Chasing Captain Cook

A few years back, I found myself standing on a deserted beach, pretending I’d just landed at the edge of the known world. It wasn’t easy, which was strange considering the place hadn’t changed much since it actually was the edge of the known world.

The exact date this piece of land first felt European footprints was June 11, 1770. That was when Lieutenant (later-to-be-Captain) James Cook and his crew limped the stricken HMB Endeavour ashore after nearly sinking when the ship gored itself on a turret of coral. Cook had discovered, in the unpleasant way these things sometimes happen, the longest barrier reef in the world.

When the ship reached shore, Cook clambered down the Endeavour’s ladder onto the beach. This beach. Steamy, dense tangles of vegetation crowded the edge of the sugary sand on one side, and on the other side the ocean glowed electric blue. It must have looked inviting to a bunch of nearly shipwrecked sailors, but it beckoned with the same menace that the flickering, worm-like tongue of a snapping turtle beckons small fish. On the edges of the reefs lurked leviathans with teeth the size, shape and sharpness of throwing knives. Ghostly translucent creatures glided through the surf, looking like innocuous playthings but packing a venom among the most toxic of any beast on the planet. Here lay primitive, armoured sea dragons that weighed several tons but could still leap clear from the water with enough demonic ferocity to massacre a horse. A nightmarish variety of deadly serpents lurked among the strangling figs, sea almonds and orchids. Even the plants were dangerous, equipped with poisonous spines or hooks designed to tear through flesh.

In reference to his troubles, Cook named this place Cape Tribulation. It’s on the edge of a remote mountainous rainforest in Australia’s northern wilderness called the Daintree. Today, this strange, primeval place is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before Cook’s unplanned visit here, though, it was an unknown world beyond any European imagination. Think about that.

Then think about the fact that Cook was also the first to circumnavigate New Zealand, the first to discover the Hawaiian Islands, the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, the first to chart the western coastline of North America, the first, and by necessity, the last to unlock the final great secrets of the world’s last uncharted place, the Pacific Ocean.

Standing there on Tribulation’s beach, I tried to imagine discovery on that level. I tried to put myself aboard the Endeavour, sailing along this exotic coast. What was it like to see a kangaroo before ever having heard of one? Or a platypus? What was it like, back then, to see a saltwater crocodile as long as three men lying end to end? Or a bat the size of a raven or a shark the size of a horse wagon? What was it like to make contact with entire cultures that your world had never known?

Thanks partly to government protection, and partly to the sheer remoteness of this place, the Daintree’s sand, mangroves and dark, creature-filled jungle are the same now as they were in Cook’s day. Sharks, box jellyfish, crocodiles, snakes and poisonous plants still live here. But perspective is a powerful thing. Today it may be unchanged, but back then it was unknown. And there’s a big difference.

 

I’ve always wanted to know what that feeling of true discovery was like. I’d love to go back to when the world was a bigger place, when it was actually more than one world. I’d love to feel undiluted 18th century awe. Romantic, I know. Nostalgic, yes. But also, unfortunately, impossible.

Four years after I stood on that beach, however, I got the chance to come as close as you can to travelling back in time. I had heard about a voyage of a ship constructed to the exact specifications of James Cook’s Endeavour. The Australian National Maritime Museum had obtained the Endeavour’s original plans from a military museum in Greenwich, England, and built what they called a museum-quality replica, overlooking no detail. The ship was scheduled to sail up the western coast of North America, and they were looking for an amateur crew, people who wanted to get a taste of what it was like to travel the oceans in an 18th century square-rigged ship.

