Between candles and electricity, whale oil fueled our lamps in the evening. The punishing and lucrative business of hunting whales and extracting the oil was centered on Nantucket Island in the early 19th century. Everyone who lived there was connected to the whaling industry by trade and by blood.
From this place, on August 12, 1819, the 87-foot Essex sailed set sail on a 2-3 year journey to the Pacific to fill its hold with sperm whale oil. This voyage became legend, and the legend became Herman Melville’s novel, “Moby Dick”, published in 1851.
Led by Captain George Pollard, Jr. and first mate, Owen Chase, the Essex and its 21 crew members sailed around Cape Horn on their way to the mid-Pacific offshore grounds – about as far away from any land mass as a ship can travel. On November 20, 1820, an enormous 85-foot, 80 ton male whale deliberately rammed the ship several times, leaving huge holes in its sides. In years of fishing lore, this was the first account of a whale attacking a ship. It was astonishing to the crew, and deemed to be from the hand of God, like Jonah of the Old Testament.
The Essex’s voyage was clouded by bad omens from start. Just prior to sailing, a comet appeared in the evening sky, followed by a swarm of locusts on Nantucket Island. Three days away from port, the under-provisioned and under-manned Essex suffered a “knockdown”, nearly capsizing in a gale. Sea faring men are notoriously superstitious and considered these episodes as signs of an unlucky ship.
As the Essex was sinking, the crew divided among three 25-foot whaling boats. They recovered as many supplies and as much drinking water from the wreck as possible, and devised a plan to sail to South America – roughly 3,000 miles distant and against prevailing winds. The Polynesian islands to the west were closer and easier to reach, but their natives were rumored to be cannibals. Sailing east was a fateful decision.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” describes the colossal challenges facing these men: meager food and water, old whale boats retrofitted for sailing that were designed for rowing, few navigational aids, morale issues and, of course, wind and weather unknowns.
Unlike “Moby Dick” which ends with the sinking of the Pequod, losing the Essex was only half the original tale. What followed was 60 odd days in the open ocean. When finally rescued, only eight severely emaciated members of the crew survived.
Some tragic stories end with everyone surviving a hardship; some end with no survivors. The most tragic stories, however, are ones where a different decision might have made a difference in the outcome, and when only a handful of the original members survive. These wretches have to live on, carrying the burden of survival by any means necessary.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a story about leadership under duress; of great seamanship and endurance; of how legends are born and transformed into something entirely new; of human tragedy in its purest form, and, of course, the whale.
The movie is coming out in March. Hopefully, it is true to the essence of the Essex tragedy.