My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Most sailors have experienced this at least once – and felt the sickening dread when they realize their vessel is no longer tethered to the bottom. Dragging the anchor need not be the end of the world, but it usually happens in far from ideal conditions and often in the black of night. The first time it happened to me, in Thailand, the “uncontrolled change of position” was accompanied by the insistent wail of the depthsounder alarm. It’s a sound and and association I’ve never forgotten and still causes me to tense, even when the boat is just shifting with the tide.
No doubt James Cook “bumped the bottom” more than a few times in surveying parts of the coasts of Labrador and of Newfoundland to make his superb charts. As the old saying goes, “If you haven’t run aground, you haven’t been trying hard enough” – and Cook certainly was a man obsessed. Even today, it’s easy to go aground in Labrador for much of the coast still has not been surveyed. However, touching the bottom while edging into an unknown anchorage is (hopefully) a controlled tactic. Dropping the hook, then having the boat wander away, often while the crew is unaware, is a wholly different experience.
On November 11th, 1763, after a summer surveying in Labrador & Newfoundland and almost completing his Atlantic crossing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Cook anchored off the Nore in the river Thames, downstream from London. As Arthur Kitson, one of Cook’s many biographers, reports
He sailed for England on 23rd October, and anchored off the Nore in very heavy weather on 11th November. It was soon found that the anchors would
not hold, and at length one parted and the ship “trailed into shallow
water, striking hard.” After a while she again struck heavily, and “lay
down on her larboard bilge.” As there seemed no prospect of the gale
moderating, everything was made as snug as time would allow, and, putting
his crew into the boats, Cook made for Sheerness. The weather at length
improved, so obtaining assistance he returned and found that fortunately
his ship had sustained very little damage, and the next day he
successfully floated her, and got her up to Deptford yards on the
following Sunday, and then Cook was able to set to work on his charts.
By no means have all sailors – and vessels – been this fortunate.