- 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
Despite the ravenous hunger and the maddening thirst, on December 14 Chase made a decision that attested to his courage, to his implacable realism, and to the extraordinary confidence that he inspired in his five comrades. That day, after calculating distance yet to go and provisions still on hand, he proposed that the rations be cut in half. Henceforth his men would have only half a ship’s biscuit per day. A few days later he cut the water ration to a quarter pint a day per man. As a precaution, Chase kept the supplies by his side and slept with a loaded pistol in his hand, but there was no attempt to steal. Under the calm leadership of the twenty-three-year-old mate from Nantucket, discipline remained firm, while the sufferings of the men increased with the passing of each wretched day.
When dawn broke on the twentieth of December, one month since the Essex had heeled over in mid-ocean, two things were apparent to Chase. First, they had completed the first leg of their journey, for they had reached the twenty-fifth latitude. Second, with the supplies on hand, they had only the slenderest chance of ever reaching the coast of Chile. Death by slow starvation, or far worse, by thirst, seemed to be their likeliest fate. Of the six emaciated wretches in the first mate’s boat, two had already abandoned hope and were sunk in apathy, utterly indifferent to their fate. Then, at 7:00 A.M. , one of Chase’s men shouted, “There is land!” At that even the broken-down figures roused themselves from the stupor of death. By the sheerest good fortune the three Essex whaleboats had come upon a minute dot of an islet in the empty reaches of the southern seas. “It appeared at first a low white beach,” recalled Chase, “and lay like a basking paradise before our longing eyes.” It took four hours of sailing to reach it. It took every ounce of strength for the hunger-depleted men to crawl out of their boats and wade weakly to the shore. When they reached it, they flung themselves to the ground in blissful relief and thanksgiving. From the terrors of the sea they had, at least for the moment, a blessed surcease.
In a fierce gale, Chase drifted, anxiously hoping to find the other two boats. They were nowhere in sight. His boat was now utterly alone in the immensity of the Pacific.
When the men began foraging for food around the rocky shore, they discovered quickly enough that their providential landfall was something less than a basking paradise. Food in small quantities they found, although many of the men were too weak to do more than crawl on their hands and knees in search of it. There were birds so innocent of men that they did not stir a feather until grabbed by the throat. There were, in addition, birds’ eggs, berries, and edible grasses as well as a crab or two in the tidal pools on the beach. The life-and-death problem was water. For hours a search party of ragged men crawled around the rocky outcroppings near the beach in search of a spring. Nothing turned up all that day. The paradise was beginning to look like the cruelest of traps, enticing desperate men to waste what little water they had while it offered them just enough food to sustain their exhausting search for more. The next day, in a state of near frenzy, the men crawled over the rocky hills, inspecting every crack and crevice, hammering at the very rock itself, in an increasingly frantic search for a freshwater spring. Once again the search proved futile. That evening Captain Pollard told his weary and disheartened men that unless they found water the next morning, they had no choice but to abandon the treacherous island and throw themselves once again on the mercy of the sea.
The following morning, after a few more hours of vain search, even Chase was ready to give up in despair. Then he heard happy cries from the beach. Someone had at last found water. “At one moment I felt an almost choking excess of joy, and at the next I wanted the relief of a flood of tears.” Henderson’s Island had hidden its treasure well. The spring of fresh water burbled from a rocky cleft on the beach itself. At high tide, six feet of sea rolled over it. Twice daily at low tide, however, it offered sweet, precious water for the depleted kegs of the Essex whaleboats. Whatever else might befall the long-suffering crew, they would be spared the worst of agonies and the worst of terrors—to die of thirst in mid-ocean. That night, recalled Chase, he had, for the first time since the sinking, a deep, untroubled sleep.