Monday, August 5, 2013

In Cook's wake

We are cruising in the area where Lieutenant James Cook very nearly came to grief, when he hit the Great Barrier Reef. We thought it would be interesting to follow the story.

The story is here. Its quite a ripping yarn!

Cook had cruised up the East Australian coast, only landing at Botany Bay and 1770. He appeared to be unaware of the existence of the Great Barrier Reef outside him as he advanced up the Queensland coast.

On the evening of 11th June 1770 he decided to set out into deep water for the night, rather than anchor. He had no idea of the dangers outside him.

We are currently anchored in the Hope Islands, which you will read of below.

But for a lump of coral that got stuck in the hole, Australians might now be speaking French!

This Cape lies in latitude 16° 6’ S. and longitude 214° 39’ W. We steered along the shore N. by W. at the distance of between three and four leagues, having from fourteen to twelve, and ten fathom water: in the offing we saw two islands, which lie in latitude 16° S. and about six or seven leagues from the main. At six in the evening, the northermost land in sight bore N. by W. ½ W. and two low woody islands, which some of us took to be rocks above water, bore N. ½ W. At this time we shortened sail, and hauled off shore E.N.E. and N.E. by E. close upon a wind, for it was my design to stretch off all night, as well to avoid the danger we saw ahead, as to see whether any islands lay in the offing, especially as we were now near the latitude assigned to the islands which were discovered by Quiros, and which some geographers, for what reason I know not, have thought fit to join to this land. We had the advantage of a fine breeze, and a clear moonlight night, and in standing off from six till near nine o’clock, we deepened our water from fourteen to twenty-one fathom, but while we were at supper it suddenly shoaled, and we fell into twelve, ten, and eight fathom, within the space of a few minutes; I immediately ordered every body to their station, and all was ready to put about and come to an anchor, but meeting at the next cast of the lead with deep water again, we concluded that we had gone over the tail of the shoals which we had seen at sun-set, and that all danger was past: before ten, we had twenty and one and twenty fathom, and this depth continuing, the gentlemen left the deck in great tranquility, and went to bed; but a few minutes before eleven, the water shallowed at once from twenty to seventeen fathom, and before the lead could be cast again, the ship struck, and remained immoveable, except by the heaving of the surge, that beat her against the craggs of the rock upon which she lay. In a few moments every body was upon the deck, with countenances which sufficiently expressed the horrors of our situation. 

We had stood off the shore three hours and a half, with a pleasant breeze, and therefore knew that we could not be very near it, and we had too much reason to conclude that we were upon a rock of coral, which is more fatal than any other, because the points of it are sharp, and every part of the surface so rough as to grind away whatever is rubbed against it, even with the gentlest motion. In this situation all the sails were immediately taken in, and the boats hoisted out to examine the depth of water round the ship: we soon discovered that our fears had not aggravated our misfortune, and that the vessel had been lifted over a ledge of the rock, and lay in a hollow within it: in some places there was from three to four fathom, and in others not so many feet. The ship lay with her head to the N.E.; and at the distance of about thirty yards on the starboard side, the water deepened to eight, ten, and twelve fathom. As soon as the long-boat was out, we struck our yards and top-masts, and carried out the stream anchor on the starboard bow, got the coasting anchor and cable into the boat, and were going to carry it out the same way; but upon sounding a second time round the ship, the water was found to be deepest astern: the anchor therefore was carried out from the starboard quarter instead of the starboard bow, that is, from the stern instead of the head, and having taken ground, our utmost force was applied to the capstern, hoping that if the anchor did not come home, the ship would be got off, but to our great misfortune and disappointment we could not move her: during all this time she continued to beat with great violence against the rock, so that it was with the utmost difficulty that we kept upon our legs; and to complete the scene of distress, we saw by the light of the moon the sheathing boards from the bottom of the vessel floating away all round her, and at last her false keel, so that every moment was making way for the sea to rush in which was to swallow us up. We had now no chance but to lighten her, and we had lost the opportunity of doing that to the greatest advantage, for unhappily we went on shore just at high water, and by this time it had considerably fallen, so that after she should be lightened so as to draw as much less water as the water had sunk, we should be but in the same situation as at first; and the only alleviation of this circumstance was, that as the tide ebbed the ship settled to the rocks, and was not beaten against them with so much violence. We had indeed some hope from the next tide, but it was doubtful whether she would hold together so long, especially as the rock kept grating her bottom under the starboard bow with such force as to be heard in the fore store-room. This however was no time to indulge conjecture, nor was any effort remitted in despair of success: that no time might be lost, the water was immediately started in the hold, and pumped up; six of our guns, being all we had upon the deck, our iron and stone ballast, casks, hoop staves, oil jars, decayed stores, and many other things that lay in the way of heavier materials, were thrown overboard with the utmost expedition, every one exerting himself with an alacrity almost approaching to cheerfulness, without the least repining or discontent; yet the men were so far imprest with a sense of their situation, that not an oath was heard among them, the habit of profaneness, however strong, being instantly subdued, by the dread of incurring guilt when death seemed to be so near.

