"Time and tide waits for no man" - not even the Endeavour, and just before 2pm on Monday 19 May 1997 the swing bridge across Whitby's narrow harbour opened to release the town's most prized visitor for 200 years or more. As high tide approached, the ship backed out of her mooring at Endeavour Wharf and threaded her way down the harbour to the distant piers and the open sea.
The grey cold mist lifted high enough to clear the cliffs and revealed St Mary's Church flying the Australian flag from the top of her tower, whilst down its side hung a large sign bidding the ship "God Speed".
Apart from the occasional blast from the ship's cannon, which sent the seagulls wheeling into the air noisily protesting at their disturbance, there was silence on the deck as the ship proceeded down the harbour. In contrast to this silence a cacophony of noise greeted the ship from either side of the harbour. Along quaysides, up the famous "steps" and along the clifftops, every vantage spot was taken with people waving, clapping and cheering. On the water the ship found itself in the midst of a procession of small boats escorting it out to sea.
Once beyond the harbour mouth the ship headed north, making its way up the coast for its anchorage overnight in Runswick Bay, a mere 6 miles away. Now it found itself at the head of an assorted flotilla of boats of all shapes and sizes, although as we moved further north, first the smaller ones and then the larger ones gave up the chase, signalling their goodbye with a wave or a toot of their horn, before returning to Whitby.
We were less than 2 miles off-shore and the bow lookouts were kept busy spotting the buoys which marked the fishermen's lobster pots. Soon, enthusiastic landsmen's cries of "There's a red one over there" were honed into the more professional " Red buoy, 50 yards off the starboard bow".
In addition to the four passengers booked onto this trip, Endeavour left port with a party of 5 soberly dressed civilians, one of whom kept a small cardboard box clutched close to his chest. At first they were thought to be a group of civic dignitaries, but word got around that they were actually a funeral party, and "box-man" was the undertaker looking after an ashes-laden casket. They had disappeared from the deck after a while, driven below by the biting cold and damp conditions I had surmised. In fact they had retired to the Great Cabin where a private service had been conducted before the ashes were scattered from the open window of the transom into the North Sea. I wondered if this counted as the replica Endeavour's first burial at sea?
Reg Firth, curator of the Staithes Museum and a member of the CCSU, also accompanied the ship to Runswick Bay as a guest of the captain. He was looking forward to the ship's cannon saluting Staithes the next morning as it sailed past on its route north. But he and the rest of the village were to be disappointed as the mist refused to lift the next day and the Endeavour slid past unseen and unheard.
What little wind there was came from the north-east, so we continued north under diesel power.
By lunchtime we had passed the highest cliffs in England, their 600ft tops well hidden in the low ceiling of mist, and off the port bow lay the coastal plain around the mouth of the River Tees. With finer weather we would have seen the tower of St Germain's Church at Marske where Cook's father was buried, but it was not to be. A little further along and we could make out the promenade at Redcar, the town where Cook's father had lived with his daughter and fisherman son-in-law. But nobody knew we were passing by and the cold conditions left the prom deserted and the cannon unfired.
The afternoon passed in similar isolation with only an occasional boat spotting us and coming for a closer look before continuing on its way. By late afternoon we were approaching the mouth of the Tyne and the mist was thinning, blown away as the north-easterly wind picked up in strength. Captain Chris Blake called the crew together and announced that he had obtained permission for the ship to anchor overnight in the Tyne sheltered from the swell of the sea by the piers at the river mouth. But first the wind provided an opportunity for some sailing.
For the first time the crew were able to unfurl the canvas and there was some modest cheering as with the sails raised and the engine switched off the Captain announced over the tannoy "Gentlemen, we are now sailing". It was over 24 hours since we had left Whitby, but it was worth the wait to see the ship under sail and noiselessly gliding through the water. She must have looked an impressive sight as she sailed between the piers at the mouth of the Tyne.
The ship's course took her towards the south of the short estuary, and the sails were taken in to reduce the ship's speed. "Let go anchor" called the captain, and it disappeared with a splash from the port bow. The 2nd Mate stood at the bow watching the anchor rope pay out, waiting for the first sign of the anchor biting. But the rope never tightened and as the forward momentum of the ship took her steadily closer to the rocks along the base of the pier all eyes turned to the captain for our next move.
We expected to feel the deck shuddering under our feet as the engines were started and thrown into reverse to power us away from the rocks. But no such feeling came, in its place came a whisper that shivered a few timbers - the anchor rope was snagging the prop! So not only had we no anchor, we now had no power to counter the ship's forward movement and the north-easterly that was blowing us nearer and nearer the rocky shore!