Nowadays, the business of re-enacting history is a thriving one. Any casual internet search will reveal scores of re-enactors’ web sites in categories as various as Roman or medieval or pre-Columbian Indian eras. In Wyoming recently, I met two men wearing brain-tanned buckskin, hand-stitched rifle scabbards and coon hats who had been re-enacting the period of the mountain men for longer than the era actually lasted. While most re-enactors take a relaxed approach to living history, some go the whole-hog route. For example, in the United States, there are thousands of Civil War re-enactors who stage mock battles in the American South. Some go to pedantic extremes, eating nothing but hard tack and salt pork and sleeping together at night in Appalachian coulees without blankets, spooning together for warmth, just like the soldiers did in the late 1800s. Their clothes not only look the same, they are the same, made from the same wool, weaved in the same way and dyed with the same dyes. They soak their jacket buttons in urine to give them the desired patina. They feel that the more authentic the accoutrements, the more likely the participant might reach the desired time-travel high known as a period rush. Tony Horwitz, author of the book Confederates in the Attic, popularized a term for it: The Civil Wargasm.

Now, when I say I would like to have been an 18th century explorer, I freely acknowledge that the probability of me being able to withstand that kind of hardship is low. Also, my limited exposure to the sea has not produced proud moments. Once, in the Dominican Republic, I spent three hundred American dollars to convince the captain of a deep-sea fishing boat to take my girlfriend and me out alone. While the first mate made crude advances on my girlfriend, I dedicated my full attention to bending over the transom and chumming the water in earnest. I evacuated a recently consumed meal with such violence that a whole, unbroken pea passed through my nasal passages and plinked the water with a splash.

All told, my ill-fated fishing expedition lasted around an hour, shore to shore. The one advantage of being the sole patron of the trip was, at the time, worth every American penny. “Turn around,” I said, in a tone that left nobody wondering whether I was kidding.

But the Endeavour would be different. The particular voyage I had my eye on, a leg from Gig Harbor, Washington, to Vancouver, B.C., would last six full days whether I liked it or not. So there was that to think about.

Then a questionnaire arrived in the mail from the Endeavour people. The kinds of things they wanted to know were not reassuring.

“Can you swim 50 metres fully clothed?”

This is the sort of question that any sane person would answer with another question. Imagine boarding an airplane and the flight-steward asking you whether you know how to operate a parachute. “Uhm, why do you ask?”

Second question: “You will be required to work aloft, sometimes at night in heavy weather. Are you confident of being able to do this?”

This one struck me as odd since I was qualified to do absolutely nothing on a sailboat, and the notion that somebody might want me to perform some presumably important task in the midst of a nighttime storm seemed ill-considered, to put it politely. I guess so, I thought, and answered “yes.” I was tempted to add, “And if you need anybody who can fire green peas out their nose, I’m your man.” I reserved this qualification, though, on the grounds that if it came down to it, my talents would probably be obvious at the time.

During the process of securing my spot on the Endeavour, I realized that I might feel better about the whole trip if I could convince a friend to come along. And it seemed like a good idea to ask a friend who was even more unqualified for the job than I. So naturally, I called Steve Featherstone.

Steve is a PR agent in New York, which, I suppose, pretty much says it all. He’s tall, with immaculate black hair, a rosy baby-skin complexion, and features that might best be described as delicate. Most people know him as a congenial, bright-eyed, soft-spoken people person, but I know him better. Underneath, he’s also a quick wit with a humour the pH of battery acid, a smoker, a drinker, an irresponsible foul-mouthed delinquent and many other things that recommend him as good company.

I told Steve about the Endeavour. “That sounds like some crazy shit,” he said enthusiastically. “But I’ve never been sailing in my life.”

Perfect, I thought. Perfect.

 

Two hundred and thirty-some years ago, the Lords of the British Admiralty acquired a coal-hauling collier named the Earl of Pembroke and put her into dry-dock at the Deptford Naval Shipyards. Regular seamen must have wondered just what the bloody hell was going on. This was the navy’s premier shipyard, and here, in one of its best slips, was this coal-smeared tub. Then the Admiralty added further to the mystery by ordering the navy’s best carpenters to refit the Earl of Pembroke completely: a new layer of thick planking on the hull, a rebuild of the interior, the addition of storerooms. What was this all about?

Well, while slow and dowdy, the ship excelled at doing the one thing it was designed for – hauling a lot of stuff. In this regard, the Earl of Pembroke, soon to be renamed His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour, was the perfect vessel for what the Admiralty had in mind–a voyage to the other side of the world.

