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Worth Repeating: Blue Latitudes

August 6, 2011
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For several days I’d barely had a moment to gaze out to sea, except in terror from the top of the mast. Now, I watched a porpoise surface and a family of eiders paddle past. Seagulls perched atop seaweed. the water seemed wondrously varied and textured, in one spot dark green and glass-smooth, in another indigo and ruffled, as if pattered by tiny raindrops. At other points, the sea eddied and frothed into whitecaps; miniatures of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains looming off to starboard, slowly turning pink in the setting sun.

Cook hadn’t been quite so awed by the majesty of the Pacific Northwest. By the time he arrived off the west coast of America, mid-way through his third voyage, he’d become a bit jaded by all the scenery he’d passed during the previous nine years; Antarctic icebergs, Krakatoa’s volcano, the fjords of New Zealand. Sighting the coast of present day Oregon, he wrote of the view; ” there was nothing remarkable about it.” Nor was Cook impressed by the climate. “The land formed a point, which I called Cape foul Weather from the very bad weather we soon after met with.”

From reliving a portion of the third voyage aboard a replica of Cook’s first ship, the Endeavor, to exploring tiny and obscure nations of the South Pacific like Niue and Tonga, Horwitz writes a travel non-fiction that is as equally full of adventure as it is of fascinating history.

Sydney is home to the world’s best archive pf rare books and manuscripts on Cook. It is also the hometown of my wife, Geraldine, who looked forward to living there with our son while I researched Cook and roamed the Pacific…We’d been there three days when a close friend from our previous stay in Sydney, Roger Williamson, appeared at the door carrying a bottle of wine in each hand. Like most males in Australia, Roger drank too much. Whenever I was with him, I did the same.

Over the first bottle, I shared my plan for traveling in Cook’s wake. Over the second, Roger declared he’d go with me…Roger spent his first twenty-six years in North Yorkshire, exactly as Cook had…Roger was also a skilled sailor who spent every free moment on the water…Like many British emigrants to Australia, Roger came from pale, pinched, working-class stock, but during twenty years in Sydney, he’d leisured himself into a handsome, bronzed Aussie…

“It’s my trip,” I told him. “I’d have to be captain.”
“Fine. You can bend me over the boom and flog me. I like being beaten. I’m English.”
“Okay.” I said. pouring him another glass. “Free-associate. What do you think of when I say ‘Captain cook.’?”
“Roast beef, silly wig, funny hat. All that grim-lipped, hunchbacked British sense of duty I came to Australia to escape.” He paused, “Also the greatest sailor of all time. I’m an utter poltroon compared to Cook.” …
We finished off the wine. I woke some hours later with a sore head, and lay awake mulling the notion of taking on crew. “Only those associated with the sea can appreciate Cook and his achievements.” Horatio Nelson observed. Perhaps Roger could explain some of that to me. At least, he’d be good company.

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before

Tony Horwitz

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