This paper is a work in progress -- please contact me before citing it anywhere!
For my presentation on the arrival at Lituya Bay, Alaska of the French expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, I will focus on what I understand best about chapters VII and VIII in volume 2 of the journal La Pérouse kept during his voyage round the world: the use of the boats.
It might seem more appropriate to talk about the meetings between the men of the French expedition and the Tlingit people who lived in that part of the northwest coast of North America. But others have discussed that topic, most notably Julie Cruikshank in her book Do Glaciers Listen? Her comments and those of the anthropologist G.T. Emmons in the journal American Anthropologist[i] make it clear that in this case of first contact between European explorers and First Nations people, there were many gaps in understanding. The many things that La Pérouse didn’t understand about the actions and motivations of the Tlingit people he met in Lituya Bay are matched by what they didn’t understand about him and his reasons for his journey.
Instead, I am focusing on the use of boats by La Pérouse’s expedition in Lituya Bay. The common experience of losing people in wrecked boats in the mouth of the bay brought the French and the Tlingit people together. La Pérouse wrote at the end of chapter VIII that this common experience helped them understand each other to a greater extent than before.[ii] It is my opinion that others who travel in small boats have some of that same understanding, which may not be available to people who are not subject to such dangers. I am hoping to discuss my understanding of the use of boats in these chapters of La Pérouse’s journal.
The expedition that La Pérouse led consisted of two frigates, L’Astrolabe and the Boussole. On board the larger ships were some smaller boats, most notably two pinnaces and a couple of longboats, used as tenders to ferry people and gear between shore and the larger ships. Modern readers might be surprised that it was not uncommon to load ten men and several hundred pounds of gear into these rowboats, which were open boats some twenty-five or more feet long and fitted with four sets of oars and a mast with a small sail.
The expedition had come round Cape Horn -- the most dangerous waters in the world, according to many 18th century explorers and 21st century travellers. Under La Pérouse’s command, they had not lost a single man to disease or accident, nor had they shed a drop of blood. It wasn’t until the ships were inside a safe harbour that twenty-one men and two of their small boats (pinnaces) were lost. To make matters worse, they were lost in broad daylight, in fair weather. Meanwhile, a similar boat only a few dozens of yards away was undamaged.
Experienced sea captains and sailors can be very competent at handling their ships and boats in many kinds of conditions, and yet still suffer unexpected losses. Before this journey, La Pérouse had even been in a harbour in Toulon, France that he considered to be similar in shape.[iii] However competent he and his crew were, it is probable that they may not yet have become accustomed to fjords. The shape of the sea bottom in a fjord affects the tides and currents in unexpected ways. In modern books, magazines, and websites on small boating, there has been much written about the dangers of handling a small boat in similar conditions. Though those published articles are not academic writing, they do provide some insight into what boating conditions were like in Lituya Bay for La Pérouse’s expedition.
Based on what he wrote in his journal in chapter VII, La Pérouse believed that a few hours of observation were all the information he needed to enter this bay on what he thought was a favourable stage of the tide. He soon realised that he was wrong. Cruikshank quotes Emmons’s statement that Lituya Bay is “the most-feared harbour on the North Pacific coast (Cruikshank, p 131).”
When trying to enter the bay the first night of their arrival, La Pérouse was struck by the strength of the ebb tide running out of the inlet. The frigates were unable to enter the bay against this current. “The very rapid current, of which our officers had given no account, had abated the eagerness I at first entertained to put into this harbour,” he wrote in his journal. “I was not ignorant of the serious difficulties which always attend the going in and out of narrow channels when the tides run very strong (La Pérouse, p 79).” But the next morning he consulted with the captain of L’Astrolabe and the officers who had taken the pinnaces into the bay on the day of their arrival. “They represented that the current, which appeared to us so strong, they had several times stemmed in their boat (La Pérouse, p 80).”
The passage of the two frigates through the S-shape turn of the channel between the reefs and the points was accomplished in good weather, in daylight, and at what seemed an appropriate stage of the tide. La Pérouse expected that because the peak of high tide was approaching the current would soon go slack, so he planned to enter the harbour just as the last of the flood tide would carry them in. As a small boat user, I’ll comment here that it seems he was unaware that the flood current flowing into the inlet would remain at its full strength almost until the moment of slack tide. Along the northwest coast of North America, the tide runs through a great range from low to high, and that drives much stronger ebb and flood currents than in most parts of the world, which affects times of slack water.
