Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ships: Voyage Of Discovery

As you are well aware, Brethren, I live in the Great Land: Alaska. Ask anybody who has been here, even for a short visit; it is a breathtaking place and one that you wish you could see more of once you've seen any at all. We have a well deserved nautical history up here too. Considering that our coastline is larger than that of the contiguous U.S. that should not surprise. From native Alaskans to Russians, British, Spanish and Americans, ships have been the way in and out of this place for centuries.

Today's ship was one tasked with not only exploring the coastline and getting a handle on the Spanish presence in the area, but also with trying to discover that all important and unfortunately mythical Northwest Passage. In the late 1780s a collier being built by Randall and Brent was bought into the service by the British Admiralty. She was three masted and ship rigged, of approximately 330 ton. Her dimensions were 96 feet in length, 28 feet at the beam and a deep draft of over 12 feet. The intended coal ship, once refit, could carry a compliment of 100 men. She was named HMS Discovery, after the ship that Captain James Cook last sailed, and command of her was given to George Vancouver:
Vancouver had served under the great Cook and he had a similar attitude toward command and discovery: men, ship and the people and places of New World were of equal importance and should always be treated with civility and respect if at all possible. Vancouver was also a consummate sailor. Shipping with him would have been as much of a delight as a cruise around the world could possibly be.

The timeline of Vancouver's expedition shows his seaworthiness, and that of his ships. Discovery was joined by HMS Chatham, a smaller vessel commanded by Lieutenant Peter Puget (whose euphonious name later lent itself to Puget Sound in what is now Washington State). The ships left Falmouth, England April 1, 1792 and had rounded the Cape and made Australia by September 28th of that year. This included stops for provisioning so the swiftness of Vancouver's cruise is obvious. By November 2nd, Discovery and Chatham were in New Zealand.

In March of 1792, the two ships made the Sandwich Islands, which are now Hawai'i, and began the discourse that was part of Vancouver's mission as well. After the unfortunate series of misunderstandings that led to the death of Captain Cook, the British wanted very much to convince the Hawai'ians to come "under our protection." Vancouver planted this seed with King Kamehameha and then Discovery and Chatham headed out for the California coast. They made Cape Cabrillo, north of San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) on April 17th.

From here, the two ships began north along the coast. They ran into an American fur trading ship, Columbia Rediviva, and spoke each other pleasantly south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Proceeding further north, Chatham, who had a much more shallow draft than Discovery, would sometimes part company and search inlets and estuaries, taking soundings as she did. They mapped much of the Canadian coastline this way. In November they encountered two Spanish ships - Mexicana and the brig Sutil - who were engaged in exactly the same kind of fact finding mission that the British were undertaking. The ships' companies behaved civilly to one another. There after the British turned south again to avoid the winter ice.

Later in November, with Chatham charting the Columbia river, Discovery became the first ship not of Spanish origin to enter the bay at Yerba Buena. Once he had again made contact with Chatham, Vancouver turned the two ships back to Hawai'i where he was successful in convincing the King that British protection was his best bet. Kamehameha accepted the British offer in February, 1793.

From here, Vancouver took his ships north once again. Discovery and Chatham arrived in Nootka Sound in May. They surveyed Elcho Harbor and Dean Channel and charted over 1,900 miles of coastline. They made a third trip to Hawai'i to formalize details with the King. When all the negotiation was wrapped up, which seems to have taken some time, the British headed out to Alaska and arrived at Cook Inlet (something I can actually see from here!) in May of 1794. Charting of the inlet - which Vancouver firmly established was not a river outlet - Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound followed. This done, the ships headed south and made Monterey Bay December 2, 1794.

Their job done, Discovery and Chatham turned for home. They rounded the Horn in late June of 1795 and reached St. Helena Island July 3rd. Here they learned that Britain was at war with France and Holland and Vancouver wasted no time on that score. He promptly took the well-laden Dutch merchant Macassar. With her in tow, Vancouver turned home on July 15th. The British arrived at Deptford, England in October 1795.

Though Vancouver and Puget had essentially debunked the myth of the Northwest Passage with their careful research, the search for it continued into the following century. The successful cruise of Discovery and Chatham not only produced excellent charts and political outcomes, but it paid off for the men. There was the Dutch East Indiaman taken, as well as trade along the way. Then too, only five men of the entire compliment of close to 200 lost their lives on the nearly five year voyage.

All in all, an impressive expedition indeed.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I presume that the city of Vancouver in Canada is named for George. He's like that "guy who invented Cleveland"...

Also, there was an interesting article in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News (which I forgot to point out to you earlier... sorry about that!) about the problems that cargo ships are having with navigation in Cook Inlet:


I just wish we could see Russia from our house, Pirate Queen. I thought everyone in Alaska could...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Shoals are always a problem since they are almost like living things: constantly moving no matter how slowly. Thanks for the link; sorry I missed that one.

Yes! George is Mr. Vancouver. Hope he's not a Cannucks fan...

Finally, I like the Cook Inlet just fine as views go. I just wish I could see it from my windows.

Daggar said...

I never knew that Vancouver captured a prize on that voyage. Wow.

Taking even a merchantman with his ship must have been a major feat. As skilled as Vancouver was, the condition of the ship and its crew after that journey would have been reduced, to say the very least. (Without a less skilled captain, it would have sunk long before).

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! I agree absolutely. Vancouver was an incredible seaman who unfortunately tends to get lost in the shadow of James Cook. The voyage of Vancouver's Discovery is arguably as impressive as any completed by the Royal Navy.

Anonymous said...

Wondering who owns rights to the portrait of HMS Discovery and if we might use it in a video for Island County Historical Society, Whidbey Island, WA?

It would be on-screen about 15 seconds.

Contact me: Jonathan@reellifeproductions.us

Enjoyed your entry!