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In June 1770, the HMB Endeavour continued its passage northwards along the east coast of Australia, near what is now called far north Queensland.

Although the decision to sail at night in such waters was uncommon, it was not unheard of during the Endeavour voyage. On 11 June, Cook records in his journal that ‘having the advantage of a fine breeze of wind and a clear moonlight night’ he decided to keep sailing.

Captain James Cook was aware that there were coral reefs in those waters. He also knew of their potential to tear through the hull of a ship like the Endeavour. With men assigned the task of looking out for any hazards and others ‘at the lead’ (consistently testing the depth of the ocean floor), however, they sailed into what seemed to be deeper waters.

But at about 11pm, the ship came to a sudden and dramatic halt. As Cook described it, ‘the Ship Struck and stuck fast.’

The sound of timber cracking and splitting could be heard by the crew, and shortly afterwards loose planks from the hull could be seen floating beside the vessel. Water soon began to slowly leak into the ship.

The Endeavour, without so much as a hint of a warning, had struck a coral outcrop of the Great Barrier Reef. Worse still, it had become wedged on the coral. In some places around it the ship was in less than 7 metres of water, while in other places the water was only about 1 metre deep.

Far from home and far from land, and without enough space in the ship’s smaller boats (the yawl, pinnace and longboat) to carry all men to safety, the situation appeared dire.

Many hands …

By all accounts, the men immediately focused on the task at hand. Botanist Joseph Banks noted that ‘no grumbling or growling was to be heard throughout the ship, no not even an oath.

The extent of the damage to the ship’s hull was still unknown. The yawl, pinnace and longboat were launched to assess the damage and, critically, to drop the anchors in suitable positions. The correct placement of these anchors, it was reasoned, would allow the men to help pull the ship free from the reef with the help of the capstan and windlass (winches).

But manpower alone would not be enough. If the ship was to be freed, it needed to be lightened significantly. Water casks, cannon balls, ballast stones, firewood, oil jars and decayed food were jettisoned. Six of the ship’s cannon, each weighing half a tonne, were discarded – they were not retrieved until 1969, some 200 years later. The sails were taken in and tops of the mast were also carefully dismantled, requiring hours of urgent and incredibly physically demanding work.

Cannon from HMB Endeavour, thrown overboard on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 and salvaged in 1969.   Courtesy of the National Museum of Australia
Cannon from HMB Endeavour, thrown overboard on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 and salvaged in 1969.
Courtesy of the National Museum of Australia

The first attempt

When the much-anticipated high tide finally arrived at about 10am, the crew worked furiously to free the ship, knowing that it was perhaps their best chance to do so. But, some 12 hours after the ordeal began, their efforts to free the ship were frustratingly to no avail. The vessel was still too heavy, even though they had thrown overboard more than 40 tonnes of weight. It would barely budge.

As tide fell the ship started taking on more water and when the tide rose again the leak increased. With just three of the four water pumps working, the men took turns to keep pumping, including gentlemen like Banks and Dr Daniel Solander, who were ‘unusd to labour’.

Risk all and heave her off

As the next high tide approached at about 9pm, the decision to again push to dislodge the vessel was made by Cook.

Joseph Banks later captured this moment in his journal, noting that ‘The dreadfull time now aproachd and the anziety in every bodys countenance was visible enough … fear of Death now stard us in the face.’ Earlier, believing the ship would sink, Banks had packed his possessions and ‘prepard [himself] for the worst.’

With the tide now at its highest point, the Endeavour crew worked the capstan and the windlass to winch the ship towards the anchors, and free from the reef.

After 10pm, the Endeavour was floated.

The 23-hour effort to free the vessel from the reef had succeeded, but the ship was not free of its ordeal yet. The water that had leaked into the hull was more than a metre deep. Safe harbour would need to be found, and as quickly as possible.

A makeshift bandage

The exact extent of the damage to the hull remained unknown. The inflow of water was manageable so long as the pumps continued to be manned.

The leak was reduced further, however, by the using an ingenious technique known as ‘fothering’. This involved using one of the ship’s sails to temporarily plug the gap in the hull from the outside.

Midshipman Jonathan Monkhouse, brother of the ship’s surgeon, had previously seen the technique used while sailing from Virginia to London in a leaking merchant vessel. Having never used the technique himself, Cook trusted Monkhouse to coordinate its execution.

Pieces of old rope (oakum) and wool were mixed with sheep droppings, while the sail was laid out across the main deck. The mixture was then applied across the surface of the sail, before a rope was used to haul it over the edge of the Endeavour, into the sea below, and dragged towards the gap. The pressure of the leak then pulled the makeshift bandage into place, reducing the inflow of water so that working just one pump was enough to keep up with the water seeping in.

Cook was grateful for Monkhouse’s efforts, and wrote that he ‘exicuted it [the fothering] very much to my satisfaction’. Indeed, Cook’s praise for the efforts of all his crew throughout the ordeal was clear:

‘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.’

Banks, in his assessment, echoed this praise:

‘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.’

The lucky clump of coral

But it took more than the efforts of the more than 90 people aboard to prevent the vessel from sinking.

It also took a degree of luck.

The Endeavour found safe harbour and was beached at Waalumbal Birri (Endeavour River) on 17 June, almost a week after striking the reef. Once the ship’s remaining stores had been unloaded, which took five days, the damage could be properly assessed. Lying pitched to one side, the true extent of their luck was now clearly visible.

A clump of coral, about the size of a man’s closed fist, was found tightly lodged in the hull. The coral, despite causing damage to the hull, had acted as a plug, along with several pieces of the fothering mixture. If the lump of coral had come loose, the leak may have become unmanageable.

On 22 June, Cook records that the carpenter, went to work repairing the ship while the smiths became busy making bolts and nails.

The Endeavour eventually recommenced its journey and returned to Britain in 1771. But on that night in June, and the many hours and days that followed, it had come perilously close to disaster.

Today, the reef that was struck remains known as Endeavour Reef.