In the Heart of the Sea -thetragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Philbrick, Nathaniel
pub. by Viking (Penguin), NY 2000       isbn 0965-032871 - , 302 p. total - preface p. xi -- Crew of Esses (list) p.xvii -- labeled diagram of Essex p. xviii Notes p. 239-278 -- Select Bibliography p. 279-290 -- Acknowledgements p. 291-294 -- index p. 295-302
I had been putting off reading this book. That was a mistake.
It is an excellent read. Well written, well researched and amazingly thorough.
The author relied on the published book by Mate. Owen Chase and a much more recently discovered hand written monograph by Nickerson, the cabin boy, as well as other descriptions of the events. Where they differed he made reasonable judgements on accuracy.
  Chapters -
    Nantucket p. 1
    Knockdown p. 28
    First Blood p. 44
    The Lees of Fire p. 62
    The Attack p. 77
    The Plan p. 92
    At Sea - p 104
    Centering Down p.123
    The Island p. 135
    The Whisper of Necessity p. 151
    Games of Chance p. 164
    In the Shadow p. 177
    Homecoming p. 190
    Consequences p. 207
    Epilogue - Bones p. 230
    Notes - p. 239

Philbrick sets the stage for the story with enough detail to understand the late details, but does not smother the reader with extraneous verbiage. He then moves on to the early part of the voyage showing that things are not going as well as they could. Early in the voyage, in the Atlantic, they were in a hurry with too much sail up, were hit by a squall and incurred some damage. It was obvious to crew and officers that the captain was in error.
They seem to have sailed past Cape Horn (southern tip of S. America) with little damage and made it to staging ports in western S. America. Here they lost a crew member who abandoned ship. This created a further hardship as there were few enough along to properly handle the Essex and the whaleboat crews when on the hunt. The whaling grounds closer to S. America had been depleated and the more fertile grounds were farther west into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This was much further from supply bases in S. America. It was here, far from any land, that while the whaleboats were in chase, and one was stove (broken) and being repaired on deck, that a large sperm whale attacked the Essex ramming it with its massive bony head twice, breaking boards in the hull and causing it to leak and eventually sink. The Essex did not sink immediately. Most of its cargo was not heavier than sea water. It floated awash for over a day allowing the whaleboats to take provisions and even rig sails. (At this point in history working whaleboats were not rigged with sails.) They and even add a board to make their sides higher to make them more seaworthy as lifeboats.
From that point on the crew was in survival mode. There was some re-distribution of crew. An unfortunate decision was made to return to S. America, generally upwind, instead of a much easier sail downwind to mid-Pacific islands. They took navigation tools and could determine their latitude fairly easily, but not their longitude - no chronometer and they were not prepared to do lunars. They only had 2 compasses between the 3 boats. They were working with bad and outdated information that the inhabitants of those islands which were downwind and easier to sail toward were cannibals. (In fact they were well into being ~missionized~. The inhabitants were not as fierce as they had been some time before.
They attempted to sail in company, keeping one another in sight. This worked for some time, but they eventually agreed to give this up as looking for a lost boat and/or waiting delayed their progress and endangered the whole by that delay. This was increasingly important as food and water became more scarce and their sufferings greater.
They sailed South to achieve a better wind belt to allow them to get to S. America, and happened upon Henderson Island (which they had mis-identified as Dulcie Island). There was little to eat and practically nothing to drink on the island. Skeletons of previous castaways were found. After refreshing themselves by eating birds and finding a trickle of water which was only available at low tide they abandoned the island had headed on. Three decided to stay, and although they had a hard time of it, were eventually rescued.
Their most seveare tribulations came on this last part of their boat voayage. The boats got separated. Circumstances forced them to cannabilism, first of crew who naturally died, and finally one occasion of drawing lots and a crew member allowing himself to be killed to feed the others.
The boat headed by Second Mate Matthew Joy was lost and may have been found much later with skeletons aboard. The boat headed by Capt. George Pollard Jr. and the one by Mate. Owen Chase were each rescued in independent incidents.
Philbrick did considerable research on the effects of starvation and describes what the bodies and minds of the crew went through, as well as their long recuperation.
He follows each of the survivors to the ends of their lives. Pollard for instance was given another whaleship. That venture ended in disaster on French Frigate shoal many miles NNW of Hawaii. All were rescued but that incident ended his career. Owen Chase sailed on several more successful whale hunts.
A final part of the book describes a modern stranding and natural death of a sperm whale on Nantucket Island and its study by the local museum and National Fisheries.
This was a thorough study of the events surrounding the sinking of the Essex. It was a very good read.
~ 2016-02-17 ~

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