Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Saga of Doomed Whaleship Retold Essex Tale a True Survivor Story

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Saga of Doomed Whaleship Retold Essex Tale a True Survivor Story

Article excerpt

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

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick

Data: Penguin Putnam, 238 pages, $24.95

Review by Mims Cushing

The true story of the Nantucket whaleship Essex allows readers to appreciate the meaning of the word "survivor." The saga is also notable because it provided the basis for Herman Melville's great novel, Moby Dick.

The 21 young sailors who set out from Nantucket to chase whales in the summer of 1819 had no premonition of their upcoming, exquisite suffering. The Essex, commanded by Capt. George Pollard Jr., had the reputation of being a "lucky ship," though in the end it would gain as much attention for its ill fate as the Titanic did a century later.

The Essex was one of more than 70 ocean-going ships hunting whales that summer. The mostly-inexperienced crew had every expectation of being back in Long Island waters within two to three years, a routine voyage. They hoped to bring back bursting barrels of whale oil to fatten Nantucket's blooming economy.

But 15 months into the voyage, their whale-hunting success was limited, and they had endured treacherous gales. Philbrick describes the grim despair of the teenage sailors. Using first-person accounts from a few survivors, he gives breadth to the early days of commotion and confusion, which later yielded to hopelessness. He describes the surreal attempts to find a safe harbor.

Then, in the South Pacific, bizarre tragedy.

The Essex's sinking was due to an attack by an enraged sperm whale, part of a pod being hunted by the sailors. The pursuit began as any other. Small boats were launched from the main ship and the chase was on. With the harpoon firmly snugged into the hunted whale, the sailors were off on "a Nantucket sleigh ride" -- the wild careening of a boat pulled by a frenzied whale. …

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