Book Report: In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea. The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
In the Heart of the Sea – The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to buy this book, maybe it was because the recently released motion picture of the same name (and directed by Ron Howard, no less) was such a flop.  Or maybe it was because it is the true tale that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Whatever the reason, author Nathaniel Philbrick pens one great fish tale.

In the Heart of the Sea, Philbrick recounts the story of the early 19th century tragedy of the Nantucket whaleship Essex.  Through extremely well researched material, including historical first-hand written accounts from two of the survivors, he weaves together a wonderful narrative of life on Nantucket, the whaling industry at the time and the sperm whale that would ultimately sink the Essex.  But I think what may have peaked my interest the most is the incredible account of survival he details so vividly.

Having read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand in 2014, I was interested to hear this similar-type tale of survival at sea, adrift in the Pacific ocean, but in a truly pre-modern era, 1820 to be exact. The details are fascinating.

Spoiler alert: a whale (a big, male sperm whale to be exact) sinks the ship while it’s basically in the middle of the Pacific ocean.  I know, not really a spoiler.  Miraculously the 20-man crew all survived and were divided between three small, open whaling boats (not to be mistaken for a ship, these small boats were only 25 feet long and were powered by only oars, not sails.)  Salvaging as much as they could from their capsized main vessel – including casks of fresh water, extremely valuable navigational equipment and some ‘hardtack’ (a type of dried bread baked into a rock to prevent spoiling), the whalers set out to return to South America, over 3000 miles away, against the prevailing winds and ocean currents.

That decision turns into an 89 day odyssey at sea under the most challenging and harrowing conditions imaginable.  Philbrick goes into descriptive detail as the days turn to weeks, then to months.  Provisions and supplies dwindle to beyond starvation levels, and the survivors are forced to make the ultimate decision – consuming their dead shipmates.  Ultimately only eight whalers survive and their epic tale becomes maritime lore.

What Philbrick does so seamlessly in this book is describe the emotional plight of the men as their situation becomes more and more dire.  He includes modern-day research into starvation to explain the mental and physical toll it takes on a human being, but without distracting from the story line.  The reader is left with an agonizing account that almost makes you feel like you where in the boat yourself suffering alongside.

The depth of knowledge Philbrick provides into the mentality of seaman, and whalers in particular, from that time, truly transports you back to a different era.  He outlines with great detail how whales were pursued, harpooned and left to die.  How the whaleship was basically a whale oil factory at sea.  How the conditions on the ship were so wretched, the smell so putrid, the fire burning the whale blubber so intense that it was a wonder any whalers returned for a second or third voyage.

This was an excellent read of a truly gripping tale of survival against the most extreme odds, in a time when the odds were already stacked against you.