The Essex Disaster

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The plight of the men of the Essex , shipless on the vast sea, was more than desperate. Disaster could scarcely have struck them in an area of the Pacific more devoid of islands or more bereft of maritime traffic: 0°40′ south latitude, 119° west longitude, according to Chase’s reckoning. To the east the nearest certain landfall was the coast of Peru, 2,400 miles away, but even that was out of reach, for the ocean current runs westward along the equator, and the winds there blow scarcely at all. A voyage southeast would have been worse. Below the equator the southeast trade winds would be blowing directly against the little square sail that was part of a whaleboat’s standard equipment. Due south there was nothing but a few distant speckles of land and nothing beyond them but Antarctica. One direction only seemed promising. Consulting their navigation manuals—the steward had rescued two while Chase snatched two compasses before abandoning ship—the two chief officers of the Essex were well aware that the Marquesa Islands lay only 1,500 miles southwest of them. With favoring winds and a west-running current, it was an entirely feasible voyage. To the Marquesas, however, they dared not set sail. “We feared,” Captain Pollard later explained, “that we should be devoured by cannibals if we cast ourselves on their mercy.” Poor, insular Nantucket men, so self-sufficient at sea, so ignorant of the land. The Marquesas, had they but known it, were friendly Polynesian territory, which a U.S. naval commander had actually claimed for the United States in 1813. As for their dread of cannibalism, that would prove a more grisly irony than they could possibly have conceived.

To reach safety, then, they had no choice it seemed but to attempt an immense and near hopeless tack across the southern seas. They would sail south, Pollard and Chase decided, until they reached 25° south latitude, an awesome 1,900 miles away. Once there, in the region of variable, often westerly, winds, they would make for Chile, some 2,200 miles away due east. Such was the prospect that lay before the twenty shipwrecked men of the Essex: a 4,100-mile voyage in three open whaleboats, 500 miles farther than even the redoubtable Captain Bligh had gone in the launch of H.M.S. Bounty thirty-one years before. Nor did the Essex crew have sturdy, powerfully built launches to carry them through the cruel caprices of sea and wind. The Nantucket whaleboat was a remarkable seaworthy vessel, so light and buoyant it could keep its bow above “the most riotously perverse and cross-running seas,” as Melville put it. Unfortunately it was as frail as it was buoyant, a boat rudely built for easy repair, since it was likely to be smashed up by a writhing whale at least once during a cruise. All that stood between a whaleboat’s crew and the ocean depths was a half-inch of overlapping cedar planks. How such a fragile, leaky craft would fare over 4,000 miles, through shark-infested waters and tropical gales, the shipwrecked men did not care to ponder too closely.

The shipwrecked men did not care to ponder too closely how their fragile, leaky whaleboats would fare over 4,000 miles, through shark-infested waters and tropical gales.

GNAWING DREAD, HOWEVER, ASSAILED them only at nightfall, according to Chase’s account. On the morning of the disaster they acted with the whalingman’s customary skill and dispatch. Captain Pollard ordered the men to cut away the sails and masts of the stricken ship so that it might right itself sufficiently to allow them to go aboard for supplies. Eventually they got into the hold by chopping a hole in the exposed hull of the ship. By midday they had managed a sizable haul: 600 pounds of ship’s bread, 135 gallons of water, six live Galapagos turtles, one musket, two pistols, some carpenter’s tools, and two pounds of precious nails. Two compasses, two quadrants, and the two manuals of practical navigation completed the initial provisioning of the whaleboats. They had, Chase reckoned, about sixty days’ worth of victuals and no means, save dead reckoning, to calculate the longitude. That night, after fastening long lines from their boats to the wreck of the Essex , twenty emotionally drained men tried to sleep, but only a few succeeded. Some wept, others railed against their singular fate, and even Chase, the most indomitable of them all, could find no rest. The memory of the “horrid aspect and malignancy of the whale” haunted his night thoughts. Not a single man, Chase recalled, had eaten a morsel of food all day. Shock and apprehension had robbed all of their appetites.