James Cook, as it happened, had grown up sailing ships just like the newly christened Endeavour. For years before joining the Royal Navy, he had worked aboard coal-hauling colliers, plying the angry waters of the North Sea between Whitby and London. Still, his experience notwithstanding, Cook was an unlikely choice to command the Endeavour. He was actually an oddity among officers of the time because officers came from the aristocracy; officers were gentlemen. Cook, on the other hand, was the son of a Yorkshire labourer. As a young man, he had worked as a grocer’s apprentice in Staithes, a fishing village. Probably there were many young men of the day who did not like what they were doing, but few were able to do anything about it. England at that time was not, as you might imagine, a land of opportunity for the working class. But Cook was no ordinary man.

Nor was this just any mission. He may not have known it then, but Cook was about to embark on one of the last great voyages of discovery. A voyage that would kick-start the Age of Enlightenment and change the world, make it smaller. It was the first of three journeys that would sail up, across and around the last great blank spot on the globe, totalling nearly 100,000 nautical miles. On the first voyage alone, this one-time grocer’s apprentice from Staithes would bring back so many botanical specimens that the number of known plant species in the world would increase by a third. That voyage would mark the birth of modern anthropology, museum science and botany. Together with his other two voyages, this trip would map the Pacific so completely that the next quantum leap in the cartographic representation of the world’s largest ocean would have to wait for more than two centuries until a three-dimensional map was made from radar images shot by the crew of NASA’s Orbiter Vehicle 105, better known by its popular name, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, chosen in homage to Cook.

Voyage of discovery. Think about it. Isn’t it enchanting and beguiling? Isn’t it also, though, when you think about the passing of this seminal moment in world history, this death of the Unknown, also just a little bit sad?

 

Gig Harbor, Washington. Steve and I arrive at night, weaving through the hilly streets in a van from Seattle. Soon, we turn onto the main drag and the harbour comes into view. Idle, rusting fishing boats mingle with yachts of the kind that only Microsoft and Boeing execs can afford. And then we see it. Off on its own at the end of the main jetty, the Endeavour glows softly in the harbour’s black water, lit with sepia incandescence. The sails are furled against their yardarms, leaving a skeleton of masts and spars covered by cobwebs of ropes. A huge, black picturesque anchor hangs at a rakish angle off the bow. It’s like something out of a dream.

Aboard the Endeavour the next day, I see there are even more ropes than I first thought. They’re everywhere. Thick ones, thin ones, rough ones, tarred ones; coiled on every cleat, pin and timber, or flaked out on the deck in giant oval-shaped rugs. “The boat’s like an excuse for the artful display of rope,” says Steve. Artful or not, on this ship there are 32 kilometres of the stuff.

The Endeavour itself, however, is small. Looking around the ship (which is only 98 feet long and 33 feet wide), Steve and I begin to appreciate just how cramped the Endeavour’s 18th century crew must have been. While the replica Endeavour sails with 16 permanent crew, some 40 volunteers and no cargo, the real Endeavour had a crew twice that number on top of a massive payload. A partial list of supplies: 17 tons of biscuits, five tons of flour, 2,500 pounds of raisins, 1,500 pounds of sugar, 500 gallons of vinegar, 1,200 gallons of beer, 1,600 gallons of brandy. Add to that, believe it or not, livestock: goats, sheep, chickens, pigs and a cow.

Turning to me, Steve, in his own charming way, reflects on the unquestionable hardships of 18th-century sailing. “Can you imagine being stuck down in that hold with so little room, a bunch of filthy sailors in hammocks, and some big guy’s dirty ass rubbing up against you all the time?”

There’s no denying the guy has the power to evoke history in a powerful way.

