Australian history on the high seas. Sydney prepares to welcome fleet reenacting epic first voyage

GET the staysail up as soon as you can,'' shouts Capt. John Sorensen as his ketch plunges through an ocean roller, spraying the pine decks with a fine salty mist. Sun-bronzed deckhands leap to the rigging. As the crimson sail unfurls, a sou'westerly breeze tugs at the canvas. The captain squints upward, spinning the wheel a few notches in deference to the insistent wind.

Last May, the Anna-Kristina and 10 other square-rigged vessels set sail from Portsmouth, England. When the fleet sails into Sydney Harbor on Australia Day tomorrow, it will be the focal point of this nation's bicentennial festivities. The fleet's mission was to re-create an unprecedented maritime feat: Two hundred years ago, 11 ships - swollen with more than 700 British criminals - embarked on a grueling 15,000-mile voyage to Australia. (Aborigines boycott celebration, Page 7.)

This first voyage marked the establishment of a ``transportation'' system designed to rid Britain of ``undesirables.'' And from it sprang the first European settlement in Australia.

From 1788 to 1860, nearly 170,000 men, women, and children were sent to jail on ``this utterly enigmatic continent'' of bizarre fauna and foliage, as novelist Robert Hughes describes his homeland in ``The Fatal Shore,'' a best seller.

But naval and civil officers began buying land, convicts provided labor, and soon trading ships were calling in Sydney to carry wool back to England. Within 30 years, free settlers outnumbered the prisoners.

To teach Australians, and the world, about the epic founding voyage, historian Jonathan King launched the ``First Fleet Reenactment'' project.

Dr. King calls the fleet's eight-month journey ``the longest and largest history lesson ever taught.'' Following the original route, the fleet has stopped in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and the island of Mauritius, before reaching Australia.

It's an extraordinary trek which reinforces the Australian image of endurance and courage. But the fleet has courted controversy.

It reached Rio without enough money to continue. A US$1 million loan supposedly bestowed by the Australian Bicentennial Authority (ABA) had shrunk to $350,000. An urgent plea for private and corporate donations by a Sydney radio station got the fleet on its way again.

King claims federal financial support has been minimal for political reasons. He points out that the flotilla of Tall (sailing) Ships touring Australia, which has no historic relevance to this nation, received a $5.8 million grant.

``The government didn't feel it was a good idea to remind people that the land was taken by a convict fleet from Britain,'' says King. ``We're re-creating the memory of Europeans coming out here and dispossessing the aborigines.''

Indeed, the fleet's reenactment of Capt. Arthur Phillip's landing in Sydney Harbor tomorrow is expected to attract the largest aboriginal demonstration ever.

The First Fleet didn't get more support, replies spokeswoman Jemma Ryan, because the ABA felt the $5.8 million would be better spent on supporting Australian youths crewing on the Tall Ships with youths from other nations.

``It's a question of, `Is the bicentennial about the past or about looking forward?''' Ms. Ryan says.

For David Atkins, the First Fleet voyage has everything to do with looking forward. Mr. Atkins is attempting to emigrate to Australia via the fleet. Like many Englishmen before him, Australia is the land of ``much better opportunities if you're prepared to work for them.'' And like young men of yore, Atkins was smitten by the sight of the square-rigger ships at anchor in Portsmouth.

``It was a spur-of-the moment decision when I saw the ships and then an advertisement for an engineer on the Bounty,'' he recalls. He got the job on a Saturday. ``I had 48 hours' notice. It was rip, tear, and bust to get everything sorted out and done before we left.'' By Monday, he was sleeping in the third engineer's bunk.

Atkins is still waiting to hear if the Australian immigration office will grant his residency request. Fleet historian King notes that someone actually stowed away on the original fleet. He was allowed to stay, becoming Australia's first official immigrant. King hopes authorities today will be as lenient.

While today's crew members live in relative luxury, the ocean remains as unforgiving. The fleet was challenged by several severe storms on this trip. During one, the first mate of the Anna-Kristina was swept overboard and lost at sea.

Despite such risks, the fleet has filled about 200 berths on each leg of the journey to Australia. (Between February and June, the fleet will be making shorter trips between Australian ports.) So far, some 1,000 customers have shelled out about $136 a day to gain experience in sailing a square-rigger.

Some of the fleet crew, such as Australian Don Mitten, paid for one leg as a ``trainee'' and then were ``hired'' for subsequent legs.

``I'd never been on the ocean before. The furthest I'd been out to sea was as far as I could swim,'' says Mr. Mitten, a sheep farmer. ``But when I was a young fella, I used to dream about Spanish galleons. And I learned enough in a month as a trainee that they took me on as an able-bodied seaman, as a volunteer.''

Fleet participants find many highlights in this historic voyage. For some it was the high jinks of the King Neptune ceremony for first-time equatorial crossings. For some, the singing of sea chanties beneath a star-filled sky, or watching whales and dolphins frolicking alongside the ship. Others talk about the companionship (one couple became engaged during the voyage and later married).

But for Helga Richent, who cashed in her retirement savings, the ``sea fairies'' are her most cherished memory.

``On night watch in calm seas,'' she says as the ship gently rolls beneath her bare feet, ``you can see the plankton rise, thousands and thousands of tiny phosphorescent dots rising from the depths, bubbling up like a curtain of light. It's beautiful.''

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