When Captain Cook set out on the Endeavour he probably worried about provisions, storms at sea, shipwreck, mutiny, navigation, cloud cover during the transit of Venus. Dysentery. Malaria.
Me? I worried about the hammocks. I didn’t know about the futtocks, then.
I signed up as voluntary crew on the replica Endeavour as part of the Tuia 250 commemorations. More on Tuia 250 later when my head clears. There is a lot to process.
The HM Bark Endeavour replica is a meticulous reconstruction of Cook’s original ship, with hidden modern additions to make her safe (GPS, harnesses, an engine and a “20th Century deck” in the hold with a modern kitchen and flushing heads. Phew). But she still uses the traditional nautical techniques that Cook sailed by, and has over 168 lines to set the 10,000 sq feet of sails. Lines, my landlubbers, are ropes with a purpose. The replica Endeavour was built and lives in Australia and serves as a museum, when not voyaging and offering hands-on historical education. She has a wonderful professional crew, and sails with a volunteer crew who come along, as I did, to learn sailing and history and find stories. I was aboard for six days, Tauranga to Gisborne, hauling and belaying and standing on night-watch on rolling seas as we followed the winds and sailed south. East. Northwest. Becalmed. South.
My fear of hammocks was entirely misplaced. A hammock is a snug cocoon from which to watch the world tumbling around you. I’ve never slept so well. I should have feared the futtocks.
Futtocks are the upside down section you hit when climbing the shrouds and the ratlines stop going in and start going out. Instead of leaning into the ship, you’re suspended high above the rolling deck and leaning out, clinging like a monkey and grappling on the platform overhead for a hold to haul yourself over. You discover previously unknown parts of your body to clench like a recalcitrant clam. But that’s not how futtocks got their name. They’re “Foot hooks” apparently.
A lot of work is done up the rigging. Without harnesses and modern clothing it would have been a cold and dangerous task. Gaskets tie the sails to the yards, as do reefs when the sail is shortened. Sailors climb out along the yards (three sails high: coarse, tops’l and t’gallant) and haul the heavy sails to tie them up. The boatswain, who looks after the rig, spends a large part of the journey aloft. Both our boatswain and mate were young women who slipped easily over the futtocks with coils of rope and knives and buckets of tar and tallow, running maintenance that keep the rig ship-shape.
The Endeavour was a sailing ship. The replica has two 405-hp engines, but wind is king. We used power only when necessary, in port, and worked the sails nearly all the way. Our patient “Topman” had us endlessly hauling, easing, taking up slack and flaking the lines. Halyards haul the yards up to stretch the sail, bunts and clews gather and release sails, sheets and braces change the angle of the yards, belaying onto pins and bits and cleats. We had chalk drawings on the weather deck, practical exercises with lines in our hands. The Endeavour has a basic rig of seventeen sails and we had a play with most of them. Sail work on an 18th century vessel is labour-intensive, physically demanding and time consuming. We had the advantage of weather forecasts to predict what sails we would need. How did Cook know, in the dark, whether a few random gusts heralded a gale or were the last puffs of a falling wind system? He and his contemporaries developed skills and intuition we have long lost.
The Endeavour used astronomical observation for navigation. K1, the famous chronometer, wasn’t available until Cook’s subsequent voyage on the Resolution. On our voyage, the three mates lined up on deck with their sextants, measuring and comparing readings at nautical noon, sunset and sunrise. There were slight discrepancies. One of our volunteer crew was a student of traditional Pacific navigation and described learning the patterns of stars over a place as a navigational guide. Along that sharp edged coast, we were grateful for the GPS.
Sunrise at sea is a beautiful thing. The 4am to 8am watch I loved, from the first cool hint of pale morning sky to the glimmering crack of the sun’s yolk lying flat on the horizon.
The ship’s wheel is attached by lines to the tiller, which is just like you’d find in a dinghy only bigger. It takes two to work the helm: Brain and Brawn. Brain stands by the compass and calls the steering. “Go to Port two!” instructs Brawn to move the midship handle, recognisable by a rope collar, to sit two points to the left. “Port two on!” is the reply. The Endeavour is a wide-bottomed girl with a slow response to the wheel, more so in rolling seas. Brawn learns the feel of the wheel for half-an-hour and then takes the Brain position to call the course to a new Brawn. If we wandered off course the mate came up from the pocket sized nav cabin for a stretch on deck and to give us a nudge.
During the long hours of watch we sang a bit, told jokes, learnt nautical banter, and thought about all those expressions that began on the ships and have come down the centuries with us. Here are some of my favourites:
We show someone the ropes. You’re either in for the long haul or the short haul, depending on the length of the line. The bitter end is the end of the rope tied to the “bit” on ship’s deck, it’s the absolute end, there is no more. The stays hold the masts up, every ship needs a mainstay. Our cannons were lashed down, but I can imagine the damage a loose cannon would do. Above board it is open to view. If you have someone over the barrel they’re tied down for a flogging. We try a different tack when things aren’t working and we give a wide berth to those we do not want to bump into. The bottom of a sail is its foot, if it is dancing in the wind, it’s footloose. Blocks are pulleys, when the lines are pulled tight they cram together, chock-a-block. I think my favourite misnomer is the idler. Idlers are crew that don’t stand watch, and a modern sense of the word would have them lounging in their hammocks. On the contrary, idlers are the boatswain and mate, cooks, engineer. They were the hardest workers who, along with their regular duties, were called on frequently when additional hands were required, usually to go aloft. Over the futtocks.