We spend the first day in training, which is mostly boring but also, mercifully, designed for the rank beginner. (“This is a lifejacket, this is how to use it…”) We’ve been divided into three watches, one for each mast (fore, main and mizzen). Each watch has one permanent crewmember in charge called the captain of the tops. The chain of command works like this: when under sail, the captain captain (my term) relays his wishes to the first officer, who barks out instructions to the captains of the tops, who then pass them along to the crew.

With everybody gathered at mid-ships, the first officer delivers a few bits of wisdom. He tells us to sleep whenever we can, because we won’t be getting too much of it on a regular basis. “And no throwing up below decks, because you’ll have every other person throwing up beside you.” He then goes on to describe other details of proper puking etiquette – use a bucket (of which there are several on deck, complete with happy faces painted on the outsides) and throw it over the side when you’re done. And don’t throw up (or down, to be more precise) when aloft.

The technicalities of our jobs, however, are outlined by our watch’s captain o’tops, a 30-year-old Englishwoman named Helen. With her shoulder-length sandy-blond hair partly controlled by a ball cap, Helen leads us to the mizzen mast, which is the smallest of the three and the one we’re assigned to. She points to ropes draping down from above and rattles off their names: Reefs, bunts, clews, braces, sheets, downhauls, halyards, bowlines, crowjacks.

Then Helen’s off for a moment on some errand, and we take this chance to get to know each other. Lee is a quiet, elegant, attractive woman from San Diego who owns a sailboat and cruises on the weekends. Colin is a thin, goateed carpenter from Vancouver who builds small sailing ships in his spare time. There are two ex-hippies from San Francisco (all peaceful smiles and long hair); a gruff, but likable ex-marine also from California; and one Australian, the brother of one of the permanent crew members.

Helen bounds back and comes up to Steve and me and says, “Okay you guys, you’ll be working the mizzen top sail brace. Steve you’ll be on the port and Mike the starboard.” She assigns everyone else their posts and then proceeds to explain the mechanics of the system, which are only slightly less complicated than the electrical wiring of a Boeing 747.

Luckily, we don’t have to understand it, we just have to do what we’re told. We’re just muscle. The only thing we’ll be doing is hauling on our ropes or easing them away, and only when Helen gives the command. Once she tells us to stop, we’ll lock off the rope in a figure eight around the cleat, coil what’s left and slip it over the top.

Of course, we will be performing these tasks only when under sail, and we won’t be doing any sailing any time soon. Right now we’re under the power of two massive diesel engines hidden away in the engine room one deck below us. Yes, I know, disappointing – diesel engines. Helen explains that whereas Cook’s Endeavour languished for weeks when the wind wouldn’t co-operate (square riggers can’t sail upwind), our Endeavour has a date to honour in Vancouver. In port, the replica Endeavour becomes a floating museum. This is how it makes money. Thousands of people line up to fork over 10 bucks a head to board her and walk around, finger the helm, see the hold, the captain’s quarters. People, presumably, looking for some small part of the period rush we’re after.

“Don’t worry, though,” she tells us. “You’ll get your chance to sail.”

For now, however, Helen occupies us with the more prosaic tasks of shipboard life. She leads us down the narrow gangway to the main hold, then down another flight of stairs to what’s known as the 20th century deck. As the name suggests, this is where all pretense of period play is abandoned. There’s a compact galley filled with stainless steel stoves and grills. A few wooden tables and benches are squeezed into a narrow room on the other side. We’ll eat in shifts, one watch after another. Through another passageway lie a few shower stalls and marine toilets.

The cook, a young New Zealand woman named Joanne (who also doubles as the ship’s medical officer) explains to me that she changes the menu depending on the weather. In rough seas, she avoids cooking with any spices, except for ginger, which settles the stomach. I can only imagine what it would be like down here in rough weather. Even now, though the ocean is relatively calm, the Endeavour is rolling like a fun house and we stumble through the narrow aisles like drunks. On any other ship it wouldn’t be so bad given the conditions, but the Endeavour’s hull is nearly flat and has a short keel. The galley is designed with this in mind. Everything can be battened down, even pots on the stove, and the tables in the eating area have lips around them to prevent dinner from hitting the floor.

