- 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
The next morning, cheered by the sun, the men of the Essex completed the final preparations for their desperate open-boat voyage. Stripping spars and light sails from the wreck, they rigged each whaleboat with a second mast, a flying jib, and two spritsails. For protection against high seas, they got cedar planks from the Essex and added six inches to the sides of their boats. There was nothing left to do, yet the shipwrecked men made no move to embark. They were not yet ready to cut the umbilical rope that still bound them to the mother ship. “Wrecked and sunken as she was,” said Chase, “we could scarcely discard from our minds the idea of her continuing protection.” Instead, as Captain Pollard recalled a few years later, “we continued sitting in our places, gazing upon the ship as though she had been an object of tenderest affection.” The looming terrors of the immense journey before them, the thought of their frail open boats, and the sheer awesome loneliness of the indifferent sea paralyzed the men of the Essex for twenty-four hours more.
It took every ounce of strength for the hunger-depleted men to crawl out of their boats and wade weakly to shore. They flung themselves down in blissful relief and thanksgiving.
Not until 12:30 P.M. on November 22, three days after the whale had taken its mysterious revenge, did the three whaleboats cut loose from the wreck and set forth. Captain Pollard commanded one boat, Joy another, and Chase the third. In deference to its weak, patched-up condition, he had one less man aboard than the others, six to their seven. As they sailed away toward the south, sad eyes remained fixed on the mother ship until it became a speck on the horizon and then disappeared from their sight forever. “It seemed,” said Chase, “as if in abandoning her we had parted with all hope.” They were determined to keep the three boats together, bound, said Chase, by “a desperate instinct” and hungry for the comfort each crew derived from the sight of their fellow sufferers a few boat-lengths away.
The grim routine of their lives was quickly set. The daily ration per man was a half pint of water—one-eighth the normal shipboard allotment—and a ship’s biscuit weighing one pound three ounces—meager enough, but it would soon seem a feast. At night in stormy weather the three boat commanders performed prodigies of seamanship to keep the little fleet together. In rough seas they were compelled to bail constantly. In relative calm they patched up little leaks that seemed to spring up perpetually in their clinker-built boats. Chase and his men had an alarming revelation of the dangerous frailty of their whaleboats before they had been three days away from the Essex: well below the water line the boat suddenly sprang a leak. With great difficulty they managed to nail a piece of planking over the hole, but everyone knew what the accident signified. One loosened nail in the boat’s bottom could doom them. “We wanted not this additional reflection to add to the miseries of our situation.” Three days later the shipwrecked voyagers discovered yet another unnerving aspect of their situation. Chase’s boat had to rush over to rescue Captain Pollard’s from the assault of a twelve-foot fish. It took several men to beat off its attack. Nantucket’s sea hunters had now become the hunted.
Beating south through the region of the doldrums, their progress was proving perilously slow. On December 8, sixteen days after cutting loose from the Essex , the three boats, according to Chase, had only reached 17° south latitude, roughly 600 miles south of the sinking, a rate of less than 40 miles per day. Once they got to the twenty-fifth latitude they could hope to make swifter passage, but the first signs of starvation were already beginning to appear: the steady weakening of wasting limbs, the griping bowels, the fitful sleep that brings not rest but tormenting dreams of savory banquets. On December 10, when a few flying fish struck a sail and landed in the bottom of Chase’s boat, the ravenous men gobbled them up in an instant, raw and alive, bones, scales, entrails, and all.