Racing Cook across the South Atlantic
When you are surrounded on all sides by water, it’s easy to lose track of the hours. Have we been out three or four days? When we changed time zones did the clock go forward or back? Passages that last more than four days become timeless. Days are divided into meals, watches, naps, sunset, moonrise and dawn. The rest of the world recedes; small things punctuate the days. The colour of the water for instance: close to the coast it was a nutrient-rich murky green. And it was chilly. We slept under fluffy blankets and drank litres of hot tea. Exiting the cold, north flowing Benguela Current, the water warmed; increasing from 12°C to 18°C over the distance of 100 miles and then it turned a brilliant tropical blue. But the sea birds were gone; there were no more albatross, kites or terns. We didn’t look out to see seals floating head down with their flippers warming in the sun. Visits by dolphins also dropped off, making the ocean seem vast, empty and endless.
“Friday, April 26th 1771. Fresh Gales, and a large Swell from the Southward. Wind South-south-west, South-east by South; course North 50 degrees West; distance 168 miles; latitude 21 degrees 40 minutes South, longitude 354 degrees 12 minutes West.”
Almost on cue, our conditions changed to match Cook’s. The GRIBS showed a low in the Southern Ocean which was sending up a steep mixed swell. The wind soon followed. Now we were neck and neck in this odd competition; the Endeavour’s noon position almost matched our own. Two days before reaching Saint Helena, we both crossed the Prime Meridian. For Cook it meant he had, “Circumnavigated the Globe in a West direction.” For us it marked 30,000 miles of voyaging and a return to the western hemisphere, but we were still a long way from Vancouver, our home in Canada.
About 20 miles out, I sighted the volcanic bulk of Saint Helena. Charles Darwin wrote: “Saint Helena rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean.” Closer to the coast, we spotted stone fortifications built into the cliff faces, reinforcing the impression that we had fallen through the centuries and were approaching a mid-ocean fortress.
“Wednesday, May 1st 1771. At 6 A.M. saw the Island of St. Helena bearing West, distant 8 or 9 Leagues. At Noon Anchor’d in the Road, before James’s Fort, in 24 fathoms water. Found riding here His Majesty’s Ship Portland and Swallow Sloop, and 12 Sail of Indiaman. At our first seeing the Fleet in this Road we took it for granted that it was a War; but in this we were soon agreeably deceived.”
Five centuries of seafaring
For over 500 years, the only way to reach the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena has been by the sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some 1,000 ships a year called. Travelling here, we followed not just in the wake of Captain Cook but those of Dampier, Bligh, Napoleon,