James Cook was born in Marton, Yorkshire. When he was a teenager, Cook worked in a store in a coastal town, which introduced him to the ocean and ships.
At 18, Cook was apprenticed to a ship owner and learned to sail and navigate in the North Sea. After several years, Cook, longing for more adventure and advancement, joined the Royal Navy. His ability to command won him notice, and he rose in rank.
In 1768, he took a party of scientists aboard H.M.S. Endeavour and sailed to Tahiti, where they recorded an astronomical event called the Transit of Venus. When the observation was finished, Cook opened a secret packet of instructions from the British Navy that ordered him to sail south to chart and explore the great southern continent.
In July 1769, Cook ordered the Endeavour to weigh anchor and set sail due south. He passed through a knot of islands and continued on, the weather growing chillier. By early September, the lookouts had seen nothing but the gray swells of the sea. Convinced that no land existed farther south, Cook turned west. After another month, the crew spotted the forested hills of New Zealand.
Cook used his superb mapmaking skills to chart the coast of the island. The Endeavour then resumed its western course and hit the Great Barrier Reef along Australia’s northeastern coast.
Cook knew of the existence of the continent, but its coastline had not been mapped. Cook sailed carefully along the reef, still considered one of the most dangerous areas for a ship in the world.
On June 11, the Endeavour lurched, and the crew heard the horrifying sound of coral punching through the ship’s wooden hull. The ship shuddered to a stop, stuck fast to the reef. The crew frantically dumped more than 50 tons of stores to lighten the ship.
The tide rose, and the crew pulled desperately on the anchor and finally freed the ship, though seawater flooded into the hull faster than the pumps could remove it. Cook navigated the crippled ship into a river mouth, where carpenters spent the next seven weeks patching the hull. The Endeavour returned to sea, and Cook led the ship home, arriving in July 1771.