In the Heart of the Sea

  By Kilroy, January 2007; Revised
In the Heart of the Sea:  The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - By Nathaniel Philbrick. Penguin Books. 

Being the ardent land lover that I am, I tended to stay away from books of the nautical variety until the day I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s gem In the Heart of the Sea.  I can say without any hesitation this is one of the best nonfiction books I have read, period.

In the Heart of the Sea relates the story of the ill-fated voyage of the whaleship Essex and the tragic survival story of it’s crew.  On November the 20th 1820, an 84 foot whale sunk the 238 ton whaleship nearly 3,000 miles off the coast of South America.  The crew than floundered about the endless expanse of the Pacific for 93 days in leaky whaleboats with little food and water, plagued by high seas, dehydration, starvation and were soon forced into cannibalism.  The tragedy of the Essex is one of the most dramatic ever to unfold on the high seas.  This is the very stuff that inspired Herman Melville’s famed Moby Dick.

The book starts out introducing us to the times and culture of the ships home port of Nantucket, the whaling capital of the world.  Immersing us in it’s history, Philbrick details how a small island off the coast of Massachusetts became the most active and dominant whale port in the world and puts us into context with the rest of the story.  As a land lover, I knew nothing of the ranks of seamen, the trappings of a whaleship or the rituals and traditions associated with the preparations and sailing of a whaleship but I never found myself lost on the deck of the ship.  Philbrick deftly manages to include all the necessary details in order to place me right on there with the crewmen, without drowning me in nautical lingo or unnecessary detail. 

From the moment the Essex’s set sail to the moment it sank, you are drawn into life onboard the whaleship.  With fascinating and sometimes grisly detail, Philbrick pulls the reader in as the crew faces sudden squalls and mountainously high seas as they make their way from the east coast of  the United States to the whale rich waters of the deep South Pacific.  Along the way, the story is related to us less like a historic text and more like good fiction.  We get to know the crew of the Essex; their personalities, histories, hopes, fears and everything in between.  You are even guided step by step through the grisly process of extracting the oil from the captured sperm whales.

For 93 days, the crew of the Essex floundered on the high seas.  With little food, water or equipment, the crew journeyed for 4,500 nautical miles all the while suffering from the effects of dehydration, starvation and even the withdrawal effects of tobacco.  The crew make tremendous efforts while battling high seas, storms and even sharks.  The author even includes some interesting and useful details on the physiological and psychological effects of starvation and dehydration.  The crew also had to face the terrifying fact that  any one of their boats may be lost in a storm. All three of the boats concluded that if one of the boats was lost, the others would just keep going for fear of fruitlessly wasting time in a search effort.  The situation these men faced was desperate. 

Philbrick does not shy away from the gruesome details of the crews subsequent fall to cannibalism.  You can’t help but be physically taken aback as you read the account of how the crew drew lots to see whom would be shot and consumed; the Captain himself eventually had to eat his own cousin.    However, the author notes that while this act was taboo, it was hardly the first time this occurred around the time period.  He briefly delves into other accounts of nautical cannibalism and is quick to point out the ‘unspoken’ rule of survival on the high seas. 

Upon ending the book, the author relates to us the stories of the survivors.  Their recovery, what they did after the rescue and how they were greeted by the rest of society.  I found this of particular interest, many of the survivors chose to return to the sea, even after the terrible ordeal. 

The book also includes many useful and interesting pictures midway through the book.  Pictures of the various people such as the First Mate and Captain and others are given.  Drawings and diagrams of the whaling ships are a great addition, and of course pictures of sperm whales are included also.

No one is more qualified to relate this story than Nathaniel Philbrick.  The book is exhaustively researched, look no further than the 69 pages of notes at the end of the book.  He is a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association and currently is residing on the island.  He relies heavily on the first hand accounts of the first mate Owen Chase, and the newly discovered journal of the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, as well as secondary letters from the time period and the island historian of the time, Obed Macy.  Philbrick manages to recreate the tragedy of the Essex in an easy to read manner.  My only qualm with the book is that at some points the narrative can be somewhat dry.  But this may very from reader to reader and hardly overshadows the rest of the book.  In the Heart of the Sea delivers it all, an epic story of survival, tragic ending and good writing.  I highly recommend it.

4.5 out of 5