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Friday, Aug 31, 2007

The Cooktown News liked her account of her visit. Read their article here.

Boat plows through mud to Cooktown

This week, I did my part in dredging Australia's Endeavour River. It was no fun plowing my boat's keel through the river's thick mud, but the pain was worth it. I'd made it to Cooktown, a place where Capt. James Cook's spirit walks the streets and the ghost of his ship Endeavour sails forever.

Cooktown lies on the banks of the Endeavour River, both so named because this is the place Cook repaired Endeavour after hitting a coral reef.

It was a hard hit. With the ship fast taking on water, every man aboard, including naturalist Joseph Banks and Cook, took 15-minute turns at the pumps. When not pumping, to lighten the ship, the crew threw everything they could find over the side: cannons, stone ballast, barrels of food and water.

Finally, after 24 hours of pumping, dumping and tugging with anchors and long boats, the Endeavour broke free. Cook then sailed his broken, leaking, empty ship (they threw 50 tons of gear overboard) across the deep water to the mainland. There he drove into a river mouth and ran Endeavour aground for repairs.

A monument marks the spot, which is now the center of a riverside park. Further along the park's walkway stands a large statue of Cook, and another larger memorial to Cook and the Endeavour towers at the entrance to the town. The area is a shrine to the great explorer.

To me, a sailor with push-button navigation, an engine, a water maker and dozens of other conveniences, Cook's courage and skills are nearly unfathomable. And that made Cooktown and the Endeavour River a must-see.

But sailing there had some snags, such as shallow water, strong currents and, this week, a spring tide with 30-knot tradewinds. But in the Cook spirit, my two friends and I decided to try.

Inside the first channel markers, I got a clue as to what lay ahead: My depth sounder showed 10 feet. This seemed pretty shallow for so far out, but the Endeavour drew over 12 feet, and Honu draws only six. In I went.

And aground I went. The depth sounder read 7, 6, 5 and then, yikes, 4 feet. A cloud of brown mud surrounded the boat as I gunned the motor and plowed in circles looking for deeper water.

Finally, after following hand signals from a helpful local man on a pier, we found seven feet of water. Down went the anchor, up went a cheer. We'd done it. Then off we went in my little dinghy to explore the quaint Cooktown.

When we returned, Honu tilted to one side, her bottom paint showed at the water line and she wasn't moving with the water.

Her keel was stuck deep in the mud. Aboard the boat, I saw the depth finder the lowest I ever hope to see: 3 feet. Well, the Endeavour had been aground here for months, I thought, and tides always come back in. No worries.

A couple of hours later, the tide refloated Honu. She seemed fine after her little ordeal, so off we went in the dinghy to explore the river.

The inflatable and her little outboard draw about a foot of water. Still, we ran aground so hard we had to get out and tow. In over-the-ankle mud. In croc country.

The slog back to Honu was wet, cold and dirty, but I was happy. It might not have been my most elegant effort, but I got us into Cooktown and up the Endeavor River.

I think James Cook would approve.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch", for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,