Captain Cook … And We Think We Have Challenges?

I am reading several books at once, including Sextant, by David Barrie. He tells the value of this maritime navigational instrument by sharing his own journal entries from a 1970’s sailing trip across the Atlantic with friends, as well as by including true stories from past sailing escapades.

Author Barrie tells of Captain William Bligh, an English officer of the Royal Navy who commanded the ship HMS Bounty. In the year 1789, acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian and the ship’s most able sailors mutinied on the Bounty in the Tonga Islands of the Pacific Ocean. At bayonet point they put Bligh into a 23-foot boat with 18 men and limited provisions.

Bligh managed to navigate their uncovered boat 3,618 nautical miles to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. They landed some six week after setting out, having lost only one of their crew members to murder when they had stopped to try to reprovision with breadfruit on Tofua Island. Bligh had been able to use a sextant to determine their latitude—effectively, their ‘horizontal’ position if you look at a globe. He may learned his sextant skills earlier, while he sailed with Captain Cook on the ship Resolution.

Barrie next tells of Captain James Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who began his seafaring career at the age of 26. He made three long sea voyages during which he collected valuable navigation and geographical information about Newfoundland, and later the Pacific Ocean. Cook sailed into frigid waters near the Antarctic, as well as north of the Bering Strait (separating Russia from Alaska, today). His ship Endeavour was once halted on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and the crew managed to push it loose and patch a gouge in the hull temporarily until they found landfall to make repairs.

Cook’s first long term voyage began in the year 1768—in a ship about 105 feet long and 29 feet wide (32 meters by 9 meters) named Endeavour. When the voyage began, the ship included not a recommended crew of 20 men, but a total of 94, as well as provisions for 18 months. These included pigs, chickens and a goat, nine tons of bread, three tons of Sauerkraut, 250 barrels of beer, 44 barrels of brandy, 4,000 strips of pork, 12 swivel guns and much, much more.

Considering that the lower deck was 97 feet long (29 meters), all of these people and supplies were on a ship having about three and a half times the floor space of an average Starbucks store. Oh, and no engine. No electricity. No refrigeration. No central heating. No GPS. No flush toilets. Probably no toilet paper. No washing machine. No radio. No antibiotics. And most times—no frickin’ idea where the next landfall would be. For some three years. From Plymouth, England, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, around Cape Horn and then to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Timor, the Cape of Good Hope and back to England.

Think of that next time you get antsy about lockdown, and having to do calisthenics before a virtual instructor on your flatscreen, or before you cook up some spicy prawns on a gas or electric stove and uncork a bottle of chilly Chablis.

In effectively the space of three consecutive (non-generational) full lifetimes (assuming a lifespan of some 85 years) the ships that circumnavigate our planet have changed, dramatically. During that time humans effectively learned to generate and control the power of lightning—creating electricity, invented ‘central heating furnaces‘ to control the flow of heat, honed longitudinal navigational certainty through the invention of accurate, portable timepieces (and, eventually, the use of satellites), began using iron instead of wood to build large ships, invented the steam engine and internal combustion engine to convert heat and flammability into motion, and harnessed compression to change liquid and gaseous states in order to change temperatures—hence provide refrigeration. And don’t forget radio and satellite communications.

Our modern technical prowess has brought us far, in a relatively short space of time. Sure, we need to improve conditions for wildlife on this planet, as well as for those who are still hungry or oppressed. We need to reduce pollution. We need to do much. And we can. It is those who look forward with positive attitudes, those who take actions to improve the lives not only of themselves but of others who have made—and who will make—this world a better place.

Cheers to navigators, explorers and inventors!