While we were thus employed, day broke upon us, and we saw the land at about eight leagues distance, without any island in the intermediate space, upon which, if the ship should have gone to pieces, we might have been set ashore by the boats, and from which they might have taken us by different turns to the main: the wind however gradually died away, and early in the forenoon it was a dead calm; if it had blown hard, the ship must inevitably have been destroyed. At eleven in the forenoon we expected high water, and anchors were got out, and every thing made ready for another effort to heave her off if she should float, but to our inexpressible surprize and concern she did not float by a foot and a half, though we had lightened her near fifty ton, so much did the day-tide fall short of that in the night. We now proceeded to lighten her still more, and threw overboard every thing that it was possible for us to spare: hitherto she had not admitted much water, but as the tide fell, it rushed in so fast, that two pumps, incessantly worked, could scarcely keep her free. At two o’clock, she lay heeling two or three streaks to starboard, and the pinnace, which lay under her bows, touched the ground: we had now no hope but from the tide at midnight, and to prepare for it we carried out our two bower anchors, one on the starboard quarter, and the other right a-stern, got the blocks and tackle which were to give us a purchase upon the cables in order, and brought the falls, or ends of them, in abaft, straining them tight, that the next effort might operate upon the ship, and by shortening the length of the cable between that and the anchors, draw her off the ledge upon which she rested, towards the deep water. About five o’clock in the afternoon, we observed the tide begin to rise, but we observed at the same time that the leak increased to a most alarming degree, so that two more pumps were manned, but unhappily only one of them would work: three of the pumps however were kept going, and at nine o’clock the ship righted, but the leak had gained upon us so considerably, that it was imagined she must go to the bottom as soon as she ceased to be supported by the rock: this was a dreadful circumstance, so that we anticipated the floating of the ship not as an earnest of deliverance, but as an event that would probably precipitate our destruction. We well knew that our boats were not capable of carrying us all on shore, and that when the dreadful crisis should arrive, as all command and subordination would be at an end, a contest for preference would probably ensue, that would increase the horrors even of shipwreck, and terminate in the destruction of us all by the hands of each other; yet we knew that if any should be left on board to perish in the waves, they would probably suffer less upon the whole than those who should get on shore, without any lasting or effectual defence against the natives, in a country, where even nets and firearms would scarcely furnish them with food; and where, if they should find the means of subsistence, they must be condemned to languish out the remainder of life in a desolate wilderness, without the possession, or even hope, of any domestic comfort, and cut off from all commerce with mankind, except the naked savages who prowled the desert, and who perhaps were some of the most rude and uncivilized upon the earth.

To those only who have waited in a state of such suspense, death has approached in all his terrors; and as the dreadful moment that was to determine our fate came on, every one saw his own sensations pictured in the countenances of his companions: however, the capstan and windlace were manned with as many hands as could be spared from the pumps, and the ship floating about twenty minutes after ten o’clock, the effort was made, and she was heaved into deep water. It was some comfort to find that she did not now admit more water than she had done upon the rock; and though, by the gaining of the leak upon the pumps, there was no less than three feet nine inches water in the hold, yet the men did not relinquish their labour, and we held the water as it were at bay; but having now endured excessive fatigue of body and agitation of mind for more than four and twenty hours, and having but little hope of succeeding at last, they began to flag: none of them could work at the pump more than five or six minutes together, and then, being totally exhausted, they threw themselves down upon the deck, though a stream of water was running over it from the pumps between three and four inches deep; when those who succeeded them had worked their spell, and were exhausted in their turn, they threw themselves down in the same manner, and the others started up again, and renewed their labour; thus relieving each other till an accident was very near putting an end to their efforts at once. The planking which lines the inside of the ship’s bottom is called the cieling, and between this, and the outside planking, there is a space of about eighteen inches: the man who till this time had attended the well to take the depth of water, had taken it only to the cieling, and gave the measure accordingly; but he being now relieved, the person who came in his stead, reckoned the depth to the outside planking, by which it appeared in a few minutes to have gained upon the pumps eighteen inches, the difference between the planking without and within. Upon this, even the bravest was upon the point of giving up his labour with his hope, and in a few minutes every thing would have been involved in all the confusion of despair. But this accident, however dreadful in its first consequences, was eventually the cause of our preservation: the mistake was soon detected, and the sudden joy which every man felt upon finding his situation better than his fears had suggested, operated like a charm, and seemed to possess him with a strong belief that scarcely any real danger remained. New confidence and new hope, however founded, inspired new vigour; and though our state was the same as when the men first began to slacken in their labour, through weariness and despondency, they now renewed their efforts with such alacrity and spirit, that before eight o’clock in the morning the leak was so far from having gained upon the pumps, that the pumps had gained considerably upon the leak. Every body now talked of getting the ship into some harbour, as a thing not to be doubted, and as hands could be spared from the pumps, they were employed in getting up the anchors: the stream anchor and best bower we had taken on board; but it was found impossible to save the little bower, and therefore it was cut away at a whole cable: we lost also the cable of the stream anchor among the rocks; but in our situation these were trifles which scarcely attracted our notice. Our next business was to get up the fore-topmast and fore-yard, and warp the ship to the southeast, and at eleven, having now a breeze from the sea, we once more got under sail and stood for the land.

