Four hundred years ago, Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.
Setting sail from Plymouth in the 100-ton Golden Hind, his primary incentive was to plunder Spanish treasure and claim new territory for his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I.
Last November, in the reign of another Elizabeth, a newer English sailing ship, the 150-ton brigantine Eye of the Wind, set sail from Plymouth for a two-year expedition to commemorate Drake's voyage.
This time however, the purpose of the trip is far different from Drake's. The expedition called Operation Drake, involves nine phases, each of which is being manned by a separate and international crew of young people who are undertaking biological and geographical surveys, archaeological excavations, medical and community projects in various ports of call along the route.
Twenty-year-old Cathy Lawrence last week returned home to Brampton from Phase 3 of Operation Drake. In April she had joined the crew of the Eye of the Wind in Panama and was with it for a 3,000-mile, three-month trip to Fiji Islands in the South Pacific.
On their last night in Fiji, just before the 24-member Phase 3 student crew (from Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, disbanded), they voted Lawrence the best crewmember among them for her contributions to the expedition. This honor entitled Lawrence to a special commemorative gold watch donated by a British jeweller.
Nevertheless it isn't the watch that Lawrence, a third-year student at Queen's University, will remember from Operation Drake but the comradeship of her fellow crewmembers and enticing sense of adventure which marked the three-month journey.
"Everything seemed too good to be really happening," Lawrence told The Guardian". It was a totally a new experience with new people and I was physically and mentally challenged every day."
From thousands of applications, Lawrence was one of four Canadian young people to be chosen for Phase 3 of Operation Drake. In april, she joined the Eye of the Wind's new crew in Panama City and got acquainted on a cruise through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean.
They later sailed up the Central American coast to Costa Rica where they aided marine scientists who were doing a study of the density of barnacles along the shoreline. The group then hiked through the jungle to a place called Drake's Bay, where the old English adventurer had landed four centuries ago.
The trek through the jungle was an experience in itself for Lawrence.
"We knew just how many potential dangers there were in the jungle and we kept pinching ourselves to make us realize we were really doing this."
She noted that the hikers slept in hammocks with just huge banana leaves for shelter.
From Central America the Eye of the Wind set out into open sea making for the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin first started thinking about his evolution theory. Here the group assisted the Charles Darwin Research Station in its conservation projects.
"The Galapagos were a completely different world, a biological paradise." said Lawrence.
"I had never thought much about evolution before but knowing about Darwin and seeing what he saw, sparked a lot of discussion and I became keen.
From Galapagos, the Eye of the Wind set sail for Tahiti, hundreds of miles distant across the Pacific. Not an experienced sailor before being chosen for Operation Drake, Lawrence had to learn quickly once out in open sea. The ship's twelve sails and 90 ft.-high masts were a little intimidating at first, she admitted, but added that she "got to know the ropes" after a few days because of the encouragment of the ship's permanent captain and the three or four full-time sailors on board.
Nevertheless all the young people on board were "a little green" when first setting out, she said.
Luckily, no serious storms hampered the passage to Tahiti and the group was able to work with the ship's marine biologist who was busy measuring air pollution, using sensitive mast-head instruuments designed by the Institute of Marine Environment Research at Plymouth. Another project was to gather plankton and fish which were examined for heavy metal pollution.
Once past Tahiti however, the ship's progress was slowed by reefs and a series of severe gales and squalls, sometimes with winds reaching 80 m.p.h.
Lawrence was at the helm when "a squall, like a huge, black wall came up," which, she said, terrified her. Coming through it, she added, was a "monumental experience."
The end of Operation Drake's Phase 3 in Fiji and the beginning of its Phase 4, with a new crew of young explorers was a sad experience for Lawrence and others.
Back at home in Brampton she said it's hard for her to stop thinking about the shared adventures of the last few months.
"The people were the highlight. We learned a lot about each other and the countries we're from," she said.
Lawrence hopes to get together with her friends again when the Eye of the Wind arrives back in England next year.
"It should be a big celebration," she said.
Guidance and support for Operation Drake is supplied by the Scientific Exploration Society of Britain and an assortment of youth and exploration groups throughout the world.