[ignore]Image credit: Timothy D Johnson [/ignore]

With the rain coming in fits and bursts across the water, the delicate rigging of HMB Endeavour rose into a dark and brooding sky. The ship was illuminated by flickering light from the big screen in Melbourne’s Docklands, where the ANZAC Day AFL game was being broadcast silently onto the wet waterfront.

The Endeavour is a replica of the vessel that carried Captain James Cook and his crew halfway around the world to chart the eastern coast of Australia in 1770. I last saw Endeavour in 1993. I was eight years old, and she was slipping down a ramp into Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, a solid, dark, impossibly tall hull.

Since then her bluff jarrah bows have parted the waves on two journeys around the globe, and most recently on a circumnavigation of Australia. She has grown in my imagination over the years, as I have become a sailor myself and long dreamed of having the opportunity to sail on her.

I did not expect that when I finally saw Endeavour again, she would seem out of place – dark and majestic, silhouetted against Etihad Stadium, an old-fashioned ship at odds with the city around her. I waited for her master, Captain Ross Mattson, on the pontoon. He arrived with his head of dark curls blown every which way by the wind, and I followed him aboard the ship.

Like arriving in any unfamiliar confined space with one who knows it well, it was a blur at first – I was led down a hatchway, across the museum deck and down a steep companionway. A few moments later, I stood in the saloon in the depths of the ship while her captain tidied books and papers and closed a very modern laptop.

After a year away during which the ship covered 13,300 nautical miles, Mattson said he’d do it all again tomorrow. He clearly loved his job, and was proud of the ship’s circumnavigation of Australia. Over 70,000 visitors, including at least 17,000 school children, came on board at the various ports around Australia.

In port, Endeavour’s attraction is that she offers a glimpse into the past. Her lower deck, with its concessions to modern life and maritime standards – the galley, refrigeration and twin engines – is closed to the public, who instead visit the eighteenth-century deck. It is set up as a museum, to appear just as it would have in Cook’s day – complete with areas where the deck above you is so low that you have to bend double.

At the moment the ship is on her way back to Sydney after a voyage to Lord Howe Island to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. Observing this rare astronomical event was the original purpose of Cook’s expedition to the Pacific. It was only after Endeavour’s arrival in Tahiti in 1769 that Cook, upon opening the British Admiralty’s secret instructions, discovered he was to continue southwards, in search of Terra Australis.

When I saw Endeavour in Melbourne, the ship was flying a red ensign at her stern and a Union Jack on the bowsprit. But when arriving in port, they fly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags as well as the ensign.

I asked Mattson about the shared history that Endeavour represents for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. He told me that on each leg of the voyage around Australia, there have been at least two young Indigenous Australians on board. ‘Most of our voyage crew have never had the opportunity to sit down and talk to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person from a community,’ Mattson says.

Where possible, the ship has made contact with Indigenous community leaders prior to arrival in the various ports around Australia. In most cases, this has led to a Welcome to Country ceremony and the exchange of message sticks. But Endeavour’s arrival in port has also triggered emotional responses at times: she is a powerful visual symbol of colonialism.

The story of Endeavour is that of the British ‘discovery’ of Australia, the planting of the Union Jack and, eventually, the arrival of the First Fleet nearly two decades later. It is also about exploration of the world’s oceans and about the wherewithal of a captain who could take a ship safely through uncharted waters in the eighteenth century, losing none of his crew to the seafarer’s scourge of scurvy.

Cook himself was dead by the time the First Fleet made its way into Australian waters, killed by locals in Hawaii during a voyage on a different ship. But Endeavour is usually recognised as the ship that ‘discovered’ Australia, with the mix of controversy and celebration that this brings.

It seemed ironic to be visiting Endeavour on ANZAC Day; both are poignant symbols of Australian European history. After leaving the ship that evening I stood on the wharf and imagined her sailing into an Australian bay, her dark hull dwarfed beneath clouds of canvas. Her sails were handed; an anchor plunged into the water; she swung up into the wind. Boats were launched, and the event that marked the beginning of European settlement took place.

I was reminded of a passage in Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, where Menak, a Noongar man, describes a ship arriving in a Western Australian bay in the 1830s:

a pelican swooping from the air, landing in water. But of course a ship’s canvas wings hold the wind, and keep that wave tumbling and frothing at its sharp breast as it slices and pushes the sea aside … It worried him … that these visitors stayed so long.

So long, indeed, that there is time for the age of sail to have ended, and for Endeavour to been built all over again, reborn two hundred years later.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a sailor and freelance writer. She can be found at http://equineocean.wordpress.com.