A new book about the HM Bark Endeavour brings to life not just one of the greatest voyages in history, but the spirit of the age of discovery too. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

TWO hundred and fifty years ago this weekend, a small Whitby-built collier set sail from Plymouth on a voyage unlike any she - or any other ship - had ever made.

The HM Bark Endeavour had been built just four years earlier, and originally named the Earl of Pembroke. She was a blunt-nosed tub of a ship designed to carry heavy cargoes of coal down the east coast, and built not for speed but for sturdy reliability.

It was that latter quality which saw her chosen for one of the most remarkable voyages ever made. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy, re-christened the Endeavour, and put under the command of a young naval lieutenant, James Cook. As naval custom would have it, once on board, this young lieutenant was addressed instead as Captain.

At a casual glance, the ship would have looked like an ordinary, unglamorous coal collier as she sailed slowly out of harbour. But a closer inspection would have revealed more. "There was... the red ensign over her stern signalling she was a commissioned ship of the navy on detached duties," writes Peter Moore in his new book Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the world. "There was her lowness in the water beneath the strain of the provisions, drawing something like fourteen feet fore and aft. Then, more than anything else, there was the sheer number of sailors: men teeming everywhere, cross-legged on the forecastle and the main deck, hanging from the shrouds, leaning over the bows, high in the tops."

Endeavour's mission was to sail to the Pacific Ocean to chart the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun - a measure which would be used by scientists to work out how far we were away from the sun - and then to sail on into the uncharted waters of the South Pacific in search of the 'terra australis incognita', or 'unknown southern land'. It was to be almost three years before she returned to her native shores, having sailed around the world, claimed several Pacific islands for the British Empire, charted the coast of New Zealand, become the first European ship to visit the east coast of Australia - and run aground on the Great Barrier Reef.

After her epic voyage of discovery, our view of the world was never to be the same again. Cook went on to make another famous sea voyage - on a different ship, the Resolution. The Endeavour was largely forgotten - set to plying the Atlantic between Britain and the Falklands, then sold into private hands and, renamed the Lord Sandwich, hired as a British troop transport during the American War of Independence. She ended her life by being scuttled during a blockade of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, in 1778.

It is this extraordinary story which Moore, a journalist and academic, sets out to tell in his book. He gives the voyage for which this ugly coal collier will go down in history its full due, describing with an almost poetic power the epic journey into the unknown.

In January 1769, the Endeavour rounded notorious, storm-wracked Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, sailing through the Strait of Le Maire, which threads through the maze of islands to the south of Tierra del Fuego, with 'an eerie tranquility' that none of her crew had expected before heading off into the lonely waters of the Pacific. "Cook plied south-west, the best he could do with the contrary winds," Moore writes. "It took them into a region of dank mists, surging winds and squalling showers of rain and hail. Increasingly south of the cape, Endeavour and the royal albatrosses overhead were left as the only punctuating signs of life."

Months later, on the evening of June 10, having claimed several Pacific islands for the Empire, and charted the coast of New Zealand, Endeavour was sailing west in search of the 'unknown southern land'. There was a 'fine, even breeze of wind', Moore writes. "It was a clear, moonlit night. Swinging the lead (used to check the depth of the water) the sailor found something that surprised him. The depth had been deepening... but then in an instant the trend reversed...Then, at a few minutes to eleven o'clock... the hull clattered against something. All her forward motion was arrested in a single, jarring instant." Endeavour had run aground on the Great Barrier Reef.

Moore's research is impeccable, his writing luminous and poetic. He brings the epic voyage of ship and crew to glowing, vivid life. But Endeavour the book is much more than just an account of this one voyage.

It is also about the spirit of the age of discovery. The word 'endeavour', Moore writes, derives from the French 'devoir' - to do ones duty. It came to mean something like 'a strenuous attempt or enterprise'. "To endeavour is to quest after something not easily attained, perhaps verging on the impossible," he writes. "It is something one feels impelled towards or duty-bound to peruse nevertheless." You would not 'endeavour' to learn the guitar, but you might endeavour to explore space - or, like Cook and his crew, to set out in a small coal ship built in Whitby to discover a new world.

That was the spirit of Cook's age. And it is the spirit which haunts this wonderful book from first page to last.

It is a wonderful reminder of just why Whitby has every right to be proud of this undistinguished little ship which changed our understanding of the world.

BLOB Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World, by Peter Moore, is published by Chatto & Windus priced £20 today