In the footsteps of James Cook

Courthouse Cairns
Enjoying the blues band at the Courthouse, Cairns

On his first voyage (1768 – 1771) after observing the transit of Venus from Tahiti, Cap’n Cook set sail west eventually reaching Australia somewhat further south than Temptress having sailed north from New Zealand. By beating Bougainville to New Holland he was able to claim Botany Bay for the crown. Over the next few months Cook explored the east coast of Australia eventually ending up inside the barrier reef.

Temptress set sail northwards from Half Moon Bay Marina, Yorkeys Knob; the latter being a wonderfully descriptive name for the little round hillock on the southern side of the Half Moon River. Yorkeys Knob is just north of Cairns and seems more to be retirement country in contrast to the young backpackers of Cairns. Temptress’ anchor winch had failed on Monday morning when we tried to depart Trinity Inlet off the city and Yorkeys Knob Boat Club (aka Half Moon Bay Marina) where our new friends Don and Lesley keep their boat Endeavour seemed a sensible place to get it repaired. We are indebted to Don and Lesley for their warm welcome and assistance in running Kevin into Norship back in Cairns and to Rex the engineer there for getting the repair done so quickly.And thank-you too to Lesley and Ged in Dubai for introducing us to Don and Lesley!

Cairns Regatta fleet
Cracked windlass gear

Finally on Friday four days later than planned, we were able to head out. Our first anchorage was off The Low Isles just west of Port Douglas. The trade winds seem to have fled so we motored the thirty nautical miles to arrive mid afternoon. Rob from Dreamcatcher came over to introduce himself as the boat that had called up to welcome us to Australia the morning we arrived in Cairns. He and wife Karen had intended to cruise up from Brisbane to Indonesia but an oil leak followed by a refrigeration problem has curtailed this seasons cruising; they are slowly and reluctantly heading south once more. We joined them and their crew, Karen’s brother and his wife, for sundowners on the beach. Amazing to see Ospreys on the nest on the lighthouse roof!

Leaving Yorkeys Knob
Kevin went swimming with the huge Surgeon fish, Low Isles Marine Park
Fish feeding frenzy – the skippers new friends

Our next stop is Cooktown north of Cape Tribulation. In 1897 another famous navigator, indeed a circumnavigator, Joshua Slocum put into Cooktown and tied up by the Cook Monument declaring he was on seaman’s consecrated ground. So it is in our sailing heroes footsteps we tread at present.

The main street, Cooktown – wider than most city high streets and not much changed since this was a goldrush town

Just looking at the chart for these waters you can understand Cook’s state of mind as he surveyed the coast – just inland from the cape is Mount Sorrow and further north Weary Bay, for it was only a few miles north of the cape that the expedition and the lives of all the men nearly came to an abrupt end. In Cook’s own words “Before 10 o’Clock we had 20 and 21 fathoms, and Continued in that depth until a few minutes before 11, when we had 17, and before the Man at the Lead could heave another cast, the Ship Struck and stuck fast.” Aground on Endeavour Reef.

And from our modern day experience it’s all too easy even when you have a chart – we did much the same in Raiatea when hunting for anchorage going from several tens of metres of water to one metre within a breath. And what they didn’t completely understand until later is that one high water of the day here is much higher than the other, at times by over a metre. They had to wait a full day before the tide helped them off again rather than the twelve or so hours they expected, meanwhile the crew lightened the stricken ship of anything which might weigh her down:

“As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jarrs, decay’d Stores, etc.; many of these last Articles lay in the way at coming at Heavier. All this time the Ship made little or no Water. At 11 a.m., being high Water as we thought, we try’d to heave her off without Success, she not being afloat by a foot or more, notwithstanding by this time we had thrown overboard 40 or 50 Tuns weight. As this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off; as the Tide fell the ship began to make Water as much as two pumps could free.”

Beer supplies from the Thirsty Camel bottle store, Cooktown – the local vet gave us a lift

“Tuesday, 12th. Fortunately we had little wind, fine weather, and a smooth Sea, all this 24 Hours, which in the P.M. gave us an Opportunity to carry out the 2 Bower Anchors, one on the Starboard Quarter, and the other right a Stern, got Blocks and Tackles upon the Cables, brought the falls in abaft and hove taught. By this time it was 5 o’Clock p.m.; the tide we observed now begun to rise, and the leak increased upon us, which obliged us to set the 3rd Pump to work, as we should have done the 4th also, but could not make it work. At 9 the Ship righted, and the Leak gain’d upon the Pumps considerably. This was an alarming and, I may say, terrible circumstance, and threatened immediate destruction to us. However, I resolv’d to risque all, and heave her off in case it was practical, and accordingly turn’d as many hands to the Capstan and Windlass as could be spared from the Pumps; and about 20 Minutes past 10 o’Clock the Ship floated, and we hove her into Deep Water, having at this time 3 feet 9 Inches Water in the hold.”

Their plight was not over yet. First they fothered the ship, that is wrapped a sail under the ship to cover the hole from the outside. Then they had to find somewhere to beach Endeavour so they could make repairs; remember the Endeavour was the first European ship to explore these waters so they had no knowledge of what the coast looked like and no real idea that the Great Barrier Reef lay to seaward except that the flat seas gave them some intimation of islands or reefs to the east. Cook and his men were making the first ever surveys here.

The weather which had been light over these past few days turned much windier adding to Cook’s problems. Fortunately only a couple of days later one of the mates returned in the pinnace to say he’d found a suitable harbour (Cook had sent out the ships boats to search both the mainland and the islands). That harbour is today Cookstown on the Endeavour River, there they careened (dried it out on the mud) their ship to make repairs. In all of this Cook pays tribute several times to his men for their levelheadedness and their hard work; “In justice to the Ship’s Company, I must say that no men ever behaved better than they have done on this occasion; animated by the behaviour of every Gentleman on board, every man seem’d to have a just sence of the Danger we were in, and exerted himself to the very utmost.”

As for us almost two hundred and fifty years after Cook the weather is similarly light, the trades having forsaken us and Temptress is motoring in flat seas. The skies are overcast but sunny. To the east the reef is so far way as to be invisible, to the west rise the mountains of North Queensland, jungle clad and steep to the coast. No ship or boat in sight on the water, no buildings on the land – very much how it must have appeared to James Cook and his men.

Cook’s monument – Cooktown was the first place Europeans saw kangaroos
The man himself
Temptress tied up with the fishing fleet, Cooktown