Friday, October 31, 2014

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick was an interesting nonfiction account of the last voyage of the whaleship Essex and the fight for survival of its crew after being rammed by a huge sperm whale, with this sinking the basis for Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.

Philbrick’s story was an historical tale of danger, resiliency and horrible decisions and definitely compelling reading. He wrote of how the Essex in August 1819 sailed out of Nantucket, 24 miles of the coast of New England, and then was rammed by a sperm whale on November 20th, 1820 and subsequently sunk in the middle of the Pacific. Twenty men then boarded three small whaling crafts and the captain of the Essex, George Pollard, wanted to sail these crafts to the Marquesas Islands some 1,200 miles away or the Society Islands (home to Taihiti) roughly 2,000 miles away but first mate Owen Chase and second mate Matthew Joy convinced Pollard that the dangers of cannibals there too great and they should return to South America, some 4,500 miles away.

The sailors had limited food and water and likely would have all perished if not for hitting land December 19th, roughly a month after the whale attack. Their first concern upon reaching the shores of Henderson Island, only 400 miles northeast of Pitcairn Island where they would have been rescued, was being attacked by natives, of which there were none, and after a week of finding and consuming limited food and water on Henderson, the ships (minus three men who decided to stay on island) left with a target of Easter Island, about a third of the 3,000 miles to the coast of Chile. The boats were unable to hit Easter Island and continued towards South America, with this being the point that sailors began to die of starvation and dehydration. Eventually the cannibalism that the Chase and Joy cited as the reason to not head towards Tahiti came about, only now it was the men eating those who passed as way to survive.

First mate Owen Chase and two additional sailors were the remaining crew of one of the boats and rescued February 18th off the coast of South America by the ship Indian and captain Pollard and one remaining crew member on his craft rescued five days later, also close to South America, by the crew of The Dauphin. As a result of this, a ship then went to Dulcie Island where the three crew members were said to be on, found it uninhabited, and then correctly surmised that they may actually be on Henderson Island 70 miles away. With five crew rescued from the two small boats, this left the whereabouts of the third boat unknown, until five years later when it was found up washed ashore of Dulcie Island, with three skeletons in it.

The book wraps up with the eight men returning to Nantucket and the captain of the Essex, George Pollard, being so accepted upon his return from disaster that he was made captain for another voyage and three months after his return sailed out on the whaleship, the Two Brothers, which then sunk several hundred miles west of Hawaii after hitting coral reefs during heavy winds. While this sinking effectively ended Pollard’s career as a whaleboat captain, he returned to Nantucket and lived out of the remainder of a full life. The story of the Essex and its men is a remarkable one and told very well by Philbrick with both huge detail and a focus on entertaining the reader throughout, and will be told in film by Ron Howard with a March 2015 theatrical release of In the Heart of the Sea.