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Group to build replica of Darwin’s Beagle

The ship will retrace the 1831-’36 voyage that produced the naturalist’s “On the Origin of Species”

She was instrumental in shaping one of history’s most important discoveries — Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Now, the HMS Beagle is poised to make an historical comeback for the naturalist’s 200th birthday in 2009.

A painting by John Chancellor depicts HMS Beagle off James Island in the Galapagos, October 1835.

Britons Peter McGrath, 43, a commercial skipper, and David Lort-Phillips, 70, an organic farmer with ties to the original Beagle, are taking on what will be a $10 million project — to build a replica of the ship and re-create her historic circumnavigation for educational purposes. With the help of American sailor Norman James, 76, founder of Friends of the HMS Beagle in Barrington, R.I., they are seeking funds to help move the project forward.

“We hope to build her at Milford Haven docks [in Wales], not far from where David lives,” says McGrath, who spoke with Soundings in a telephone interview from England. “Outside she will be an exact replica, but inside she’ll have all modern technology.”

The original Beagle was a 90-foot Cherokee class brig. They were known as the “workhorses” of the seas. She was launched May 11, 1820, at Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames and spent most of the first five years of her commission in reserve. In 1825, she was adapted for use as a survey ship, her rig converted to a bark.

“We fully intend on bringing her back to the bark status, but she’ll be slightly heavier with the addition of two 220-hp inboard motors,” says McGrath, who will be her captain. “We will build her out of oak with oak frames … and then a crane will place her in the water. From there, we will add the masts.”

Charles Darwin 1809-1882

The Beagle’s first major voyage was from May 1826 to October 1830, surveying the southern tip of South America, including Tierra del Fuego. It was during this voyage that the Beagle Channel was explored and named.

Robert Fitzroy captained the Beagle on her subsequent 1831-1836 circumnavigation. A young Darwin came aboard through a friend of a friend, pleased at the opportunity to broaden his horizons. The voyage brought forth one of the world’s most important scientific breakthroughs: Darwin’s book “On The Origin of Species,” published in 1859.

“Darwin came to many of his discoveries reluctantly. He had many arguments with Fitzroy, who was a religious fundamentalist,” says McGrath. “At the end, Fitzroy wrote his own account of the journey, trying to justify Darwin’s findings with his own religious beliefs.”

Lort-Phillips, McGrath’s partner, has a connection to the Beagle and that famous voyage. His great-great grandfather, John Lort Stokes, was a junior officer aboard the ship and shared a cabin with Darwin. Stokes eventually commanded the vessel during her third voyage, to Australia from 1837 to 1843.
The Beagle later became a watch vessel moored on the River Roach on the Essex coast near the north bank of the Thames Estuary. Her primary purpose was to control smuggling. In 1851, oyster companies and traders petitioned that she be removed because she was obstructing the river. In 1870, she was sold to local scrap merchants to be deconstructed.

Lort-Phillips and McGrath met three years ago through a common interest in the Beagle and have since been working to make the replica project a reality. When they began looking for U.S. interest in the project, the answer dropped into their laps. Norman James, the Friends of the HMS Beagle founder, met Lort-Phillips last May in a chance encounter while visiting Pembrokeshire with his granddaughter Lauren. They stayed at a bed-and-breakfast at Knowles Farm, an organic farm that Lort-Phillips owns.

“We were looking for somewhere to stay, and we came upon this old farmhouse that had been converted into a bed-and-breakfast,” says James. “When I mentioned I was from Rhode Island, he asked me if I had heard about his project, to which I said, ‘What project?’ And that’s where it got started.”

James was born in Wales in 1932, and his family left for America in 1945, after World War II. He is a casual sailor, so when Lort-Phillips explained the project to him, he was hooked. “My career background is project management, and he asked me if I could help gather support from America,” says James. “There is so much people can learn from this, so I got started right away.”

James recalls teaching at a private school in Rochester, N.Y., in 1958 and answering a boy’s question about evolution, since there was no mention of it in the school’s textbooks. He was told by school officials that he could not teach evolution because of an agreement made between the school and some parents.
“I was very surprised,” says James. “Even scientists agree now that not enough has been done to inform the public about Darwin’s findings. Restoring the Beagle would give us an enormously powerful tool to educate young people about evolution.”

With the help of a former colleague, James set up Friends of the HMS Beagle and, at press time, was seeking 501C-3 non-profit status so donations to the project can be tax-exempt. He hopes to have the status approved by February.

“Having the support from the USA makes me a lot more optimistic about the feasibility of this project than I was a few months ago,” says McGrath. “This will be something that will hopefully bring Darwin’s theory to light for people all over the world.”

James says McGrath has just started negotiations with prospective donors for the project. For information or to donate to the project, contact James at (401) 289-0823.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.