The wind changed when they were in the channel, and the set of the sails had to be completely adjusted.[iv] Both ships were nearly wrecked as they were carried along by the current within a stone’s throw of the rocky shore. La Pérouse commented after the ships were anchored inside Lituya Bay that “During thirty years experience of navigation, I had never before seen two ships so near being lost; the circumstance of experiencing such an event at the extremity of the world would have rendered our misfortune still greater, but there was no longer any danger (La Pérouse, p 82).”
Unfortunately, some eight days later, there was another dangerous incident in the channel. Three small boats had gone out from the frigates, heavily loaded with men. The officers and sailors intended to enjoy a bit of a holiday on shore, walking and eating fresh food, after doing more soundings near the mouth of the bay. Only one of the boats was able to return. The other two were wrecked in the rough waters of the channel. Twenty-one men died, and none of their bodies were recovered.
Someone who was not present at the sinking of the boats might have assumed that the men were given bad orders. It would be easy for someone unfamiliar with conditions at the narrow mouth of the harbour to make this erroneous assumption. It is important to note that La Pérouse would be held accountable for the successes and failures of the journey, and in particular any loss of life among his crew.
Julie Cruikshank notes in Do Glaciers Listen? that fortunately for La Pérouse’s reputation, he had retained a copy of the orders he had given the officers of his ship’s boat.
The importance of written instructions was already developing a role in scientific research. Just as the king documented his instructions to the expedition, La Pérouse in turn, issued written instructions to senior crewmembers, a precaution highlighted during the loss of his two boats at Lituya Bay. Concerned about his own culpability, La Pérouse included in the notes and journals he sent by courier to France the written instructions he had issued to his first lieutenant (who perished), spelling out the dangers of currents at the mouth of the bay and warning him to take extra precautions to avoid the alarming tides. His written instructions, like those he received from Academy and king, were published as part of the text of Voyage Round the World, along with an eyewitness account that his second lieutenant provided as documentary evidence that, as ship’s commander, La Pérouse had taken all reasonable care.[v]
When La Pérouse wrote about the sinking in his journal, he was preparing in case he would be up on charges on his return to France. The French legal system is not like English common law, where a person charged with committing a crime is presumed innocent until evidence is presented that proves he or she is guilty. Under French law, a person charged with committing a crime must prove his or her innocence or else be convicted of the charge.
What La Pérouse was recording was not merely the facts of the events, but his interpretation of them. By recording the facts about the loss of life in his journal, and writing an account that he buried, sealed inside a bottle in a cairn on the island he named Cenotaph Island, La Pérouse showed his intent to tell the story and have it not change by future interpretation. He was telling the story his way, and trying to ensure that another interpretation of the events would not even be considered. He was acting as his own spin doctor, two hundred years before the term came into common use. He was putting the best possible spin on his own culpability in the dreadful event.
La Pérouse’s expedition was in some ways comparable to a space shuttle journey, as Cruikshank describes the voyage in her chapter “Two Centuries of Stories from Lituya Bay.” She observes that “For their times, La Pérouse’s ships were fitted out with cutting-edge accoutrements that we might comparatively now associate with space shuttles (Cruikshank, p 143).” The two ships, former merchant vessels refitted as frigates, were named for precision-made navigational instruments.[vi] Among the scientific equipment carried by the expedition were two state-of-the-art tilting compasses[vii] used by James Cook, supplied by the British government.[viii] The scientists in the crew were supplied with sampling equipment and even seeds and plant materials for distribution to new parts of the world.
La Pérouse’s voyage was indeed much like a space shuttle launch in at least one other crucial aspect. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch with the loss of all astronauts on board, the American government held a federal commission in Washington to determine culpability as well as to determine the cause of the explosion.
The loss of the space shuttle Challenger has been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics. I suggest that it could be compared in some ways to the loss of the pinnaces of L’Astrolabe and the Boussole. In particular, the written statements by La Pérouse and his officer M. Boutin bear some resemblance to some of the testimony at the Rogers Commission investigating the space shuttle disaster.
