It was not Whitby but Plymouth from which Captain James Cook set sail on his first voyage of discovery almost exactly 250 years ago. But it was the Yorkshire port in which he had gained his sea legs that was throwing him a party.
On the stroke of 10.30 yesterday, two tall ships sailed into the outer harbour at the start of a weekend-long festival that had already brought out sightseers in their thousands.
“For a Northern port, it was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mal Nicholson, captain of HMS Pickle, who sees crowds almost everywhere he goes. His topsail schooner, normally moored at Hull, is a reconstruction of the smallest ship at Trafalgar, which had carried the message of Nelson’s victory and his death.
As 460 children from six local primaries waved flags on the pier, Pickle was followed by the Spanish training schooner Atyla. Seven of its crew, who had boarded in London, were students from Whitby Fishing School, Caedmon College and Eskdale School.
“We came in first with guns blazing and then dropped the sails. It was quite a spectacle,” said Capt Nicholson, who was himself a sight, dressed as Pickle’s original commander, Lt John Lapenotière.
In what he described as a “masterstroke”, the organisers of the festival had invited his ship – which he bought four years ago and refitted – to bring a 18th century flavour to the outer harbour.
The main attraction, a replica of Cook’s Endeavour, is now a permanent attraction on the wharfside, but is not ocean-going.
Pickle’s journey had begun the previous evening, as it sailed into Staithes, just up the coast, and fired off a cannon volley.
“Normally, the sound of gulls fill the air,” Capt Nicholson said. “After we let go with the cannon and the shots resounded over the rock enclave, there wasn’t a bird to be heard for hours,”
The ship dropped anchor for the night at Runswick Bay before setting off to Whitby.
“It was wonderful to see so many people, from school – children to grandparents,” the captain said. “Pickle stole the show – no doubt about it.”
As the ships moored and visitors climbed aboard, and as musicians sang shanties on the harbour bandstand, the weekend was declared officially under way.
But not everyone was intent on a grand entrance.
At Whitby Library, where an exhibition mounted as part of the festival weekend is examining the art and science of Cook’s voyage, Ahilapalapa Rands, a New Zealand-born Pacific Islander, confessed to feeling exposed.
“I’m very conscious here of being Hawaiian. Everyone knows how Cook died there,” she said, referring to the explorer’s fatal stabbing on his third voyage.
“I come in peace,” Ms Rands noted.
Given the history of colonisation that ensued, the anniversary of Cook’s original voyage, which departed on August 26, 1768, will not be celebrated with the same enthusiasm back home, she said.
“A lot of our own stories are papered over. People feel frustrated at that after 250 years, history is still a little out of balance.
“But I feel excited to be bringing a Pacific perspective into this weekend. These anniversary moments serve a real educational function,” she said.