On a square-rigger voyage across the Atlantic with heirs of the protagonists from the legendary HMS Beagle—Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy and naturalist Charles Darwin—the real and the surreal are barely distinguishable. From our September 2012 issue.
The Dutch filmmakers, Bas continued, had chartered Stad Amsterdam and were sending her around the world along the route sailed by HMS Beagle on her historic five-year voyage that commenced in 1831. Because I was the author of Evolution’s Captain, Bas invited me to sail the transatlantic leg of the voyage from Cape Verde to Salvador, in Brazil; on this trip, the series would introduce and concentrate on FitzRoy.
|Chartered by a Dutch public-television network, the 256-foot Stad Amsterdam was bound for distant shores to recreate the historic voyage of the HMS Beagle.|
Saint Jago, as the city was then named, marked an important moment in Charles Darwin’s career. When the Beagle anchored there on January 16, 1831, three weeks out of England, Darwin, who’d been seasick the entire time, dashed ashore and “feasted upon oranges.” Then he strolled beyond the shantytown port into a deep, unspoiled valley. It was his first glimpse of the world beyond Britain. He’d read the floridly detailed books written by other voyagers to exotic lands, notably the works of Alexander von Humboldt. Darwin now witnessed such a place with his own eyes: “Here I first saw the glory of tropical vegetation,” he wrote in his diary. “It was like giving to a blind man eyes.” And it was here, on this first stop of the Beagle’s expedition, that it first occurred to Darwin—a 22-year-old frat boy fresh out of Cambridge—that he too might someday write a book about his travels.
Michael FitzRoy looked astonishingly like his famous ancestor: His features, the shape of his head and face, and his receding hairline were identical. Like the captain, whom Darwin initially found so charismatic, Michael was immensely charming and, I was to learn, funny. There, fortunately, the genetic inheritance stopped. Michael, a stock broker and art dealer, showed no signs of the captain’s bi-polar demons that led him to end his life by slashing his throat with a razor not long after the publication of his former shipmate’s book, On the Origin of Species.
At breakfast in “the long room,” the vast open saloon/dining room aft, I met another guest of the TV crew, Sir James Barlow, a mechanical engineer for Bell Canada and a compact, tidy man who bore no resemblance to his tall, great-great grandfather, Charles Darwin. An ambassador for the Galápagos Conservation Trust, James was a keen ornithologist who habitually wore binoculars around his neck.
After breakfast, we put to sea. A magnificent and utterly authentic-looking clipper ship, the Amsterdam was no Beagle. I’d already done some gawping on its website. Launched in 2000, built of steel and smothered in teak, the 256-footer displaces 1,038 metric tons (over 2 million pounds) and is powered by a 1,004-horsepower diesel. She has 14 air-conditioned double or quadruple cabins amidships with en suite bathrooms, for guests. A crew of 30 is housed forward. In 40 years of hanging around boats in Europe and the United States, including a job that required me to go around the world scouting for square-rigged ships for an ill-fated pirate movie, I’d never encountered such a vessel.