In La Pérouse’s journal, Boutin wrote his eyewitness account of how his longboat and the pinnace from L’Astrolabe came to be caught in a current. The boats were drawn into the channel at the harbour’s mouth. Boutin let his longboat run stern-first through the standing waves and managed to keep upright through the channel. His success was at least partly because by a happy accident he had lightened the heavily-loaded boat by ordering the anchor to be deployed, then allowing the unfastened line to be torn out of the brass fittings as the current forced the longboat along at 12 or more knots. But the pinnace became turned sideways to the current, rolled, and wrecked in the standing waves. Boutin believed that the officer of the other pinnace saw the wreck of the first, and by drawing near to offer assistance was swept away to be wrecked as well.
“I think it necessary to explain the motives of M. d’Escures’s conduct,” wrote Boutin. “It is impossible, that he ever should have thought of going into the channel; he wished only to approach it; and imagined the distance he was from it was more than sufficient to keep him out of all danger. It was this distance of which he as well as I and the eighteen persons who were in the two boats, had formed a wrong judgement. I do not pretend to determine how far this error was pardonable or why it was not possible to judge of the violence of the current: it might be imagined that I wished to exculpate myself, for I repeat that I judged this distance more than sufficient… (La Pérouse, pp 111-112).”
Boutin goes on to insist: “I cannot but remark, that, on the day of our entrance into this bay, this passage was sounded in every direction by our boats for more than two hours without finding any current (La Pérouse, p 112).” There’s an oft-quoted saying that “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Though they had used the pinnaces to sound the mouth of the harbour for two hours on the day of their arrival, and all were aware that the water was more shallow there than in most of the bay, the captain and the sailors had spent only a week or so at anchor inside Lituya Bay at the time of the accident. They had not yet absorbed the local knowledge of what the shallows at the mouth of the harbour actually meant.
The ships entered Lituya Bay on July 3, 1786, after the three small boats had entered and left the bay. The masters of the small boats had taken several soundings, rowing in and out the narrow mouth of the bay and even across the current. I wondered how it could be that they would lose two boats there, only ten days later – and that’s when I understood. In ten days, the phase of the moon had changed, affecting the tides and currents.
I checked the phases of the moon in 1786, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Eclipse web site. While I couldn’t find tide tables for 1786, I found more recent years that had a lunar eclipse during the Full Moon on July 12th, like 1786. Then I went to the online records for those years on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site, where I found records for both Lituya Bay and nearby Yakutat Bay.
Based on the NOAA records for tides in that season, and the dates as recorded by the expedition, the expedition had entered Lituya Bay when the moon was at First Quarter. This phase of the moon produced the least possible difference between high and low tides in that season. When the accident occurred on July 13 the moon was a day past Full, causing the greatest possible difference between high and low tides in that season. The tidal currents were stronger and the slack water between ebb and flood was much shorter than on July 3, only about fifteen minutes instead of over an hour.
An online tide table for Lituya Bay told me what I suspected was true. The current was twice as fast, and much stronger than it had been ten days before. One boat was rolled in the current, one rode the waves by going straight backward, and the third boat attempted rescue and was also rolled.
Certainly the officers in the small boats did not really understand that the slack at the turning of the tide would be so short. They did not understand that the ebbing current would not decrease appreciably an hour before slack. As well, they had not observed the tide changing there often enough to appreciate how high the standing waves would grow in the narrow passage – and how the waves would remain high and rough right until slack. A week of observations was simply not enough experience. Even a full turn of the Moon’s phases might not have shown the sailors how the tides and currents were different from their expectations.
What I read in La Pérouse’s journal is the frustration felt by modern men of science who are measuring and charting the world, yet find that they are still vulnerable to its dangers. In this case, the danger wasn’t that of a hurricane, or a tornado, or a grand storm. The danger was smaller and more subtle. It was a patch of current that was not many yards across. The men in the small boats simply didn’t imagine that so small a forum could have such dangerous conditions. They thought they knew what they needed to know, that they could see what they needed to see, and that their decisions were informed and sensible. Unfortunately, that’s often the opinion of athletes and experienced boaters who die in boating accidents, or skiers caught in avalanches.
It should be noted that the moderate size of the two frigates Boussole and L’Astrolabe was such that they could sail through rough waters that would founder smaller boats. Treating the large ships as their standard made it harder for the officers of the small boats to appreciate fully the dangers to which the small boats were subject.
