15 February 2012

40 Degrees South - a voyage on the HMB Endeavour

By Australian guest blogger Rachel Slatyer. Rachel is a soon-to-be PhD candidate, studying ecology and evolution. She has volunteered on the sail training ship STS Leeuwin II for the last two years and is currently working on the replica of Captain Cook's exploration ship HMB Endeavour. She hopes to combine her science and sailing passions through involvement in the HMS Beagle Project.

HMB Endeavour in Albany, Western Australia - Rachel Slatyer
When I signed on to the crew of the HMB Endeavour, to sail from Fremantle to Adelaide, I was more than a little bit anxious about what awaited me when we went across the Great Australian Bight. This part of the Southern Ocean has an almost legendary status for big rolling seas, fierce storms and sea sickness.

The 21st-century schedule that our 18th-century ship sails on meant that the voyage from Fremantle to Albany had to be done largely under the power of our 'iron staysails' (engines). To avoid a repeat experience on the voyage between Albany (on the western side of the Bight) and Port Lincoln (on the eastern side), our Captain decided to take a gamble and steer the ship south, aiming for the famous 'Roaring Forties' - strong westerly tradewinds at the latitude 40 degrees South.

As we approached 40S, the order came to set 'lotsals' - lots of sails! Up went the topgallants, the jib, the spritsails...and everything else, and before long we were sailing under the magnificent sight of 17 sails. When some of the voyage crew (who pay to join the ship for single voyages) asked why, the Captain simply replied: "because we can." To use the words of Ratty from Wind in the Willows, "there is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

It wasn't long before our next bit of excitement. On night watch, in the eerie quiet, dark and fog that preceded a cold front coming through, we suddenly heard a loud puff right next to the boat. All hands rushed to the side to see the pale shape of a sperm whale disappearing below the water. We were soon joined by two more whales - I always find the sight of whales in these waters, where whaling has had such a long history, particularly encouraging. Our interest was also piqued by mysterious patches of bioluminescence, about a metre across, that appeared near the surface for a few seconds at a time, then vanished. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to identify the source.

The crew were keen with anticipation for 40 knot winds that would blow us into Port Lincoln. We weren't disappointed. When I emerged on deck one morning to feel the fresh sea breeze and see the ship riding the 4m swell, knowing that we were surrounded by the vast Southern Ocean, I felt invigorated and had a deep sense of freedom that I think is unique to being at sea. I have no doubt that seafarers throughout the ages have felt the same and looking at the faces of the other crew, I knew I wasn't alone.

In three weeks, I will start a PhD, with fieldwork in the Australian Alps. I'm excited by starting new research, although I know I'll miss the ship, the sailing and the camaraderie that comes from sharing a 33m ship with 55 other people. In June this year, the Endeavour will sail to Lord Howe Island, to track the Transit of Venus, like Captain Cook did from Tahiti 243 years ago. This continues the Endeavour's tradition of involvement in science. For now, though, we’re focusing on completing the circumnavigation of Australia, with only 7 more ports to visit before the ship returns to her home in Sydney. As Captain Jack Sparrow would say "now, bring me that horizon."

HMB Endeavour foremast and bowsprit with all sails set - Rachel Slatyer


Carli, Australian National Maritime Museum said...

Great post Rachel! Love the Wind in the Willows reference!

Peter McGrath said...

Very envious that you're aboard the Endeavour, she absolutely packed the town when she came to visit the original's port of build Whitby in North Yorkshire. A great example of the charisma of a sailing ship compared to motor vessel.

Sailing to measure the transit of Venus, as Cook did in a replica of the ship he used has a magic about it. We hope that recreating Darwin's voyage in a new Beagle will have the same effect.

And best of luck with the Ph.D.

Rachel Slatyer said...

Thanks Peter. It would have been amazing to see the Endeavour come into Whitby! I also hope that retracing Darwin's voyage will bring a bit of the same magic - I think it will!