You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

This is a book that fell into my hands by chance when a friend handed it to me. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick is an historical account of the whaleship Essex, which in 1820 was attacked and sunk by a whale.

The story starts in Nantucket, where the Essex is getting ready to sail to the Pacific Ocean under her new captain, George Pollard, Jr. It is Pollard's first sail as captain, after serving as first mate on the ship. Owen Chase, one of the boatsteerers, takes the position of first mate. Also on the ship is Pollard's young cousin, Owen Coffin, and a fourteen-year-old cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson.

The voyage starts off poorly with bad weather and the loss of a whaleboat. They do not spot a whale until the south Atlantic. With their luck still bad, they enter an area of the Pacific called the Offshore Ground, a region east of the Galapagos known to be full of whales.

While two of the boats are chasing down whales, an giant old bull hits the ship. While Chase and others try to figure out what to do, the whale hits the ship again and the ship starts to sink. By the time the whaleboats return, the ship is nearly all under water. The men are devastated. They gather water and what little food they can salvage, as well as some navigation tools.

Here they make a momentous decision. Instead of sailing southwest to Tahiti or French Polynesia, they decide to sail to South America, two thousand miles to the east against prevailing winds. They are fearful of cannibals in the islands of the South Pacific, so choose the longer trip despite having low supplies. Before they run out of food, though nearly out of water, they reach Henderson Island, a small outcropping of coral. They manage to find a small spring and quench their awful thirst and get a little food. But when they leave, three of the men are too weak for the trip and decide to stay on the island.

The three boats continue eastward, but due to the lack of food they men start dying. The boat with Chase in charge gets separated from the other two boats. Eventually the survivors decide that they must eat their dying comrades. In the book's worst moment, the men in Pollard's boat decide to draw straws for which one to eat before they are all too weak to be saved, and Pollard's cousin Owen gets the short straw.

Pollard's boat and Chase's boat are eventually picked up by ships on the South America coast. The men make good recoveries. In a miracle, the three men on Henderson Island are rescued, despite the survivors believing they were on a different island to the east. The men make it back home and receive a warm welcome from the people of Nantucket.

This story was gritty and real, though it had its happy moments. There are so many elements that went into the narrative, like the men's background, the life on the ship, and the decisions and events that led to the conclusion. If they had decided to go to Tahiti, they might have all survived. The long voyage in the boat--94 days in an open boat--is a harrowing tale and must have been gruesome to live through. No wonder the story of the Essex was so well known in the 19th century. I also enjoyed the stories of the men's homecoming and how they lived their lives after the ordeal. This story is a great one to read for any fan of naval history. A-


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