Whether grub hits the deck or not, however, the place has to be cleaned after every meal. “This is the stuff to use to clean the tables,” says Helen. “These are the mops we use to scrub the floors. This is where clean dishes go.” After this, we repair to the main hold, which is musty with the smell of damp canvas. “This is how to sling your hammocks. This is how to stow them in the morning.”

Then Helen leads us down a hatch into the roar of the engine room. “This is how to check the bilge. This is where to monitor the levels.” We clamber back up the steep metal stairs and follow Helen to another hatch, where the food is stored. “This is how to check the thermometer. This is where to record the temperature.” Then we’re off to the stern and into the captain’s digs, a.k.a. the Great Cabin. (And it is great, with plenty of room, shuttered windows and leather-bound chairs.) “This is how to dust the captain’s wooden desk. This is how to clean the brass wood-stove.”

This, apparently, is what life aboard the Endeavour is really like. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly what I had in mind.

 

Before Cook’s journeys, explorers were almost exclusively motivated by the search for wealth and power. Discovery was a byproduct. Phoenicians sought tin and copper in France, Spain and Africa. Romans chased political might, emulating Alexander the Great. Buddhist monks, Nestorian Christians and Jesuits roamed the Asian steppes and crossed Himalayan passes in search of converts. Arabs spread the word throughout the Middle East. Vasco da Gama delivered shiploads of cinnamon, cloves and ginger to Europe; Magellan and Cabral searched for better ways to do the same, as did Columbus, who instead bumped into North America. (You just can’t get good and lost like you could in the old days.) Even the very first recorded explorations, the journeys of Egyptian nobleman Harkhuf, were no different. According to hieroglyphs more than 4,000 years old, Harkhuf ventured to the upper Nile in search of treasures valued for their uses in temples – gold, ebony, incense, ivory, panther skins – and, oh yes, slaves, who were valued for their strength to build them.

Cook, though not a nobleman, had nobler motivations. There were political and economic forces involved, sure, but he filled his ships with plants, not gold. True, his journeys had lasting political importance, but that’s not why they’re remembered. Cook’s journeys were about the discovery of our planet’s humanity, the end of one era and the beginning of another. He brought the golden age of exploration to a close. Suddenly the world was a whole lot less mysterious. At the start of the golden age, around the year 1500, Ptolemy’s geographical atlas of the world was still considered authoritative though it was written some 13 centuries earlier and only covered Europe and the merest edges of Africa and Asia. Flash forward a little more than two centuries and Cook discovers Hawaii. After that, there was simply nowhere else to go.

 

“ALL HANDS ON DECK!” a voice bellows from the gangway down into the main hold. It’s our third day, and this is the first time we’ve heard Captain Blake, a slight Englishman in his early fifties, give this order. But we’ve been told about it. (“When you hear it, drop whatever you’re doing and get to the main deck, fast.”)

Steve and I follow everyone else, clambering up from down below into blinding sunshine, wondering whether there’s something wrong. But instead there’s something right. Wind! Finally. For the first time since we left Gig Harbor, we’re going to do some sailing.

Our station is at the very end of the boat. In profile, the Endeavour is like a giant banana, so standing at the stern Steve and I have a commanding view of the ensuing frenzy.

And, it turns out, some time to soak it all in. Nothing happens very quickly on a square-rigged sailing ship and it takes close to an hour to unfurl most of the Endeavour’s 26 sails. But when the wind finally fills the mainsails, we can feel the boat heaving, bucking over the waves slowly, but powerfully. Beautifully. The big diesels are quiet now, the sheets are filled with wind, straining from all four corners, and the oversized Australian flag between the two of us is finally showing signs of life. We take it all in, sitting on the stern railing high above the blue ocean, squinting in the stiff, salty breeze. For the first time, I begin to understand the poetry of sailing.

Unfortunately, however, while the wind has picked up, it’s still not in our favour. So instead of heading north to Vancouver, we’re heading east, right for the mainland. It takes us a while to realize it, but this is just fun, not travel.

