- Historic Sites
The Essex Disaster
She was the first whaleship ever sunk by her prey. But that’s not why she’s remembered.
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
When the Essex sailed for the southern seas, it was just a typical Nantucket whaler, a tubby, 238-ton three-master, provisioned for a two-and-a-half-year cruise.
What happened next brought sheer, numbing shock. Chase’s order was scarcely out of his mouth before the whale, at full speed, struck the ship with his head.
What happened next brought sheer, numbing shock. Chase’s order to sheer off from the whale was “scarcely out of my mouth before he came down upon us with full speed and struck the ship with his head. ” The Essex trembled from the blow, and “we looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech. ” Minutes later the silence was broken by a frantic shout from one of the men: “Here he is—he is making for us again!” The impossible was happening a second time. The whale, having passed under the Essex , had turned around to attack it once more, “with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.” This time when it struck, the strangely malignant whale completely staved in the bow of the Essex . Snatching up a few supplies, the eight men on board jumped into a whaleboat, pulled at its oars a few times, and then sat back in silence and despair as they watched their ship, their home, their safety, slowly heel over on its side and settle softly in the vast, empty sea.
While Chase and his mates sat in their whaleboat “absorbed in our own melancholy reflections,” the rest of the crew returned from the hunt. Facing forward while the others rowed, the steerer of Captain Pollard’s boat was the first to see the grim spectacle. “Oh, my God,” he cried out, “where is the ship?” Captain Pollard leaped to his feet to look. After one shocking glimpse of the heeled-over Essex , with its masts and sails dipping into the sea, he fell back into the boat, ashen-faced and speechless. Pulling himself together, the captain called to his first mate: “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” He answered, “We have been stove in by a whale.” It was indeed what Chase was to call it: “a sudden, most mysterious and overwhelming calamity.”