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Introduction

 
Charles Clerke had every reason to abort the voyage and sail for home. He knew he was dying of consumption, and everyone on both ships realized he could not survive another Arctic probe. The ships themselves were scarcely seaworthy. Yet the option of turning back was never discussed. It was as though the officers and sailors had put the death of Cook behind them as an event without meaning. To a man the shattered mariners rallied to Clerke's leadership. Drained by sudden grief, their private thoughts melancholy with intrusive memories of arguments and quarrels left unresolved, they found relief in the unremitting labor of keeping the ships afloat. The mariners were tasting failure. As the days unravelled in Clerke's foreshortened tenure as commander, he wrote prolifically of shipboard events, but he could scarcely bring himself to write the name Cook. Nor did James King for weeks to come. By excluding the name they would deny the tragedy.
How shall we account for this unity of purpose among those officers and sailors? The surface answer is that their fallen leader had planned a second search for the northwest passage, this time with the intention of crossing the Bering Strait earlier in the season, and that no one doubted the course that must be followed. Unspoken devotion was reason enough. The voyage would go on. But possibly they were united also by some other impulse deep within the human spirit, some primeval urge, or magic even, that lay beyond the rational. Just as the high southern latitudes had cast a spell on the second voyage, so did the Arctic seas on the third. Some strange magnetism from the northern ice drew those mariners toward that improbable goal, toward that beckoning mirage made cruel by the prospect of fresh failure and impending tragedy--yet the illusion yielded benefits that reach to our day.

Mystery was commingled with devotion and duty when the helmsmen aboard Resolution and Discovery, on March 31, 1779, swung the bowsprits toward the Pole Star.

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