I can't claim that "my life passed before me", there was no feeling that our lives were in danger, but I remember feeling sad that the voyage would be such a short one and the only way I'd get to Leith that week would be by train.
There seemed to be a brief lull whilst our predicament sunk in to everybody, and then the lull was over, the captain had worked out his next move and was barking orders to all and sundry saying what was to be done to save the £8m replica. A spare anchor rope was dragged out of the locker on the foredeck and willing hands ran with it down to the stern of the boat where one end was tied to the ship's bollards whilst the other was thrown over the side and taken on board the harbourmaster's launch, which had been standing by watching our predicament. Fortunately, this launch was man enough for the job and powerful enough to drag us away from the rocks and back into the main channel.
Our immediate danger was over, but the predicament was still to be resolved. By now one of the permanent crew was in a wetsuit and went overboard to explore how badly the rope had snagged the propeller. He only had a snorkel and wasn't under the boat long before he returned almost frozen by the cold water. He had followed the rope and found it wedged into the "A" frame holding the propeller, he'd tried to pull it out but it was too firmly stuck.
By the time he came out of the water another crew member was in a diving suit and a generator was pulled onto the deck to provide him with a supply of compressed air. The air line enabled him to stay longer under the boat and tackle the problem, but he had no success in freeing the rope and came back on board to report how he'd narrowly missed serious injury after the boat had been lifted by a swell and came down on his back!
By now the Endeavour had attracted quite an audience on shore as news of her near disaster spread. On the water there was a bevy of boats standing off waiting to be of assistance, although a rusting fishing boat that circled us from a distance may have been working out what we were worth in salvage.
Well, if we couldn't free the small anchor there was only one thing to do, we'd have to use one of the enormous storm anchors that seemed to be a permanent fixture either side of the ship's bow. The anchors were so heavy that a special tackle was needed to lift them and two crew members carried a large pulley up the rigging and fixed it to the foremast. A rope went up and over the pulley and down to the flukes of the starboard anchor. As there was so little space on the foredeck for the crew to pull on this rope a ratchet device was used. Slowly this mechanical device cranked away but the anchor was too heavy and refused to budge, a few more cranks then suddenly there was a crack and a bang and the pulley shot down from 20 ft up the foremast and plummeted into the deck leaving its impression in the wooden planking.
Fortunately the pulley had missed everybody standing on the foredeck, as its size and speed of descent could easily have resulted in a fatality. This was not turning out to be the leisurely sail that we had all expected.
For several hours the harbour master's launch churned away in reverse keeping us away from the rocks. Eventually a team of professional divers appeared on deck and shortly afterwards everybody breathed a sigh of relief as news spread that the divers had managed to free the rope and we had a secure anchorage for the night.
After a good night's sleep we awoke on Wednesday to find the ship pitching and tossing at anchor. The wind had picked up in the night and those rollers managing to pass through the harbour mouth were making themselves felt in the estuary where the Endeavour lay. Some of us felt that there was a jinx about the river and were eager to get away and back into the open sea. About 7am the winch was switched on to haul up the anchor, soon we would be on our way. But our hopes were dashed when the last 4m of rope couldn't be winched aboard, the anchor had snagged on something, the river was doing its best to keep us.
We were snagged on a "cats cradle" of rusting steel cables that had probably been dumped overboard by a trawler. The only way to get free was to cut through the cables but that wasn't possible in the heavy swell of the estuary. So the Capt. ordered the ship to power its way upriver for half a mile or so. There, the water was calm enough for the ship's carpenter to climb down onto the deck of the harbour master's launch and use an angle grinder to cut away the cables caught on the flukes of the anchor.
Finally the Endeavour was free to continue its journey north to Edinburgh and we left the river with two parting salvos as if to celebrate our escape from the Tyne.
The rest of the voyage passed without incident and we were even able to get in some real sailing before entering the dock gates at Leith on Friday afternoon. In stark contrast to Whitby, the ship's arrival was witnessed by a mere handful of people, most of whom were passers by who had stopped to watch.
After 5 days at sea it felt strange to be back on dry land, and stranger still to experience the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh after the isolation of the Endeavour. But the speed of modern life was emphasised by the British Rail express train which took me back home, achieving in 3 hours the distance that it had taken a week to sail!
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1434, volume 20, number 4 (1997).
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