyes in a ruddy face capped by a thatch of unruly fair hair. His aquiline nose hovered over a moustache of the same hue. He had a light-hearted way of delivering serious advice on such matters as safety, ship operation, steering orders, water conservation and seasickness to mention some.

“We’re carrying enough water for all hands to get to Picton relatively clean and without dying of thirst. Several no-nos though: Don’t let the tap run while cleaning your teeth, and use the plug when washing your hands” We were to learn that there would not be much time for handwashing; and none at all for luxuries. His next comment forewarned us.

“You won’t find much free time for it, but if you do take a shower, just wet yourself then turn off the water while soaping, and then rinse off. If I hear anyone singing in the shower I’ll know you’re wasting water – and enjoying yourselves. And you’re not here to enjoy yourselves”, he concluded with a twinkle in his eye “there’s too much work to be done.”

Having dispensed that sound advice, he tackled the subject of sea-sickness.

“Sea-sickness,” he intoned fluttering his right hand and swaying on his chair in a crude imitation of a wallowing ship, “is not uncommon on our little ship which has a tendency to bounce about a bit. There are a few rules to follow. Firstly, if you are sick, try swallowing it! If that doesn’t work, look for a green plastic bucket – they’ll be dotted about the upper deck in bad weather. Use it, empty it with the wind at your back and rinse it out for the next person. If you can’t find a bucket, use the lee side directly – that’s the side away from the wind. The last thing we want is for you to turn the weather side of our lovely ship into a giant pizza. DON’T be sick down below either; he – or she – sets off the rest. If it’s unavoidable, don’t use the hand-basins as buckets. Our cook uses a lot of carrots and doesn’t over-cook them. And as we don’t give you much time to chew them properly either, the large undigested lumps if regurgitated, can block the sinks. Wally, the engineer gets very upset about the extra work that creates.”

He let that register and smiled before continuing. “How many of you think you may be sick?” I stuck my hand up with a few other honest souls. Geoff looked thoughtful for a moment, but made no comment, no doubt visualising bodies embracing green buckets and not pulling their weight. He did caution those on medication to be mindful of losing it if vomiting. And to keep warm if not feeling well. “Drink plenty of water too” he added “We don’t want you becoming dehydrated.” From what was said earlier, I hoped he factored that into his freshwater calculations – perhaps he knew the lack of handwashing would compensate. “If you have any medical problems, see Carolyn our cook. She’s our doctor too!”

There was more general information including a reminder that alcohol, drugs and smoking were all prohibited. We were then divided into watches. The ship worked a three watch system (as Cook did) and the first to be picked was Foremast watch. The young watch captains had already perused the application forms and based their selection accordingly. Mizzen watch, the last to be called comprised nine eager souls. We were a disparate lot. At 67, I was the oldest in the ship and we had the youngest member too. Sam, a reporter from a South Island newspaper who was expected to submit daily copy of her experiences. Lack of mobile phone coverage and occasional preoccupation with a green bucket would sometimes prevent this. And, inbetween, we had a couple of naval reservists. Only one of them knew anything about sailing or even the lore of the sea, a lecturer from Massey University with a great sense of humour who revelled in his ignorance of the arcane science of 18th century sailing. He would massage my ego by asking for explanations of things nautical. There was a farming couple from Taranaki, and others most of whose names escape me now.

We were paired off into a ‘buddy’ system within the watch. I forget what my young buddy Andrew did in the 21st century, but we worked well together. One of our routine jobs was to check the efficacy of each other’s hammock lashings when they were slung. On a recent passage, two people ended up on the deck when hitches failed – (we used to call them ‘snowball hitches’). One landed on his feet but the head of the other made noisy contact with the deck. And speaking of painful contact, that is how I met another of my watch-mates, Lee. Or rather my elbow and her teeth made their acquaintance during a dummy run of yard trimming before we sailed. She had forgiven me by the end of the voyage. While her husband Ron was not witness to his wife’s discomfiture, otherwise I’m sure he would have been sympathetic, his loud and easily provoked laughter on other occasions became a feature of our watch.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - February 2018 Issue
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