History / 13 June post from Lieutenant James Cook’s Journal 250 years ago


Our appreciation to Pam Willis Burden, Gail Cockburn and Douglas Shire Historical Society for sharing this content with us daily.

“Wednesday, 13th. In the P.M. had light Airs at East-South-East, with which we keept edging in for the Land. Got up the Maintopmast and Mainyard, and having got the Sail ready for fothering of the Ship, we put it over under the Starboard Fore Chains, where we suspected the Ship had suffer’d most, and soon after the Leak decreased, so as to be kept clear with one Pump with ease; this fortunate circumstance gave new life to everyone on board.

It is much easier to conceive than to describe the satisfaction felt by everybody on this occasion. But a few minutes before our utmost Wishes were to get hold of some place upon the Main, or an island, to run the Ship ashore, where out of her Materials we might build a Vessel to carry us to the East Indies; no sooner were we made sencible that the outward application to the Ship’s bottom had taken effect, than the field of every Man’s hopes inlarged, so that we thought of nothing but ranging along Shore in search of a Harbour, when we could repair the Damages we had sustained.

[The foregoing paragraph is from the Admiralty copy.

The situation was indeed sufficiently awkward.

When it is considered that the coast was wholly unknown, the natives decidedly hostile, the land unproductive of any means of subsistence, and the distance to the nearest Dutch settlements, even if a passage should be found south of New Guinea, 1500 miles, there was ample cause for apprehension if they could not save the ship. Knowing what we now know, that all off this coast is a continuous line of reefs and shoals, Cook’s action in standing off might seem rash. But he knew nothing of this. There was a moon; he reduced sail to double reefed topsails with a light wind, as the log tells us, and with the cumbrous hempen cables of the day, and the imperfect means of heaving up the anchor, he was desirous of saving his men unnecessary labour. Cook was puzzled that the next tide did not, after lightening the ship, take him off; but it is now known that on this coast it is only every alternate tide that rises to a full height, and as he got ashore nearly at the top of the higher of the two waters he had to wait twenty-four hours until he got a similar rise. Lucky was it for them that the wind was light.

Usually at this season the trade wind is strong, and raises a considerable sea, even inside the Barrier. Hawkesworth or Banks makes the proposition to fother the ship emanate from Mr. Monkhouse; but it is scarcely to be supposed that such a perfect seaman as Cook was not familiar with this operation, and he merely says that as Mr. Monkhouse had seen it done, he confided to him the superintendence of it, as of course the Captain had at such a time many other things to do than stand over the men preparing the sail. In 1886 the people of Cooktown were anxious to recover the brass guns of the Endeavour which were thrown overboard, in order to place them as a memento in their town; but they could not be found, which is not altogether surprising.]

In justice to the Ship’s Company, I must say that no men ever behaved better than they have done on this occasion; animated by the behaviour of every Gentleman on board, every man seem’d to have a just sence of the Danger we were in, and exerted himself to the very utmost.

The Ledge of Rocks, or Shoal, we have been upon, lies in the Latitude of 15 degrees 45 minutes, and about 6 or 7 Leagues from the Main land; but this is not the only Shoal that lay upon this part of the Coast, especially to the Northward, and one which we saw to the Southward, the tail of which we passed over when we had the uneven Soundings 2 hours before we Struck.

A part of this Shoal is always above Water, and looks to be white Sand; part of the one we were upon was dry at low Water, and in that place consists of Sand and stones, but every where else Coral Rocks. At 6 we Anchored in 17 fathoms, about 5 or 6 Leagues from the land, and one from the Shoal.

At this time the Ship made about 15 Inches Water per hour. At 6 a.m. weigh’d and stood to the North-West, edging in for the land, having a Gentle breeze at South-South-East. At 9 we past close without 2 small low Islands, laying in the Latitude of 15 degrees 41 minutes, and about 4 Leagues from the Main; I have named them Hope Islands, because we were always in hopes of being able to reach these Islands.

At Noon The Leak now decreaseth, but for fear it should break out again we got the Sail ready fill’d for fothering; the manner this is done is thus: We Mix Oacham and Wool together (but Oacham alone would do), and chop it up Small, and then stick it loosely by handfulls all over the Sail, and throw over it Sheep dung or other filth.

Horse Dung for this purpose is the best. The Sail thus prepared is hauld under the Ship’s bottom by ropes, and if the place of the Leak is uncertain, it must be hauld from one part of her bottom to another until one finds the place where it takes effect. While the Sail is under the Ship the Oacham, etc., is washed off, and part of it carried along with the water into the Leak, and in part stops up the hole.

