thinking outside the tank

Captain Cook in Google Earth: Lizard Island to Cape Weymouth

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Sailing through Cook's Passage after 2pm on 13Aug1770

Sailing through Cook's Passage after 2pm on 13Aug1770

From Lizard Island it was relatively straightforward to reach the outermost edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Soon after their arrival, the master went out in the pinnace to examine one of the openings in the reef. He signalled the ship and, shortly afterwards, Endeavour followed her through into deep water. The first sounding gave no bottom with 100 fathoms of line. The wind was blowing a gale from the south-east and, although a northerly course would have been both desirable and feasible, Cook decided to stretch out close-hauled to the east-north-east to gain some clearance.

Stretching off east-north-east

Stretching off east-north-east

Two things were noticed: first they were back in the heavy swell of the deep ocean, and second, in these conditions, it became apparent that the ship was more damaged than at first thought, as she now began to take on a quantity of water that required one pump in constant use to clear.

Cook was eager not to miss any passage that there might be between the north of New Holland (Australia) and New Guinea. As soon as he could, he sailed first north-west and then due west. Shortly after noon on Wednesday, 15Aug1770 (remembering that the ship’s log runs from noon to noon), land was sighted from the masthead bearing west-south-west, and then more to the north-west, with a reef between the ship and the land.

We saw a reef between us and the land (15Aug1770)

We saw a reef between us and the land (15Aug1770)

The wind was blowing from the east-south-east so, broadly speaking, it was blowing them towards the reef. They tacked and ran northwards hoping to clear it but, after months of steady trade winds from the south-east, it fell calm in the middle of the night. By 0400 on the morning of Thursday, 16Aug1770, they could plainly hear the roar of the pacific swell pounding on the reef only a mile away. What was worse, the sea was carrying them rapidly towards destruction on the rocks. They were 30 miles from land and with too few boats to carry all the crew to safety, should Endeavour be smashed to pieces.

The pinnace was under repair, so the yawl and the longboat were given the task of towing the ship clear. They managed to bring her head round to the north, but by 0600 they were only 80 yards from the breakers. Cook wrote:

The same sea that washed the side of the ship rose in a breaker prodigiously high the very next time it did rise, so that between us and destruction was only a dismal valley the breadth of one wave…yet in this Truly Terrible Situation not one man ceased to do his utmost and that with as much Calmness as if no danger had been near. All the dangers we had escaped from were little in comparison of being thrown upon this reef, where the ship must be dashed to pieces in a moment.

Eighty yards from the breakers at 0600 on 16Aug1770

Eighty yards from the breakers at 0600 on 16Aug1770

After hasty repairs to the pinnace, it was deployed. With this extra tow and the slightest puff of wind they pulled away to 200 yards from the reef. They saw an opening a quarter of a mile away and tried to get through. However, the ebb tide was ‘gushing out like a mill race’, so they could not gain the safety of the smooth water within the reef. Instead, the tide and another helpful wind took them 400 yards from destruction. Between this time and noon they managed to get an offing approaching 2 miles.

Soon after, though, the flood tide started to flow which carried them once more towards the reef. Their only hope of saving the voyage and their own lives appeared to be another opening in the reef one mile to their west. Lieutenant Hicks went to examine it and returned with a favourable account. With a light breeze from the east-north-east and the help of the boats they reached the opening and passed easily through, carried by the flood tide acting as another mill race which  prevented the ship from being driven against the sides. Cook called this opening in the reef Providential Channel.

Endeavour in Providential Channel on 16Aug1770

Endeavour in Providential Channel on 16Aug1770

They sailed 11 miles within the reef and anchored in 19 fathoms.

After several pages of journal in which Cook had described their adventure outside the reef, he then took the time to reflect on their circumstances and on the explorer’s dilemma: should he ‘boldly go’, facing all obstacles head-on thereby risking failure of the mission or accusations of misconduct, or should he prudently exercise so much caution that he is deemed unsuitable through timorousness to be a discoverer of new lands. He felt that, on balance, neither accusation could be levelled against him – provided he succeeded.

Reflecting on the discoverer's life

Reflecting on the discoverer's life

He was well aware of the irony of his present position:

It is but a few days ago that I rejoiced at having got without the reef; that joy was nothing when compared to what I now felt at being safe at anchor within it.

After these briefs contemplations, it was back to the usual business of surveying the world about him. He fell immediately back into the habit of reporting latitude and longitude, magnetic variation, the condition of the reef at low water, and the significant features of the land. In this case, he named Cape Weymouth and Weymouth Bay.

Cape Weymouth on 17Aug1770

Cape Weymouth on 17Aug1770

Today, I added this leg of Cook’s exploration of the Australian coast to my Google Earth tour which presents his first voyage round the world.

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst, 2012

Images of Earth © Google and others

If you would like to follow Cook’s voyage, you will need to install the latest version of Google Earth on your computer; then go to the Captain Cook blog  and click on the links on the right-hand side of the page, under the ‘Google Earth’ heading. After the animation is loaded in Google Earth, you need to expand an entry in the Table of Contents. You will see a ‘Play’ icon which you double-click to start the animation. Don’t forget to enable your speakers to hear the spoken journal.


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