The National - On high seas under square sail
September 28, 2012

Working day and night aboard an 18th-century sailing ship might not be everyone's idea of a holiday, but one of the world's greatest adventures awaits those who love a challenge.

The barometer reads "fair" as I look down to the harbour in the historical port of Albany. The weather forecast is significant that day - I was to join the HMB Endeavour and set sail 1,300 nautical miles across the Great Australian Bight, one of the mighty seafaring tests.

From a distance, the Endeavour looks unexpectedly small in the quiet harbour. Closer up, it cuts a more dramatic shape. The bow sweeps in a great curve upwards and away. Heavy cannons point out on the port and starboard sides. I look up at the lattice of rigging and wonder how I might make sense of all the ropes and pulleys and knots.

A group gathers on the waterfront. We are the "voluntary crew", paying to join a leg of the Endeavour's year-long voyage around Australia. We hail from all walks of life. Most of us are not strong sailors - some have never sailed before - but we are all keen to experience 18th-century square-rig sailing aboard one of the world's most accurate maritime reproductions.

Owned and managed by the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Endeavour spends some of its time docked in Sydney and some touring the region's coastal waters, to raise awareness of Australia's history. Captain James Cook commanded the original HMB Endeavour, following orders to search for the "Great South Land". In 1769, he charted the east coast of Australia and took possession in the name of Britain's King George III.

We board the ship and throw off the ropes, lifting the gangplank and heading out to sea. This portion of Western Australia has a striking coastline, with its high cliffs, long wild beaches and one of the country's largest natural harbours. We spend the first day anchored in King George Sound, where the professional crew gives us safety briefings, and talks on our roles and responsibilities. The most ominous warning is from Dirk Lorenzen, the chief officer and ship's medical officer, who explains the three stages of seasickness: "First you think you are going to die. Then you are certain you will die. Finally, you will want to die."

The ship's routine is broken down into four-hour shifts. Day and night, we take turns at a schedule of duties, from taking the helm, to keeping watch, to navigation. At other times, it is all hands on deck to climb the mast, hoist or take down sails, or to practise emergency man-overboard drills.

Sleep is snatched in short bursts between shifts. We sleep in hammocks that must be mounted and dismounted each day. Quarters are cramped and showers limited to no more than a few minutes. Meals are hearty and plentiful but taken swiftly and there is a rota to help the kitchen staff in the galley. Plus, every morning there is the sarcastically named "happy hour", when the entire crew must clean the ship, bow to stern, swabbing the deck, scrubbing surfaces and washing down the bathrooms.

Given the simple living conditions and gruelling schedule, this is not everyone's idea of a holiday. "The hardest thing is living closely with so many people," says Rebecca Hackett from Melbourne. "If you need a bit of time out, you cannot always get it. That is probably the hardest thing, especially when you are fatigued, have been on watch all hours and cannot sleep because of the uncomfortable hammocks."

Yet in spite of the hardship, this is her second leg on the Endeavour and she admits she loves voyages such as this. "Sailing on a tall ship is like being inside an exciting pirate story," she says. "It is so much fun."

There are others on board who had also signed up for more than one trip, whether to experience the warmer waters around the Great Barrier Reef or historical journeys that stop in Cooktown, where the original Endeavour pulled in for repairs, and Possession Island, where Captain Cook made a claim on "New South Wales" for King George. Those who joined our leg - from Albany to Port Lincoln - had opted to take on some of the toughest sailing conditions of the long voyage. "It is hard work and there is sleep deprivation, but it is a healthy way to see the sea," Captain Ross Mattson tells me. "[Endeavour] is for people looking for something a bit more adventurous."

Over those first few days the fair weather persists, which allows us to learn the ropes, literally. Days are spent setting sails, learning to tie different knots and generally making the Endeavour "shipshape".

And for many on board, the most compelling activity is climbing the mast - 39 metres above deck.

"I'm putting myself at physical risk up there," says Dianne McGrath. "Every few years I do something that slightly terrifies myself and I thought climbing aloft might put me outside my comfort zone. There is such a sense of satisfaction when you manage to climb up and haul in a heavy sail."

In between duties, we find time to write in journals or sketch or compose photographs. Some try their luck at fishing - and catch bluefin tuna. Others help with the ship's maintenance by varnishing wood, tarring rope and polishing brass. A few simply gaze out at the ocean, happy to be away from the psycho-clutter of everyday life.

One night, the ocean around us is filled with sea creatures glowing in the dark. They churn up bioluminescence in the water, giving the impression they are light-emitting.

There are giant squid, jellyfish and ethereal clouds of speckled fluorescent light. It is easy to see how myths about strange sea creatures made their way into mariners' tales and sea shanties, or are visualised on the carved prows of ships.

After several days of light winds, many of us are longing for better sailing weather. This replica Endeavour is outfitted with an engine to ensure we stay on schedule.

The captain decides to turn the boat south in search of the Roaring Forties, the strong westerly winds usually found between 40 and 50 degrees south latitude. On cue, the barometer starts falling. Clouds bubble up on the far horizon.

As I turn in at 8pm for my four hours of sleep, I hear the wind pick up and the ship begin to creak. By the time I wake at midnight, my hammock is swinging violently, and the wind and waves are lashing against the vessel.

Up on deck we are more careful moving around in the heavy seas and high winds, particularly after dark. We latch our harnesses onto safety lines and more strictly adhere to the saying "one hand for yourself, one for the ship". It is now tougher to take the helm and follow a course. We grip the wheel, using all our strength to turn the ship to port or starboard.

"In the pressured 21st century it is good to step back in time and experience the rawness of the sea," says Captain Mattson. "And to say you have crossed the Great Australian Bight is like saying you have crossed the Atlantic."

There are times when the ship is travelling at speeds above 15 knots while surfing six-metre waves. To feel the Endeavour moving this way is why many signed up for this leg.

It had been an exhilarating journey and it was clear why there is so much interest in this kind of sailing. Throughout the Endeavour's circumnavigation it operates at near-full capacity, proving the popularity of this kind of experiential travel.

"There is an eternal romanticism connected with the sea and being under sail, especially square sail," says Chief Officer Lorenzen. "This is one of best replica ships worldwide - from her outward appearance down to the very fine details - and that makes [a voyage] very special."

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Tselana Travel (