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 Amsterdam is a close replica of a 19th-century tea-clipper design: She resembles the famed Cutty Sark, berthed at Greenwich, England, but she’s larger. Her underbody incorporates some evolutionary naval architecture, but in rig and features, in warp and weft, she’s absolutely authentic. Every wire aboard is wormed, parceled, and served in first-class marlinspike fashion. She needs every member of her crew to climb aloft on ratlines to shake out or stow sail. She’s not a cruise ship; not a Maine coasting schooner; not an austerely functional naval training vessel. And she’s not luxurious. But by God, she’s yar: Bristol fashion in all her parts.
|The descendants (left) of FitzRoy (blue shirt) and Darwin (with binoculars) take a break in the filming.|
Once we were under way, the wind was light, from the north, and the swell slight. Outside the port breakwater, the crew—men and women, mostly in their early 20s, from Holland and Britain, with one American woman—swarmed up the shrouds and out along the yards, clipped on their harnesses, and made sail. The ship heeled with stately solidity, and we bore off to the south-southwest, on a heading beyond the equator for Brazil.
I was itching to go aloft and feel the heave of the ship; I wondered if they’d let me or if liability issues would forbid it. “Yes, just get harness instruction with the crew first,” said Captain Richard Slootweg easily. “And then don’t fall, please,” he grinned. A young crewman took Michael FitzRoy and me forward to show us where the harnesses were stowed. We asked Sir James if he wanted to join us. “No, thanks,” he said, giggling the way some people do when you suggest bungee jumping or hang-gliding. “I’ll watch you,” he said, binoculars at hand.
Correctly harnessed, we climbed the ratlines unattached—not clipping on and off every few steps, which interrupts a sensible climbing rhythm—and then clipped on once we’d reached a perch. The view of the acres of teak far below, surrounded by deep ocean blue, seemed as fantastic as the view of Earth might from a space station. I climbed to the top of at least one of all three masts almost every day until the end of the voyage. I spent hours aloft looking down at the TV crew filming, the crew polishing and splicing or lying in the sun, the other guests wandering fore and aft. I tried to store up enough of this singular sailor/astronaut sensation to last, or at least remember, for the rest of my life.
Apart from the pleasure and privilege of being free to poke about and explore such a ship from keel to truck while under way, there was the equally fascinating business of the creation of a TV series in real time. The show was already airing; the film crew shot every day, editing footage in cabins that had been turned into editing suites, and beamed weekly episodes of this “Beagle voyage” via satellite back to Holland, where it was being televised every Sunday evening to a growing audience. In turn, Michael, James, and I, along with Dutch navigation scholar Willem Mörzer Bruyns and others, sat for interviews that were spliced together with footage of the ship and details of our days at sea. In keeping with the scientific mandate of the original Beagle’s voyage (primarily a surveying mission, but with instructions to make scientific enquiries everywhere), the Amsterdam was equipped with all sorts of telegenic gizmos. Information-gathering subterranean ocean beacons were launched, plankton was trawled for, ocean temperatures and salinity were measured, and all of it was filmed.