As the Endeavour famously made its way up Australia’s east coast in 1770, there was a moment when the success of Cook’s voyage hinged on a pile of animal dung, some wool fibre and a coil of old rope. The incident took place shortly after passing Cape Tribulation, so named by Cook because that was where his troubles started.
Late in the evening of 10 June the Endeavour struck a submerged coral reef and stuck fast. Cook was about to discover he had stumbled into a dangerous labyrinth of reefs and shoals pinching in close to the Australian mainland.
After ditching many tons of stores over the side, including six of his cannons, they eventually hauled the barque into deep water at high tide the following night. But not before the hull had succumbed to the sharp coral and began taking on water. All three working bilge pumps were manned non-stop just to prevent the Endeavour from sinking. A suitable place to beach the stricken vessel had to be found fast. But at this point there was no guarantee they would reach safety before the ship foundered.
Then, a young midshipman, Jonathan Monkhouse, suggested fothering as a means of plugging the leak and buying them some time. He had seen it done with great effect on a ship he had once served on. With nothing to lose, Cook set him to work aided by as many men as he could spare from other duties.
Monkhouse took a spare canvas sail and spread it out on deck. He gathered up a large quantity of oakum and wool and had his assistants chop it up finely. The short fibres were mixed together with dung from the animals kept on board, to form fist-sized sticky balls of odorous matting. These were stuck on to the sail six to eight centimetres apart until a sizeable portion of the canvas had been covered.
The sail was then lowered over the side of the ship forward of the hole in the hull, and then drawn back along the side. As the fother – the particles of oakum and wool – were sucked in through the rents in the hull they caught on the edges, and in a short time formed a seal slowing the in-flow of water.
“In about half an hour, to our great surprise, the ship was pumped 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.” – Joseph Banks.
The Endeavour was out of immediate danger for the first time since striking the reef which had so nearly ended the voyage. It was now taking on less than half a metre of water per hour and was easily managed with just a single bilge pump.
They sailed a little further up the coast until they reached what is now named Endeavour River. There Cook found a suitable place and, after several days delay waiting for safe conditions to enter the river mouth, he ran the barque onto the beach to examine the damage.
“At 2 AM [on 23 June] the tide left her, which gave us an opportunity to examine the leak, … the rocks had made their way thro’ 4 planks, quite to, and even into the timbers, and wounded 3 more. The manner these planks were damaged – or cut out, as I may say – is hardly credible; scarce a splinter was to be seen, but the whole was cut away as if it had been done by the hands of man with a blunt-edged tool.” – Lt James Cook.
Cook and the others, with the aid of lanterns, also found a fist-sized lump of coral lodged in the hull along with pieces of matted wool and oakum which so successfully stemmed the leak.
During low tide the next day the carpenters began replacing the damaged planks and the armourers got to work fashioning bolts and nails to secure the new timbers in place. In all they spent six weeks there making repairs and re-provisioning. They also made the acquaintance of the local Aboriginal people but that is a story for another time.
With the hull repaired, Cook put to sea on 4 August and gingerly made his way north. But it would be several more days of intricate and nerve-wracking sailing before he escaped the dangerous labyrinth of coral shoals surrounding him.
The full story of the Endeavour’s stranding on the Great Barrier Reef is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters.
© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.
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