Thursday, September 24, 2009

Passage to Russell

Unlike Captain Cook, we didn’t have four or five hundred natives with “tattou’d backsides” rowing out to meet us as we rounded Cape Brett. Instead, we had a gorgeous, peaceful sail up to the Bay of Islands, with fifteen knots on the port beam and not a lump of swell. These are the conditions Sereia loves best. Silas and I took a gentle nap down below, lulled to sleep by the rushing ocean as Peter steered us north at seven knots.

And then we rounded the Cape, and it all went to custard.

Sailing in New Zealand in 2009, surfing the Internet from my shipboard laptop, it’s hard to remember that just a couple of hundred years ago, Captain Cook was the first European to chart this wild coast. But study a map, and you’ll see his mark is everywhere. We pass Piercy Island off Cape Brett, a dramatic rock formation with a massive hole in it. The name is Cook’s little joke—he named Cape Brett and Piercy Island after one of the Lords of the Admiralty, Sr. Percy Brett—only he changed the spelling in honor of the rock that was “perced quite thro'…like the Arch of a Bridge.”

Today, it’s a tourist attraction. For a hundred bucks, you can take a speedboat ride out to “Hole in the Rock,” and they’ll buzz you right through the stone archway. They’ll probably tattoo your backside, too, for an extra fifty bucks, then take you back to Russell for hot chips and cold beer.

We didn’t chance the archway, and instead steered a course between rock and cape. Once we turned West toward the Bay of Islands, two things happened in quick succession. The wind, so recently friendly and on our beam, blew right in our teeth. The chop kicked up, Sereia started to hobby horse, and our speed cut right in half. Then the rubbish bin went hurtling across the cabin, and I realized that I’d forgotten how to stow.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in anything like a sloppy sea, and I hadn’t really bothered with the nonskid. Now the cabin sole was awash in coffee grounds, soup cans and dirty nappies, and my mistake was abundantly clear. If Cook had been my Captain, he would have ordered a dozen lashes.

As it happens, Cook spent a lot of time on this passage ordering lashes for his men, who seem to have been a ragtag bunch of ruffians. There were Cox, Stephens and Paroyra, who left their guard duty while ashore and prowled off to snatch potatoes from the Maori. Then, just two days later, Gunner Collin, Alex Simpson and Richard Littleboy got hold of the spirit cask and managed to swipe ten gallons of rum, getting dead drunk in the process and becoming completely “useless to the ship.” Those three probably didn’t feel their lashes, but they would have felt the pain of their other punishment: no more rum rations until they made up for what they’d stolen.

By comparison, the natives Cook met along the way were positively civilized. They may have sported feathers and dogskin cloaks, but for the most part “they dealt very fair and friendly .” They sold fresh fish and kumara to the English, came aboard and accepted gifts of cloth and iron nails. Every now and then they got a bit nasty, performing a war dance, tossing stones at the men, or trying to snatch a shore boat from under Cook’s watchful gaze, so he’d just order some muskets fired above their heads, or shoot them with “small shott.” For an eighteenth century white guy, Cook was pretty enlightened. He seemed to understand that the shows of aggression were part of Maori culture, a need to preserve mana by showing him they were unafraid. He wrote: “I avoided killing any one of them as much as possible and for that reason withheld our people from fireing.”

And if his men were caught stealing rum and potatoes, it’s hard to blame them. Cook mentions several times how pleased he is to see “sellery” growing ashore, “for this I still continue to be boild every morning with Oatmeal and Portable Soup for the ships companies breakfast.” Boiled celery, oatmeal, and dried soup. Every morning. It’s enough to make you want to swipe a potato or two, or a flagon of rum, and damn the consequences.

As for Sereia’s crew, we pulled into Russell at nightfall, choking down a horrible meal of rice and roasted squash because it was too late to find our bearings on shore. But the very next morning, we dashed into town, where we gorged ourselves on fresh fruit, fried eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, blueberry muffins, and great big frothy coffees. If Captain Cook had provided rations like that for his men, they would have followed him to the ends of the earth.

On second thought, they did follow him to the ends of the earth. Even without the frothy coffees. Or the blueberry muffins.

Damn, that man was a hell of a sailor.

[Excerpts from Captain Cook's Journal aboard the Endeavor come from the National Library of Australia,]


  1. Looks like the sprout is getting his sea legs. You'll be seeing him at the spreaders any day now. If you want to adopt an older(much older) child let me know and I'll put myself up for adoption right away. You won't have to change me and I don't get seasick.............m

  2. Why does it look like Silas is peeing into the blue bucket in that picture?

    Are you bucket training him?

    Given the past and colorful "head experiences" that you've kindly shared with us all it's probably a good idea.

    Potty trained? Nah...BUCKET trained!

  3. Cook WAS a hell of a sailor, and explorer.
    Go just about anywhere in the North or South Pacific and one will find this Brit named Jimmy was there first.

    Too bad that he ended up main course at a hawaiian lulu.