Transit of Venus: The Historian’s Blog (2)

My last blog involved some sentimental reflection on the charms of wind power.  Predictably, almost as soon as it was written, the winds turned hostile.  They have been blowing almost directly from the North East, the direction we need to travel to reach the island in time for the Transit.  We have been relying on diesel engines, discretely buried in the bowels of the ship, to keep us on track.  While this is frustrating for all of us, since we would prefer to sail, we are incredibly lucky to have this technology at our disposal.   It is a luxury to be able to, in a sense, switch nature off.  It is also a reminder of how extraordinarily fragile the voyages of discovery of past eras were – particularly those of astronomical research.  When timing is crucial, you need a great deal of luck.  Years in the planning, years in the execution, expeditions could be ruined by an unfavourable wind that delayed arrival at a key destination, or by a wandering cloud that prevented meaningful observation.  Both of these things happened to expeditions to study the Transit of Venus in the eighteenth century.   While we have been able to take precautions against ill winds, we may yet be thwarted by the skies.  The weather forecast for 6 June on Lord Howe is uncertain, but it looks as though there is a significant chance of overcast conditions.  We all have our fingers crossed.

Despite the lack of wind, and some miserable weather, the voyage has been interesting thus far.  Everyone is tired.  My watch was up at 4am this morning, steering the ship into the wind and sleet.  But I take some pleasure in the discipline and routine.  The professional crew is slowly breaking us in, teaching us how to serve the needs of the vessel (and how to keep our stuff out of the way of others).  I gave a lecture yesterday on Cook’s Transit voyage and the broader history of European exploration in the Pacific.  Carlos gave a lecture today on the astronomical science of the Transit over four centuries.  We are just about to participate in a group quiz on our understanding of tall ships.

Today I went to stand in front of the webcam at the stern of the ship to wave to my wife and kids.  It streams live from midday to one each day, and there was a bit of a queue for camera time.  It seems nostalgia may be setting in early.  This would have worried a ship’s Captain in Cook’s time.  It was regarded as a dangerous and potentially debilitating medical condition.

It’s Sunday today.  I wonder if someone will read us the Articles of War in lieu of a sermon.  We don’t seem to have a chaplain aboard.

I will write again in a couple of days.

Alex Cook (ANU)


The crew discusses Cook’s voyage to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769

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

  1. Hi Alex, I’m sitting in my warm office on Lord Howe Island looking out at the blazing north easterly and contemplating the arrival tomorrow, myself and the Board’s gang of Island staff wish you all a safe arrival.

    Barrie Rogers

  2. And who said a historian’s life is without adventure?

    John D (ANU)

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