It was however impossible long to continue the labour by which the pumps had been made to gain upon the leak, and as the exact situation of it could not be discovered, we had no hope of stopping it within. In this situation, Mr. Monkhouse, one of my midshipmen, came to me and proposed an expedient that he had once seen used on board a merchant ship, which sprung a leak that admitted above four feet water an hour, and which by this expedient was brought safely from Virginia to London; the master having such confidence in it, that he took her out of harbour, knowing her condition, and did not think it worth while to wait till the leak could be otherwise stopped. To this man, therefore, the care of the expedient, which is called fothering the ship, was immediately committed, four or five of the people being appointed to assist him, and he performed it in this manner: He took a lower studding sail, and having mixed together a large quantity of oakham and wool, chopped pretty small, he stitched it down in handfuls upon the sail, as lightly as possible, and over this he spread the dung of our sheep and other filth; but horse dung, if we had had it, would have been better. When the sail was thus prepared, it was hauled under the ship’s bottom by ropes, which kept it extended, and when it came under the leak, the suction which carried in the water carried in with it the oakham and wool from the surface of the sail, which in other parts the water was not sufficiently agitated to wash off. By the success of this expedient our leak was so far reduced, that instead of gaining upon three pumps, it was easily kept under with one. This was a new source of confidence and comfort; the people could scarcely have expressed more joy if they had been already in port; and their views were so far from being limited to running the ship ashore in some harbour, either of an island or the main, and building a vessel out of her materials, to carry us to the East Indies, which had so lately been the utmost object of our hope, that nothing was now thought of but ranging along the shore in search of a convenient place to repair the damage she had sustained, and then prosecuting the voyage upon the same plan as if nothing had happened. Upon this occasion I must observe, both in justice and gratitude to the ship’s company, and the Gentlemen on board, that although in the midst of our distress every one seemed to have a just sense of his danger, yet no passionate exclamations, or frantic gestures, were to be heard or seen; every one appeared to have the perfect possession of his mind, and every one exerted himself to the uttermost, with a quiet and patient perseverance, equally distant from the tumultuous violence of terror, and the gloomy inactivity of despair.

In the mean time, having light airs at E.S.E. we got up the main-topmast, and main-yard, and kept edging in for the land, till about six o’clock in the evening, when we came to an anchor in seventeen fathom water, at the distance of seven leagues from the shore, and one from the ledge of rocks upon which we had struck.

This ledge or shoal lies in latitude 15° 45’ S. and between six and seven leagues from the main. It is not however the only shoal on this part of the coast, especially to the northward; and at this time we saw one to the southward, the tail of which we passed over, when we had uneven soundings about two hours before we struck. A part of this shoal is always above water, and has the appearance of white sand: a part also of that upon which we had lain is dry at low water, and in that place consists of sand stones; but all the rest of it is a coral rock.

While we lay at anchor for the night, we found that the ship made about fifteen inches water an hour, from which no immediate danger was to be apprehended; and at six o’clock in the morning, we weighed and stood to the N.W. still edging in for the land with a gentle breeze at S.S.E. At nine we passed close without two small islands that lie in latitude 15° 41’ S. and about four leagues from the main: to reach these islands had, in the height of our distress, been the object of our hope, or perhaps rather of our wishes, and therefore I called them HOPE ISLANDS. At noon we were about three leagues from the land, and in latitude 15° 37’ S.; the northermost part of the main in sight bore N. 30 W.; and Hope Islands extended from S. 30 E. to S. 40 E. In this situation we had twelve fathom water, and several sand-banks without us. At this time the leak had not increased; but that we might be prepared for all events, we got the sail ready for another fothering. In the afternoon, having a gentle breeze at S.E. by E. I sent out the Master with two boats, as well to sound ahead of the ship, as to look out for a harbour where we might repair our defects, and put the ship in a proper trim. At three o’clock, we saw an opening that had the appearance of an harbour, and stood off and on while the boats examined it; but they soon found that there was not depth of water in it sufficient for the ship. When it was near sunset, there being many shoals about us, we anchored in four fathom, at the distance of about two miles from the shore, the land extending from N. ½ E. to S. by E. ½ E. The pinnace was still out with one of the mates; but at nine o’clock she returned, and reported, that about two leagues to leeward she had discovered just such a harbour as we wanted, in which there was a sufficient rise of water, and every other convenience that could be desired, either for laying the ship ashore, or heaving her down.

The story of the recovery of his cannons in 1969 is also interesting. An American called Virgil Kauffman, who had previously been prospecting for minerals with a magnetometer, decided to launch an expedition to find the guns, using his gadget, after he retired. They were successful. 

Read about that here.


  1. What a great story. It was great to read it (again), but cruising the same area as the great navigator gives a poignancy of some proportion.
    Thank you for the updates.
    Fair winds,

  2. Dave and George,

    Glad to read you are continuing the sailing adventure North. Punching back South at the end of your season trip will give you a good taste of what it is like close hauling to the South Pacific Islands. Some folks go via NZ or Sydney & Lord Howe Is. Enjoyed the excerpt from Cook's Diary.

    All the best