The Transit of Venus: a Historian’s Blog

A chance to voyage on HMB Endeavour replica to observe the Transit of Venus comes once in a lifetime.   The international quest to observe and time this rare astronomical event lay at the heart of human attempts to understand the solar system from the time that Edmund Halley first realised that, with international cooperation, it could be used to calculate the distance of the Earth from the sun.  It was this quest that inspired the original Endeavour’s voyage to Tahiti, and shaped James Cook’s career as an explorer of the Pacific.  It is entirely appropriate that the new Endeavour should commemorate it with observations in 2012.

To make those observations we are heading for Lord Howe Island – another Pacific paradise with its own history of astronomical observation.  The island was used to attempt to time the transit in 1882.  En route, we will be sailing as much as possible in the traditional manner.  The crew is divided into three watches with a routine that lasts 24/7.  Last night, I was on-deck from midnight until 4am – keeping watch for other vessels, ensuring the ship was in good order, even taking a turn at the wheel. Then it was back to the hammock for a couple of hours sleep before breakfast.  All of us aboard are, quite literally, ‘learning the ropes’ – being trained in the effective management of the 167 running ropes that keep the ship in motion, controlling the sails that allow her to harness the wind.  Climbing the rigging remains the greatest thrill.  Yesterday I was caught 20 metres up when the clouds opened and I had to scamper down in the rain.

In this age of motorized transportation and electronic entertainment, any travel using the power of nature is a step into a different time.  It immerses us in the routines and rhythms of a pre-industrial world.  You work, you eat, you sleep.  You share a joke with your shipmates.

That said, one of the things you realise very quickly when you sail a tall ship, is just how sophisticated these machines are.  There is nothing on this boat that does not have its function.  No space is left vacant.  No object is unnecessary.  Although the Endeavour began life as a humble collier, transporting coal along the East coast of England, her design is the product of centuries of evolution in ship design and manufacture.  Her flat bottom, designed to allow her to sail up-river and pull in close to shore, made her perfect for sailing the treacherous seas of coral in the Pacific.  For the next few days, we will be bobbing and rolling our way across the Ocean to one of those jewels in the sea that so fascinated eighteenth-century Europeans.  My alternate blogger, Carlos Bacigalupo the astronomer, will report further on our adventures tomorrow.

Bye for now,

Alex Cook (Australian National University)

2 thoughts on “The Transit of Venus: a Historian’s Blog

  1. You’ll fall in love with her Alex! Most of us do. Enjoy this fantastic opportunity, all of you on board. Will follow your adventures closely (and enviously!).

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