The Book that Got Me Hooked on Captain Cook
In 1768, Captain James Cook set sail aboard the 97-ft bark Endeavour, bound for the South Pacific. King George III dispatched the ship from Plymouth, England, at the behest of a group of scientists intent on observing a rare astronomical event: the transit of Venus across the sun, which would help astronomers map the solar system. Cook and the Endeavour would go on to circumnavigate the planet, but in my childhood of sailing, I learned nothing about this most famous of mariners, whose charts were so accurate that many of them were in use through the 1990s. Cook was no more real to me than captains Crunch, Sparrow or Picard.
In the early 2000s, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Tony Horwitz became interested in — one might even say obsessed with — Cook. He likened the famed English sailor to another well-regarded ship’s commander: Captain James Kirk of the starship Enterprise. “Growing up in a decade when even the moon had been conquered, I never ceased to feel a thrill at [Star Trek’s] opening words, ‘. . . to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations . . .’” Horwitz went on to follow in Cook’s footsteps, retracing his three epic voyages across the planet, traveling to remote islands, and eventually penning the best-selling book Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before.
In early March, I stumbled into a bookstore looking for Blue Latitudes (which was recommended by L38 reader Robert Fairbank, co-owner of the South Beach Yacht Club-based custom Schumacher 30 Double Down). My flight to New Zealand left the next day, and I sought a book that illuminated at least a little history of where I was going. I grabbed the last copy on the shelf, and without really trying, ended up accidentally following in the footsteps of a man who was following in the footsteps of a man.
Like Horwitz, I was a tourist jumping onto planes, frequenting bars (before NZ went on lockdown), and traveling in a modern world that, with some notable exceptions, had long forgotten about the ‘greatness’ of Cook. Or rather, rightfully acknowledged the greatness of those who came before him. (New Zealand is rife with memorials and references to Cook.) Unlike Horwitz, I was not on a serious journalistic quest (and I would not dare to compare myself to him), nor did I have any particular affinity for the English captain — though I am a huge fan of Star Trek. Given my exhaustive research (by which I mean that I have, thus far, read exactly half of Blue Latitudes), it seems that Cook has named more places on the Earth than any other human being before or after him.
Accompanied by his hard-drinking, chain-smoking Australian friend (and sailor) Roger, Tony Horwitz unearthed the narrative of Cook’s voyages, and satisfied his own curiosity. “I wondered what these places were like today . . . [and] if any trace of Cook’s boot prints remained.”
Horwitz found a world that had overwhelmingly rejected both Cook’s legacy and the notion that the explorer had “discovered” lands that had been inhabited for centuries, and “conquered” an ocean that had been mastered by indigenous navigators long before the English set sail.
I made landfall in New Zealand in early March, and set out on an exploration of the bus system, followed by a serious investigation into the local brews. I attempted first contact with the locals: asking for the ‘restroom’ drew bewildered looks, but asking for the ‘toilet’ bore results. Further adjusting to the Kiwi dialect, and their figurative driving of vowels on the other side of the road, I learned that the letter ‘I’ was often replaced with ‘U’ (“fish and chips” is pronounced “fush and chups”).
Captain Cook and the Endeavour made landfall in New Zealand in 1769, and the Endeavour remained for nearly six months. “Most of the trip was devoted to charting the coastline of the country, some 2,400 miles in all, often in high seas and stormy weather,” Horwitz wrote.
I have been charting a course through New Zealand’s lockdown protocols, which has given me ample time to read Blue Latitudes, drink local Sauvignon Blanc, and continue to follow in the footsteps of the footsteps, if only (or mostly) through the written word.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Book that Got Me Hooked on Cook, coming soon.
i love tales of seagoing prowess simply because man needs to be at sea to fully realize the Earth as a wet planet. Magellan, Cook, Bligh, Moitessier, all ring true to a soul that has experienced the blue.
But few ever mention or think about the fact that the Chinese were navigating with the stars to far away places, making detailed maps, developing the mercator and meridians, using compasses, had rudders, centerboards, fore and aft sails since at least 200 A.D..
