In the Heart of the Sea written by Nathaniel Philbrick is a gripping account of the fight for life at sea in 1820. It is made even more poignant given that it is a true story. The story, in fact, that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
This tale, written from a compilation of well studied sources and, predominantly, the account of cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, follows the first captaincy of young yet capable, George Pollard Jr., and the destruction of the Nantucket whaleship, the Essex.
Leaving the famous whaling town of Nantucket for what was meant to be a two and a half year spermwhale hunt, the Essex met trouble early on in their voyage when they were hit by a storm. The crew persisted, regardless of the damage, and were soon to meet even greater troubles.
The challenging adventure turned to tragedy when, while most of the crew were harpooning whales further out to sea, the 23 year old first-mate, Owen Chase, spotted an enormous 85ft spermwhale watching the Essex. Suddenly the whale came straight for the 87ft ship, an act of aggression previously unknown to whalers. The gargantuan, enraged male hit the ship head-on and water flooded in with great speed. The rest of the crew returned and all hands were put to claiming as many provisions and supplies as possible and loading them and themselves into the three, much smaller and exposed, whaleboats. These boats were built for speed rather than durability and were prone to leaks as the planks overlapped each other rather than fitting together smoothly. (The spare whaleboat had been destroyed in the storm at the beginning of their trip.) The three boats were lead by Captain George Pollard Jr., confident first-mate Owen Chase, and second-mate Matthew Joy. Hit hard by the destruction of his ship on his first captaincy, Pollard failed to act as the strong leader the crew needed and decisions were often discussed and the mates, particularly Chase, took greater charge.
The crew of 20 had now to navigate their way to land from the middle of the desolate Pacific Ocean with what little navigational tools they possessed. They spent months at sea, attempting to keep their boats together and survive as a group. Their optimism at being picked up by another ship waned and their excitement at finding land was short-lived as they found very little food or water.
What followed was a cut-throat fight for life. Eventually, the three boats lost each other and each had to survive on its own. The men experienced heatstroke, dehydration, killer whale attacks, starvation, madness, death, execution and cannibalism.
Some believed, Thomas Nickerson included, that if Pollard had taken his crew west as he had first intended after the attack, then they would not have met with such great loss and devastation. Chase and Joy’s input, however, led them east and, with it, to most of their deaths.
Thomas Nickerson, the 14 year old Cabin boy and youngest on the ship, penned his experience in his old age, decades after being rescued in 1821 by a British whaleship, Indian, 90 days after the Essex sunk. His account was lost until 1960. Prior to this, Owen Chase’s account of the experience was the only one to have been recorded in full and, it was believed, did not provide as truthful an account as Nickerson later did.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s detailed telling of the spermwhale attack on the Essex is very well done and includes some vital knowledge into whaling history which would be unknown to many of his modern audience.
On a separate note, In the Heart of the Sea has been adapted into a film of the same name which will be released next year. The film stars Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase, Cillian Murphy as Matthew Joy and Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville. It is a great line up which, I am sure, will do the book and, more importantly, the incredible true story, justice.