Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 8, 2010

Adventures with Capt. Cook

Stowaway, Karen Hesse (2000), McElderry, 300 pp. + appendices

If you get all your information about 18th century sailing voyages from movies, you have no idea of how awful life at sea can be. We’re not talking just scurvy here, although that’s pretty serious. No, there’s a lot more that can go wrong, and even the most careful sailor faced unlimited risks aboard any kind of vessel, masted or oared, that set sail. Survival rates were often very low, especially on long journeys such as Cook’s.

Hesse’s hero, Nick, decides to stow away on Cook’s Endeavor, which in 1768 is getting ready to sail around the world, and Nick figures such a long voyage will guarantee a safe escape from his life as an apprentice. Through his journal entries, we get to know the Captain, the Mate, and most of the other seamen, and there are bad’uns as well as good’uns.

Nick doesn’t hide any unpleasant details. Rats, cockroaches, maggots; floggings (even for not finishing your daily food rations), disease, “biscuit” (bread baked so hard you have to break it into tiny pieces with a hammer); deaths from malaria, dysentery, typhoid fever, and native attacks.

The joy here is Nick’s honest voice. His entries take us from the moment he hides in the ship’s pinnace, to the day three years later when the survivors return to England. He tells us of the seamen and scientists on the Endeavor as he sees them, whether kind or cruel, and is honest as well about his own errors as he learns to serve the Captain and the ship.

He also gives us an idea of the joy of a life at sea, helping us understand why anyone would choose it, knowing all the challenges that lie ahead. A fair wind, the sails billowed out, the ship’s prow cutting through the waves, gulls and albatrosses and flying fish and whales and dolphins–in Nick’s opinion, worth the price of admission (and he implies that even those who died on this journey felt the same).

Read this, and keep it in mind the next time you see Errol Flynn swing across the yardarm to attack the enemy.

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