Mr. Monkhouse, one of my Midshipmen, was once in a Merchant Ship which Sprung a Leak, and made 48 Inches Water per hour; but by this means was brought home from Virginia to London with only her proper crew; to him I gave the direction of this, who executed it very much to my satisfaction.

Cook is still keeping ship’s time, the day beginning at 12 noon and ending at 12 midnight.

At sea, a league is 3.45 miles or 5.5 kms

 Oakam is tar-filled rope fibre

 Banks’ Journal

12. The people who had been 24 hours at exceeding hard work now began to flag; myself unusd to labour was much fatigued and had laid down to take a little rest, was awakd about 12 with the alarming news of the ships having gaind so much upon the Pumps that she had four feet water in her hold: add to this that the wind blew of the land a regular land breeze so that all hopes of running her ashore were totaly cut off. This however acted upon every body like a charm: rest was no more thought of but the pumps went with unwearied vigour till the water was all out which was done in a much shorter time than was expected, and upon examination it was found that she never had half so much water in her as was thought, the Carpenter having made a mistake in sounding the pumps.

We now began again to have some hopes and to talk of getting the ship into some harbour as we could spare hands from the pumps to get up our anchors; one Bower however we cut away but got the other and three small anchors far more valuable to us than the Bowers, as we were obligd immediately to warp her to windward that we might take advantage of the sea breeze to run in shore.

One of our midshipmen now proposd an expedient which no one else in the ship had seen practisd, tho all had heard of it by the name of fothering a ship, by the means of which he said he had come home from America in a ship which made more water than we did; nay so sure was the master of that ship of his expedient that he took her out of harbour knowing how much water she made and trusting intirely to it. He was immediately set to work with 4 or 5 assistants to prepare his fother which he did thus. He took a lower studding sail and having mixd together a large quantity of Oakum chopd fine and wool he stickd it down upon the sail as loosely as possible in small bundles each about as big as his fist, these were rangd in rows 3 or 4 inches from each other: this was to be sunk under the ship and the theory of it was this, where ever the leak was must be a great suction which would probably catch hold of one or other of these lumps of Oakum and wool and drawing it in either partly or intirely stop up the hole.

While this work was going on the water rather gaind on those who were pumping which made all hands impatient for the tryal. In the afternoon the ship was got under way with a gentle breeze of wind and stood in for the land; soon after the fother was finishd and applyd by fastning ropes to each Corner, then sinking the sail under the ship and with these ropes drawing it as far backwards as we could; in about an hour to our great surprize the ship was pumpd dry and upon letting the pumps stand she was found to make very little water, so much beyond our most sanguine Expectations had this singular expedient succeeded. At night came to an anchor, the fother still keeping her almost clear so that we were in an instant raisd from almost despondency to the greatest hopes: we were now almost too sanguine talking of nothing but getting her into some harbour where we might lay her ashore and repair her, or if we could not find such a place we little doubted to the East indies.

During the whole time of this distress I must say for the credit of our people that I beleive every man exerted his utmost for the preservation of the ship, contrary to what I have universaly heard to be the behavior of sea men who have commonly as soon as a ship is in a desperate situation began to plunder and refuse all command. This was no doubt owing intirely to the cool and steady conduct of the officers, who during the whole time never gave an order which did not shew them to be perfectly composd and unmovd by the circumstances howsoever dreadfull they might appear.

‘Endeavour’ by Peter Aughton

The Endeavour’s lower studding sail was taken on deck and prepared by sewing into it tufts of oakum and wool. Each tuft was about the size of a fist and arranged in rows a few inches apart. Ideally sheep and horse dung would be thrown over the sail but the ships goat and the greyhound gladly supplied a substitute. The fothering sail then had to be worked around and under the ship near the starboard fore chains where the hull was damaged. The theory was that the pressure of the water entering the leak would cause the oakum to flow into the hole and plug it.

“Into the Blue” by Tony Horwitz

Cook set his sights on two barren sandbars naming them Hope ‘because we were always in hopes of being able to reach these islands.” Unable to do so, he pinned his hopes instead on a harbour he named Weary Bay. But the bay was too shallow. At sunset men in the pinnace found a river mouth deep enough to bring the ship in. but the weather turned so wet and blowy that the badly damaged ship ‘would not work’ Cook wrote. Finally on June 18, a full week after striking the reef Cook sailed into the narrow river.


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