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Graeme Cocks. Through Darkest Seas. Motoring Past Vintage Publishing, 2023

465 pages. Includes B&W photos, maps and engravings, Glossary, and Index.

Reviewed by Nick Burningham

This very substantial tome relates “The untold story of how Duyfken, Australia’s first ship, was recreated and sailed into history, … again”. The author was involved in the Duyfken replica project from its outset and became Project Director around the time of the ship’s launching, remaining in that demanding role all through the long voyages across darkest seas and oceans.

This is a detailed account written by someone centrally involved in the constant struggle to keep the Duyfken Replica Foundation afloat financially, often sailing perilously close to the wind; and simultaneously sailing through areas of bloody internecine conflict. Indeed it could be said that one reads to page 385 before Duyfken visits an island (Diego Rodrigues) that was not riven by such conflict!

In a sense, this whale of book is several books seamlessly interleaved. It can be recommended as the How to Build a Replica Ship Handbook, starting from the beginning with the fortunate coalescence of small group of motivated enthusiasts whose passion pushed the Duyfken ahead of other contenders for replication in Fremantle following the successful construction of the Endeavour replica. Then the recruiting of Michael G Kailis, a highly successful fishing industry entrepreneur, who agreed to head a foundation, and who energetically enlisted a Board of similarly influential Perth elite who would direct the Foundation, and, most importantly, had the prestige to successfully seek large donations from private individuals, companies, and from governments.

The design and focus of the project were ambitious, and probably important to the successful funding of the construction – the replica was to be as authentic as possible in its design and the construction. The Duyfken replica was constructed, as far as possible and knowable, as Dutch ships were constructed 400 years previous. That meant building by eye, plank-shell first, bending oak planks and wales over open fires. An undertaking that was genuinely courageous on the part of the Foundation’s board, and in the end it paid dividends, but the challenges faced by the shipwrights are obvious and real. Nothing worthwhile is easy … yet things that are destined to happen do have an amazing momentum – Graeme Cocks both records such a project and tells candidly how hard it can be. His early career as a journalist and editor are evident in the lucid and flowing text.

It is personal, but it is a well written history. Graeme was uniquely able to draw on his memory and the Foundation archives, but as a historian should, he draws significantly on the written records of others – the three skippers of Duyfken in the years he writes about, members of the crew, Bill Leonard the master shipwright, the press, and others including me (as perhaps I should have admitted earlier in this review). A couple of incidents, are not exactly as I remember them, but who knows? Not everything can be known for certain, that is the nature of the historical record. That said, I wish some other historians were as careful with their research as Graeme has been. Before the replica was built, Marit van Huystee at the WA Maritime Museum had shown that the Duyfken that sailed to Australia was not the same Duyfken as the one in the second Dutch fleet to sail to the Indies, and that Matthew Flinders understanding of the direction of Duyfken’s historic voyage was mistaken. Duyfken did not coast along the southern shore of Papua, cross Torres Strait and then explore down the Cape York Peninsular, before sailing westerly in the middle of the Arafura Sea to return to the East Indies. The course was precisely the reverse and the “Outward’ and “Return” are clearly marked on the “Duyfken Chart”. Graeme Cocks includes this revised of history although it is not quite as neat a story as the one which history has inherited from Matthew Flinder’s (whose cabin on HMS Investigator was not a well stocked library).

The Duyfken replica’s voyage from Sydney to the Netherlands, made with almost no recourse to the motors other than entering and leaving ports, is much the longest such voyage made by any “Age of Discovery” replica ship. That achievement is celebrated in “Darkest Seas”, but much more of the text details the physical and psychological toll on the crew and the officers, and also on the onshore management. Life at sea in the age of sail involved weeks, months, of alternately standing watch or trying to get desperately needed sleep, hoping there will be no call to “All hands”. Sleep deprivation fuels the irritations and antagonisations of crowded, damp, stuffy accommodation with no privacy. In the age of sail that was the hell endured at sea. In the age of email it became the burden of the project director too. Graeme Cocks is too decent a man, and too prudent, to fully disclose the level of grudge, deceit and Machiavellianism  that some stooped to, but you get the some idea. 

This a chronological and factual account, but it also grapples with philosophical questions. What was Duyfken built to commemorate? The “Darkest Seas” of the title are aspects of the original ship’s role in history and the wider history of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC). What was the significance and meaning of the voyage re-enacting the original ship’s exploratory voyage to Australia for the VOC, and the replica’s voyage to the Netherlands to commemorate the quatercentenary of the founding of the VOC? In an age when the evils of colonialism are increasingly acknowledged those are difficult questions. Perhaps they are more easily answered by persons living within strong and enduring cultures. An Indonesian boatbuilder on the island of Banda Neira, Sahran Abidin, gave a good answer in a conversation which is quoted from my journal. Duyfken’s first skipper Peter Manthorpe also deliberated about these questions in his Captain’s Log posted daily on the Duyfken Foundation’s web site. Perhaps the most remarkable passage in the book is the direct and concise answer provided to Peter by Silas Wolmby, a Cape York elder who joined the ship sailing the Cape York coast to historically significant sites of which he was custodian of the oral history.

So, this is a detailed and expert “How to do a Replica Ship” handbook, and an excellent way of checking whether you really want to attempt it. It makes clear that a blessed and rare coalition of passion, expertise, and entrepreneurial fire-power is essential, and shows how that can eclipse the hard-headed pragmatism that says there has to be a watertight business plan before this goes ahead.

It is a philosophical discussion of the value of such a project drawing answers from a range of cultural perspectives.

This is a detailed history of a glorious project and its achievements. It is a warts and all account of what it takes to achieve such glories. Rather to my surprise, having read it I enjoy a new appreciation of what amazing achievements I was witness to! It is a significant contribution to Australia’s maritime history that deserves to be better known. This publication is an excellent record of it.

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