East the Endeavour surges, and we quickly close the gap between us and the shore. As we get nearer, I notice a small crowd of people standing outside a row of houses along the beach. A minute or so passes, the Endeavour sailing on. I can now distinguish the men from the women. Another minute elapses and I can make out the colour of a woman’s hair, standing beside a golden retriever and shading her eyes from the sun. The Endeavour is still running at a good clip. How close are we going to get? Closer and closer we charge. Everyone’s quiet now, absorbed in the drama. At last, the Captain yells something – I don’t quite catch it – then Helen turns, looks back at us and bellows, “Mizzen topsail brace: hauling port, easing starboard, HAUL AWAY!”

Steve registers first. “That’s us!” Immediately, we start hauling with everything we’ve got, until Helen shouts frantically, “Easing starboard! Easing starboard!” She’s yelling at me. Caught up in the excitement of it all, I was hauling instead of paying out the rope slowly and Steve and I are in an unwitting tug-of-war. Oops. (The final command, haul away, doesn’t mean “haul” necessarily – it’s more like “go.” You’re supposed to listen to the part that comes before that.) In a moment, though, we’ve got the sail turning, which starts the stern sliding around like a fishtailing limo, and now, heeding a cacophony of barked orders, everybody is hauling or easing furiously and suddenly the boat is in the midst of a sharp U-turn, sharper than I thought possible. At the apex of the turn, the Endeavour lies sideways to the wind, the sails deflate, flapping with indecision, until the yardarms rotate enough and once again the sails puff out and snap tight with an audible whump. One of the permanent crew shouts “Fire in the hole!” and lights off the starboard cannon, which spews a fine spray of newspapers that had been stuffed into it in lieu of a cannonball. The thunderous boom echoes off the shore and there’s some faint applause from the spectators, then the boat finishes the turn and we sail back out to sea.

In the meantime, the Endeavour has drawn some fire of its own, in the form of a dozen or so chase boats equipped with Canons instead of cannons. I’d had this idea that once we were out to sea, we’d actually be out to sea – you know, open ocean, maybe the occasional freighter and if we were lucky, a wayward albatross or two. But once again, the romance doesn’t live up to the reality. It’s more like a scene from some large cottage-country lake. Indeed, there are cottages on the islands out here, small communities even, with ocean-side pubs propped up on stilts and excessively tanned people on decks enjoying a few cold ones, holding up their Pilsner glasses in salute.

Eventually, though, the wind dies down as the sun edges nearer to the western ocean. Out of sight now, we furl the sails and resort to our dirty little secret, the diesels, and the Endeavour chugs northward in the twilight.

In the coming days, there’s more sailing, more photo sessions, more poetry. But mostly it’s just work. We learn to furl and unfurl the sails after climbing up the shrouds to the yardarms and balancing our bodies high in the ship’s rigging. Usually, though, we’re charged with less exciting work, like watching the waters off the bow for traffic, or worse, scrubbing the decks, which is a little too authentic for my tastes.

The best work shift comes a day after our first sailing jaunt. As Steve and I lie cocooned in our hammocks, we’re awoken by a gentle nudge. “You’re on anchor watch,” a voice in the darkness whispers. “Gear up and head on deck.” I look at my watch: 4 a.m. Steve and I groggily yank on our warmest clothes, duck under the hammocks of our snoring crewmates and creep up the stairs into the cold night air.

The Endeavour is sitting placidly in the tight curl of some offshore island. To make sure the tide doesn’t push us off anchorage, Steve and I have to watch the anchor line for signs of movement. Watching the anchor line is about as boring as it sounds, but with everyone else sleeping, we discover that this is at last a chance to have the ship to ourselves. We chat, we joke around, feeling like security guards in a weird museum, which is pretty much what we are. We try to conjure up the adventure of Cook’s day, but somehow it’s not right. Regrettably, the people in charge of the replica Endeavour have chosen not to adhere to the sailing tradition of liberally dispersing beer and brandy, so our noble efforts to elicit some kind of a period rush are thwarted.

