When the tiny British fleet under Captain George
Vancouver arrived on the Northwest Coast of North America in 1792,
little did anyone suspect the curtain was about to rise on the longest and most intricate charting expedition ever undertaken.
Over the ensuing three years, Vancouver’s quest for the legendary Northwest Passage took his ships
and boats into waters mysterious and baffling beyond all expectations,
as he probed every strait, inlet, passage and sound between Oregon and Alaska … the world’s last temperate coastline to give up its secrets.
It would have been an impossible mission, but for the superb skills ofV ancouver’ s mariners,
assistance from the native people along the way, and the services of eight small open boats propelled by oar and sail. Indeed the launches, cutters, yawl and jolly boats carried on the Discovery
and Chatham-together with their counterparts from the Spanish explorations being conducted at the same time-are perhaps the real heroines of the epic.
While the mother ships groped their way up 2,000 miles of perilous seaboard in roughly linear fashion,
the ship’s boats covered 10,000 miles exploring every nook and cranny of this challenging coast, virtually without mishap.
The record of this amazing voyage is probably the greatest small craft saga in the annals of seafaring, worthy to be compared with the 3,600-mile
open ocean odyssey of Captain Bligh with eighteen loyal seamen in a 23-foot ship’s launch following the mutiny on the Bounty.
Yet for two hundred years the achievement has gone unnoticed.
In the International Maritime Bicentennial currently involving Oregon, Washington and British Columbia,
the modem maritime world is paying tribute for the first time to these valiant little vessels
which routinely were expected to sound unknown channels ahead of the mother ship, tow her in calms,
carry out and retrieve her anchors, fill her water barrels, provision her larder.
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