A slice of history sails past our shores

Photo: Sharon Wright.

Under full sail, the HMB Endeavour is a sight to behold. It’s the exact image Maori would have seen when they first laid eyes upon Captain James Cook and his European crew 250 years ago.

To mark this significant historical milestone, the Australian-built HMB Endeavour has recently sailed around New Zealand’s coastline as part of a flotilla of vessels which represent our multi-cultural voyaging history.

The HMB Endeavour was joined in October by two waka hourua (double-hulled canoes), a va’a tipaerua from Tahiti, the R. Tucker Thompson (a traditional gaff-rigged schooner) and the Spirit of New Zealand (a three-masted barquentine youth training ship) as they sailed from Gisborne up to the Bay of Islands, then down the west coast to reach Wellington, Marlborough Sounds and Lyttleton by December.

The HMB Endeavour is one of the world’s most accurate maritime replica vessels and weighs almost 400 tonnes. Her 27 sails cover 10,000 square feet in total (930 m2) and she turns heads wherever she goes. Under engine, she travels an average speed of 5 knots and can muster 2.5 knots under sail.

The HMB Endeavour replica represents the original HMS Endeavour, as well as the Royal Society’s commitment in 1760s to explore the world and understand navigational capability.

Construction of the replica began in 1988 in Western Australia and the ship was launched five years later. Since then, she has sailed more than 170,000 nautical miles twice around the world, visited 29 countries and many Pacific islands, and opened as a museum in 116 ports.

HMB Endeavour is maintained using traditional practices and skills to ensure her seaworthiness and authenticity as an 18th Century working vessel. On board it’s easy to imagine what life would have been like during Captain Cook’s 1768-1971 world voyage. The ship features 30kms of rigging and 750 wooden blocks or pulleys, and the main mast stretches a whopping 39m into the air.

In the galley below is an enormous iron stove – known as a firehearth – and The Great Cabin where Cook worked and dined alongside renowned botanist Joseph Banks has been faithfully recreated.

The ship’s traditional iron fittings, including lanterns and the large firehearth, were all handmade in a blacksmith shop. Modern polyester was chosen for the running rigging (which moves and works the yards and sails) and traditional manila for the standing rigging (which holds the masts in place). The manila rope was handmade on a 140 year-old ropewalk to the exact specifications of the original rope.

The main differences between the legendary HMS Endeavour and her newer counterpart lies in the timbers used in construction. Elm, oak and spruce would have been used in the 18th Century but they are now difficult to find and very expensive to buy. Instead, the replica is built of jarrah, a West Australian hardwood. The masts and spars are made from old-growth oregon (douglas fir) which were specially imported from the USA.

Her sails are made of Duradon, a synthetic canvas that looks and handles like the original flax canvas but lasts longer and resists rot.

When the original Endeavour left England on 26 August 1768, 94 people were aboard, including her captain, Lieutenant James Cook.

The Royal Society of London had petitioned King George III for a ship to send to the South Seas so astronomers could view the transit of the planet Venus across the sun, due to take place on 3 June 1769. This was a major international event with over 150 observers around the world scheduled to take part. The results would then be compiled to calculate the distance of the earth from the sun.

Life on board was rough and dangerous, with very little privacy. However, the crew ate a hot meal every day with meat four times a week, a pound of bread and a gallon of beer a day. This was supplemented with dried fish, pease pudding, oatmeal, butter or oil, cheese, fresh fish and vegetables when possible. Remarkably, no-one died of scurvy, which was the biggest killer during long sea voyages.

After successfully witnessing the transit of Venus in Tahiti, Cook turned south and arrived in New Zealand in October 1769. The first Maori to see the ship were in Poverty Bay – they initially thought the Endeavour was a floating island or an ancestral bird from Hawaiki. A Tahitian priest and navigator called Tupaia had joined Cook on his journey south, and acted as an interpreter between Maori and the European crew.

Wherever they went, Tupaia made a great impression on Maori and the Endeavour was remembered above all as Tupaia’s waka (canoe) from Tahiti.

The original ship was later renamed Lord Sandwich and used by the British Board of Transport to carry troops to North America during the American War of Independence. In August 1778 the ship was scuttled in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island, along with 12 other vessels to blockade the port against an invading French fleet.

A decision to build a replica in the 1980s came from passionate maritime historian Bruce Stannard. He enlisted financial support from Western Australian businessman Alan Bond (who had previously headed Australia II’s successful America’s Cup campaign in 1983). The HMB Endeavour was subsequently built and offered as a gift to Australia for the country’s 1988 Bicentenary celebrations.

Today, the ship is managed by the Australian National Maritime Museum and continues to sail around the world, educating and inspiring us all by providing a glimpse into our maritime and voyaging past.


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