 

How does someone, you ask, discover an island chain like Hawaii when that place had already been settled and occupied for untold centuries? The answer is by not knowing about it beforehand. Allow me to refer you to the Oxford English Dictionary: “discover v.tr. 1 a Find out or become aware of, whether by research or searching or by chance.”

Cook discovered Hawaii by the best of the three methods defined by Oxford’s etymologists – chance. This is the kind of lucky break you get when sailing an uncharted ocean.

The Admiralty was delighted with this discovery, for reasons, of course, that had to do with politics and economics. Cook, however, saw something else. Maybe it was his working-class upbringing, or maybe he was simply a great visionary, but wherever Cook journeyed, he remained deeply interested and sympathetic to native cultures. This was his greatest legacy. Even in New Zealand, where Maori warriors later killed and ate 10 of his crew, Cook wrote “they are naturally of a good disposition and have not a little share of humanity.” Of Australia’s Aborigines, whom his contemporaries considered savages one step above common animals, Cook wrote “In reality they are far more happier than we Europeans…They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition.” His journals were so clearly an effort to enrich humanity’s knowledge that French commanders instructed their ships to give Cook free passage, even in times of war. (Cook’s journals continue to enrich: without them, the recent revival of the Tahitian art of tattooing would not have been possible.)

Aside from describing indigenous cultures, however, Cook also did a little bit of investigative journalism, uncovering the story of the great island navigators. Cook was the first to assert that islanders had accomplished ocean voyages of thousands of kilometres simply by being acutely in tune with wave patterns, bird migrations and the stars. History tried to prove him wrong, but now we know he was right.

Despite his account of the story of how Polynesia was originally settled, however, the only thing that modern, literal-minded, Cook-bashing revisionists can say is that he didn’t really discover Hawaii. What these people fail to grasp, though, is what Cook knew all along. His discovery was not so much the land itself. It was its people, its culture. The land was secondary, and Cook was the first to understand the distinction.

Tragically, contact with Europeans spawned a dark future for the Polynesians. With ships, of course, came infection. There were diseases, yes – measles, influenza, typhoid, smallpox, dysentery and whooping cough decimated whole populations – but there was also a deeper, ultimately more damaging infection: culture. Cook himself saw it coming. Over his many visits to the islands of the Pacific, spanning 13 years, Cook saw the people change, saw the damage caused by guns and alcohol, saw the erosion of traditional practices. In his journals, Cook lamented his own “fatal impact.” Better than anybody, he knew that with enlightenment comes a loss of innocence. There was nothing he could do. The wheels were rolling. The damage was irrevocable, inevitable. If you read his journals, you won’t find it there in black and white, but the irony is clear enough: even Cook dreamed about going back.

There would be none of that, of course. Not for Cook, not for anyone. In the end, Cook’s adventures came to a close with a level of symbolism that only history can provide. On his third voyage, when he was returning from Arctic latitudes, Cook re-supplied at Hawaii and after a dispute broke out between the natives and some of the crew, Cook waded into the melee and tried to settle the dispute. But the natives were not interested in a deal. Instead, they attacked him with daggers and before the crew could respond, Captain James Cook’s blood stained the beach and it was all over.

 

Nighttime aboard the replica Endeavour, somewhere near the Juan de Fuca Strait south of Vancouver Island. I think we’re in American waters. Or maybe we’ve crossed into Canada. I don’t know. Our entire watch was woken from our swaying hammocks 20 minutes ago and told to get dressed and come on deck.

It’s cloudy, with no stars or moon. Dark. My watch-mates move around me on individual errands. Their faces are hidden, but after five days of eating, sleeping and working in close proximity to these people, I have learned to recognize their shapes, the outlines of their heads, the cut of their clothes.

The wind is picking up. The boat is rolling and pitching on inky ocean swells. The captain has ordered the main t’gallant be furled. The main t’gallant is the highest sail on the highest mast of the boat, some 100 feet above us and, despite its white canvas, nearly invisible as we crane our necks to search for it.

