SYDNEY, DEC. 13 -- Eight sailing ships dropped anchor in West Australia's Fremantle harbor this weekend to a welcome of cheering crowds after a seven-month voyage from Britain -- a 17,000-mile journey that recreated the hazardous trip 200 years earlier of the first European settlers to Australia.
"The most fantastic welcome we have had anywhere," said historian Jonathan King, organizer of the bicentennial reenactment, of the early-morning greeting as civilian crew members scaled the rigging to wave to spectators on the crowded breakwater and a flotilla of small craft in the harbor.
It was their first Australian landfall following more than a month at sea after leaving the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
On May 13 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip saw the eight vessels off as they sailed from Portsmouth in southern England. On the same day and from the same port 200 years earlier, Capt. Arthur Philip, aboard the 520-ton warship HMS Sirius, led out to sea 10 other vessels crammed with more than 700 convicts and supplies on an eight-month voyage to establish a new colony and dumping ground for Britain's criminals.
Over the next 80 years, a further 158,000 convicts were transported to the settlement in New South Wales.
On board the 1787 fleet was Lt. Philip Gidley King, who was to become the colony's third governor and whose diaries, read more than 180 years later in a British museum, inspired his descendant Jonathan King to organize the reenactment.
This year's voyage, financed by public subscription, was becalmed for a time in Rio de Janeiro until a radio and television appeal in Australia raised enough money for the fleet to set sail again.
Ships from seven countries joined the voyage with untrained crews of civilians who paid to join various legs of the expedition, which called at 14 ports. Although only 33 people have completed the entire journey from Portsmouth, the fleet has carried almost 800 trainee seamen from 40 countries -- the oldest a 72-year-old woman who insisted on climbing the rigging and swabbing the decks like her far younger shipmates.
Although dysentery and early signs of scurvy took 23 lives on the first fleet, Henrik Nielsen was the only member of the reenactment voyage to die. He fell from the Anna Kristina during a night squall in the Atlantic and disappeared.
Boredom was the most common complaint among the novice seafarers. Others complained of a beer shortage, and some vessels reported shortages of fresh fruit and fresh water for washing.
The journey will be completed on Jan. 26, when the vessels sail into Sydney harbor exactly 200 years after the first fleet unloaded its human cargo in the new land.