La Pérouse never completed his journey back to France. Yet his journals for all but the last portion of his trip survive. At every port where he encountered other European vessels, La Pérouse made sure to send copies of his journal ahead, so that they could return to France ahead of him, or as it turned out, instead of him. His wisdom in sending copies home by another route is summed up in the computer age as the adage “Save early, save often!” Experienced writers advise beginners to make multiple back-ups of their files. The merit of this practice can be seen in La Pérouse’s careful retention of a copy of the written orders to his officer, and his care to send copies of his journal home ahead of his return. In the modern idiom, he covered his ass.
Association Solomon. Le Mystère Lapérouse ou le rêve inachevé d’un roi (The Mystery of La Pérouse or the unachieved dream of a king). Paris, France: Conti, 2008.
Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2005.
Feynman, Richard. What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further adventures of a curious character. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1988.
The second half of this memoir covers Feynman’s role in the investigation of the Challenger disaster.
Johanson, Paula. “Waiatt Bay on Quadra Island.” Kayak Yak. August 4, 2011. Web. January 24, 2012.
La Pérouse, Jean-François de Galaup, comte de. A voyage round the world, in the years 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, by J. F. G. de la Pérouse: published Conformably to the Decree of the National Assembly, of the 22d of April, 1791, and edited by M. L. A. Milet-Mureau, Brigadier General in the Corps of Engineers, Director of Fortifications, Ex-Constituent, and Member of Several Literary Societies at Paris. In three volumes. Translated from the French. ... Vol. Volume 2. London, 1798. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. 10 Jan. 2012
Williams, Judith. Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 2006. (a book I will bring to class next week)
[i] Emmons, G.T. “Native Account of the Meeting between La Perouse and the Tlingit.”American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1911), pp. 294-298.
[ii] La Pérouse, Jean-François de Galaup, comte de. A voyage round the world, in the years 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, by J. F. G. de la Pérouse: published Conformably to the Decree of the National Assembly, of the 22d of April, 1791, and edited by M. L. A. Milet-Mureau, Brigadier General in the Corps of Engineers, Director of Fortifications, Ex-Constituent, and Member of Several Literary Societies at Paris. In three volumes. Translated from the French. ... Vol. Volume 2. London, 1798. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. 10 Jan. 2012
o/infomark.do?&source=gale&pro dId=ECCO&userGroupName=uvictor ia&tabID=T001&docId=CW10096833 5&type=multipage&contentSet=EC COArticles&version=1.0&docLeve l=FASCIMILE>, pp 118-121.
[iii] Satellite photos of Toulon harbour in France can be seen in Google Maps. Toulon is considered one of the best natural anchorages on the Mediterranean. Though Toulon is one of the largest harbours in Europe, Lituya Bay is larger because it is longer from end to end. The shape of Toulon harbour is similar to Lituya Bay in that there are two basins at the head of the bay, but in Lituya there is a long fjord from the mouth to the place where the bay divides in two. There is a similar S-shape for the entry to the harbour, but in Toulon there are no reefs and shallows present at the mouth. Lituya Bay has reefs and shallows because it is a fjord, scoured out by glaciers to have a deep, long, and narrow bay with a terminal moraine at the opening of the bay.
[iv] The square-rigged sails of the frigates would have made this adjustment far more complicated than the simpler sails on a sloop or a pleasure yacht more familiar to modern readers, which can come completely around in about ten seconds. Both frigates ended up running directly into the wind, La Pérouse wrote, with the current pushing them along.
[v] Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2005. P 145.
[vi] An astrolabe is used to calculate latitude north or south of the equator, and it is the precursor of modern quadrants and sextants, both of which La Pérouse used in navigating. In French, boussole is the word for a modern magnetic tilting compass.
[vii] These compasses were calibrated with far greater precision than earlier ship’s compasses, to indicate not only the direction of magnetic north but to give some indication by the tilting whether the compass is being brought closer to the magnetic North Pole.
[viii] Cruikshank states in an endnote on pp 273-274 that the British government offered these compasses to La Pérouse as a sign of respect for his behaviour in Hudson Bay in 1782. When La Pérouse was sent by the French government to Hudson Bay with inadequate maps, he was ordered to destroy British forts. He managed to take two forts without loss of life, making provision for the British men to return to England and leaving supplies for any traders who would return to find the forts destroyed. His considerate treatment of the conquered British citizens made a positive impression, as did his ability to interpret an ethical way to follow orders.