I’ve been to China at least a hundred times over the last twenty five years, and lived and worked there. Above all, the people I worked with were often sailors and sail makers, often part of long established families doing the same. And further to that, they often were cautiously suspicious of the intent of their ‘government’, saying there was order, but no law, a bit intimidated by anything ‘official’, often keeping huge amounts of cash in simple gym lockers because they knew the banks were not a safe place.
We need to find a balance in our thinking and expand our knowledge of the many other kinds of knowledge that was in China and unknown to the rest of the world simply because of our odd prejudices.
Humanity is the answer and freedom is the solution.
Sailing is sunshine, fresh air, exercise, and mind wash. Expand it, don’t let fear crush it.
If anyone is interested in a great study, try ‘The Genius of China, 3000 years of science, discovery, and invention’ by Robert Temple.
You may be amazed.
Totally agree about Blue Latitudes. I found myself marveling at the audaciousness of the voyages, along with Cook’s very odd relationship with his wife and children. Fascinating guy, and a great read.
May I also recommend “Shadow Divers” which isn’t about sailing, but is about high-stakes recreational diving and exploring, and “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea” which is about the search for a sunken ship during the Gold Rush. Both are similarly excellent. Oh, and “Longitude”, about the development of accurate clocks for the determination of longitude.
Another good book is by Marty Dugard called the Transit of Venus. He has some interesting thoughts on what drove Cook.
So glad Tim is discovering Cook’s brilliance–I would say Europe’s (and arguably the world’s) greatest seaman, navigator, cartographer and explorer. Not well-known in America but revered in Australia and NZ. His tragic death in Hawaii ended what may have been even greater discoveries. Imagine sailing and charting all the lands he discovered( for Europeans, for better or worse) with NO ENGINE nor any modern electronic convenience, with a square-rigged 100 foot ship. Incredible achievement…
Mahalo, Barry, I’ll have to look into the book on China..
actually, it’s been so long since i have been to China, the twenty five years was between1980 and 2005, a period where they were experiencing what seemed sort of like the Gold Rush years in our country. It was quite wild to see eight lane freeways, with overpasses and exits and even gardened hillsides just ‘appear’ in six months time, seemingly built by folks with hand tools and wheelbarrows. Thirty story office towers grew inside bamboo scaffolding, the workers living on the floors as they were constructed. our loft space was a million square feet on five floors with 2500 workers who lived on premises. the outside world had not much to offer them since the wages in were ten times what was on the outside. and the food was pretty darn good too.
China felt like a steam roller was coming to take us down simply from industriousness.
check out that book. far more than can be easily related. for me, it is about the junk rig and sailing, but that is lost in the rest.
This year will be the 250th anniversary of discovery of the East Coast of Australia, in a later voyage he went on to search for the NW passage from the Pacific the first to do so, discovering quite a bit of the Pacific North West. He was the first to sail with Chronometer and finally answered in the negative, the great European belief of the “Great Southern Land” also sailed into the ice of the Antarctic. He was also very lucky in sailing thru the Torres Straight, Yes he did much. Us Aussies & NZers value him, much like an ancestor. There is a statue of him in Anchorage, where he anchored first to do so.
Year before I went to Cooktown to see the Museum in his honor, its in Queensland Aus, last year I visited another museum in Whitby UK also in his honor, 18 years ago I visited the Marker of his death place where he was murdered in Hawaii, pushing a lot of cow s**t to the side to do so. Yes a Great man. Never forgotten.
That’s a great book, and I’m a huge fan of Cook. Suggest having a look at “The Trial of the Cannibal Dog”, a very scholarly book about Cook’s three voyages, written by a Kiwi. I found it remarkably insightful. Motuarohia, or Robertson’s Island, was Cook’s first anchorage in the Bay of Islands. I often reflect on that when anchored there.
Cook was a great man.
I was first inspired by Cook in a chapter of Shoal of Time, a history of the Hawaiian Islands by Gavin Daws and more recently, a recounting of Captain Bligh’s skills as a navigator in Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare, by John Toohey.
Tony Horwitz was a literary alchemist, observing what to me seemed the commonplace, but through his pen turning it into something quite magical to read. His sudden death was a tragic loss for his family, and the literary world. How many great books lay unwritten in his pen……