In June 1770, after striking the Great Barrier Reef, Capt. James Cook and his crew beached their damaged ship Endeavour on the riverbank of what was to become Cooktown and spent seven weeks making repairs. In June 2021, after striking the Great Barrier Reef, Eric and I hauled out our damaged boat Corroboree at the Cooktown slipway and spent three weeks making repairs. Not only is the slipway a mere 150 yards from where Endeavour lay beached, we arrived in the middle of the annual Cooktown Festival. Thus, while waiting for the festival to conclude and the slipway to become available, we took in some of the events. The grand finale was an hour-long reenactment of Cook’s sojourn here and his interactions with the Aboriginal people. When faced with irony, you might as well embrace it.
Not until 45 years after Cook’s departure did another British ship stop here. At various intervals, ten more vessels did the same, mainly to take on fresh water. But the area was still uninhabited by Europeans in 1872 when gold was discovered 80 miles inland at the Palmer River. The rush was on! Officially established in 1873, Cooktown quickly sprouted restaurants, stores, butchers, bakers, tradespeople, and, of course, bars. By 1876, it had two banks, two newspapers, a state school, customs house, courthouse and several churches. The population numbered 2,200, plus 9,200 on the goldfields; the largest contingent of miners was Chinese. But by the late 1880s, the gold dwindled, and in a familiar story, so did the town. From a peak of 4,000 residents, Cooktown shrank to a mere 400 in the 1950s, practically a ghost town. It gradually revived thanks to tourism, which flourishes today.
Obviously, Cooktown is much changed since 1770. But not so much since 1876. Because surprisingly, and much to our pleasure, it still retains the feel of a frontier town. The current population is 2,300, and you can walk the one main street in 15 minutes. On the way, you’ll pass restaurants, pubs, inns, a modest grocery and other small shops. Between a large hardware/building supplies store, a chandlery, tackle shop and metal fabricator, we had to order only one item (a polyurethane kit) from elsewhere for our repairs. But what really defines Cooktown, for us, is its sense of community. In a frontier town, people stick together and help new arrivals, and as Eric and I discovered, that legacy lives on.
First, the slipway being a rather rough affair, Nick, from the VMR, spent two afternoons with us prior to the haul-out carefully measuring and setting the dimensions of the cradle to ensure Corroboree seated properly. When he dropped us off at the hardware store to buy slings and tie-downs for extra safety, he pointed to a man just entering the door. “That’s Cliff,” he said. “He has a lot of experience with the slipway. Ask him for advice.” We hurried in and accosted Cliff, who readily shared his knowledge. Nick and Cliff later conferred by phone, and on the appointed morning, Cliff delayed going to work himself to help Nick and us maneuver Corroboree into the cradle.
Russell, the VMR head who coordinated our arrival in Cooktown, oversaw the operation on shore. Vic, who owns and drives the colorful tractor that pulls the cradle up the slipway, raised and lowered us a meter at a time until all was secure. Also on hand was Barry, a contact of Eric’s who is building a catamaran near Cooktown. In addition to bringing us a bin of power tools to assist with the repair, Barry acted as a spotter to ensure Corroboree was properly centered. In the silty water and with only an hour’s window around high tide, the operation was a bit tricky, and though we tried not to show it, Eric’s and my stomachs were in a bit of a flutter. We were impressed by everyone’s steady, patient demeanor and their dedication to getting it right. All of these gentlemen continued to stop by the slipway during our stay to offer encouragement and advice.
Now we were finally able to assess the extent of the damage, which thankfully was much less than we had feared: cracked fiberglass and wood in the skeg, a bash in the bottom of the rudder, and a slipped rudder bearing—all fixable. To start, we’d need to hire extra muscle to help wrangle the heavy rudder. Nick recommended Chris, a handyman, who came equipped with a bounty of tools. Even better, Chris had woodworking skills and experience with boat repairs and was excellent company. He and Eric delved into the project, discussing the best way to approach each step and making trips to the stores for supplies. I performed auxiliary tasks, took photos, and fielded questions from curious passersby.
Early on, however, we had a serious glitch, and here’s where the frontier ethos really saved the day. Corroboree was built of New Zealand kauri, an endangered wood not available in Australia. We’d need another type of wood with properties similar to kauri to mate with the unbroken half of the skeg—Douglas fir or teak. The hardware store had neither of these, nor did any of the lumber suppliers Eric phoned. Vic, the tractor driver, suggested we try the Men’s Shed, a nonprofit organization that provides camaraderie and workspace for DIY projects. It has over 1,000 locations in Australia, and the one in Cooktown is a man-cave of tools, wood, paint and other paraphernalia. From that stock, Eric and Chris came away with two boards they judged to be Douglas fir.
It turns out they weren’t, and since using two disparate woods would compromise the strength of the repaired skeg, we were in trouble. In the chain of events that followed, Chris spoke with his friend Linda, who called in her partner Glenn, a woodworker, for a consultation. Glenn invited Eric and Chris to his place outside town to see if he had any timber that would do. No luck, but Glenn did have ironwood, which we could use to create a bezel for the rudder bearing. He sawed off and donated four pieces to the cause. Then he suggested they walk over to his neighbor Rick, who might have some spare teak lying around. Did he! From a tall stack, Eric and Chris chose a 12’ board. Rick declined all but a token payment.
Flushed with victory, Eric and Chris returned to the slipway. It then took many long days, meticulous measurements, the creation of templates, and repeated cutting, fitting, trimming, and sanding to sculpt the teak to the proper shape. Once epoxied in place and the bronze rudder shoe bolted on, we applied layers of putty, then fiberglass applied with resin, then primer and paint. Chris was invaluable. In all, he and Eric worked 20 days straight. Meanwhile, Vic took the ironwood disks to the Men’s Shed and converted one of them into a bezel that perfectly fit the rudder bearing. A few days later, when Eric mentioned to Vic that we needed a spare boat hook, Vic left for 15 minutes and returned with two gorgeous, double hooks he’d acquired years ago and never found a use for; all we had to do was add sturdy handles. “You take them,” said Vic. “You seem like nice people.” I hope so, because if our stay here proves anything, it’s that nice guys definitely don’t finish last.
In the course of the repairs, we made a few mistakes and managed to correct them. At the same time, we discovered ways to make the new skeg even stronger than the original. I trust Capt. Cook would approve. Most of all, we are once again blown away by the goodwill and generosity we have encountered on our voyage. I suspect it’s easier to achieve in small towns than in big cities where so many conflicting interests collide. Nevertheless, a caring community can arise anywhere, and it’s a quality Eric and I will look for when we finish cruising and seek a place to settle. Till then, thank you, Cooktown! We couldn’t have done it without you.