As I prepare to climb, I wish that Steve were coming up there with me. But last night, Steve sprained his ankle when he stepped on a thick slimy python of a rope flaked out on the waist deck, so he’s out of commission. (True to form, he accomplished this while sneaking around trying to get out of doing work.) “Watch yourself, Mike,” he says, serious for once.

There’s no time to think about it. I step up onto the boat’s flat railing, holding onto ropes as thick as baseball bats that lead to a point midway up the main mast at something better than a 45-degree angle. The shroud is covered in tar and cross-hatched with a series of much thinner ropes called ratlines, which serve as steps.

I am leading the charge, which gives a small consolation. With no one above me, there’s no one to fall on me should something go wrong. If anybody falls right now, they will probably tumble down the shroud into the ocean. Hopefully, they will miss hitting the railing and therefore will still be conscious and relatively uninjured when they enter the water, but it seems unlikely. Either way, by the time the ship could turn around, the person overboard would be critically hypothermic – if they could be found at all. This is the best-case scenario. Worse would be not falling into the water; the deck is made of thick slabs of Oregonian Douglas Fir.

Finally, I reach the spot where the ropes converge at the mast. This is roughly the halfway point, and where the real fun begins. There is a large platform above my head and to get on top of it, I must now climb a smaller shroud that leads from the mast out to the edges of the platform, which means climbing inverted. Since not one of us now on the shrouds had ever climbed one until mere days ago, we clip in to a safety line. This is our first concession to history. Still, we’re not wearing harnesses (only swami belts, our second concession and if you were to fall at the lip of the platform, you’d zip down the line while dangling upside down, take the full shockload with your back and possibly knock off whoever was clinging there while waiting for you to get up.

Everything goes fine, though. One by one we flop onto the platform and unclip from the safety line. We balance against the boat’s heaving pitch, huddling near the mast away from the edge and the yawning drop, then it’s onto the next shroud, which is narrower, nearly vertical and harder to negotiate. I’m glad the shroud is sticky with tar. During the day we curse the tar, which fouls everything it touches, but now, when we can barely see it, we appreciate its sticky grip.

At last, we’re at the highest yardarm on the ship. It’s a thin spar of wood. I grab onto it, step onto the loose bow of rope dangling underneath, and inch my way out toward the end of the spar, bent over it for balance. While I wait for the other crew to get into position, I look out into the night. The view from up here is exhilarating, dreamy.

With everyone set, I position myself so the spar sits under my armpits and then grab fistfuls of sail, which is flapping smartly in the wind, sometimes into my face. I struggle to control it with both hands, forgetting, momentarily, how high off the deck I am. Then, when everyone has pulled the sail up against the yard, we fish around for the small ropes that help tie everything into giant lumpy sausage links.

On the other side of the yard, there’s some kind of small problem, I don’t know what. Probably, someone can’t find the rope to tie off the sail. Common enough during the day, at night it’s to be expected. There’s nothing to do but wait until they figure it out. But I’m happy to wait.

A sharp October wind makes my eyes water. Some clouds have cleared, and a few stars are twinkling above as the boat porpoises over the bumpy black ocean. With my job done, I can hang on tight and take it all in. I can see the white spray of water as the blunt prow punches into the swells. I can hear the thump and the hiss. I can feel the rhythm of the ocean in my gut.

Then, it happens. In the faint starlight, the centuries roll back. Off in the distance, I can barely make out the mountainous outline of some distant island. There it is, I pretend. The edge of the known world. For a moment, I can feel it. I can see it, not for what it is, but for what it isn’t.

It lasts just a short while. A few moments later, I notice a tanker off to the right, decorated with a gaudy string of bright, dream-piercing lights. The unknown water becomes the Juan de Fuca again. The dark mass of unknown land in the night becomes Vancouver Island.

The Age of Enlightenment was, I’ve always felt, a time of unalloyed awe and wonder in the history of our world. But sometimes, when you’ve already seen the light, darkness is better.