In the Heart of the Sea Summary

Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea

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In the Heart of the Sea Summary

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While most Americans today know the story of the sinking of the Titanic, few have heard the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was sunk after being repeatedly rammed by an enormous whale during a whaling expedition in 1820. At one time, however, the story of the Essex was the most famous story of maritime tragedy in the United States, even serving as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Nathaniel Philbrick’s account of the journey of the Essex in In the Heart of the Sea attempts to carry on its legacy for the new generation. Philbrick’s narrative draws on a number of first person accounts from surviving members of the crew – one of which, that of cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, who was only 14 years old during the voyage, had been unavailable to the public until 1984.

Weighing in at 238 tons, and measuring 87 feet in length, The Essex set sail from Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, in August 1819 to hunt whales in the Pacific Ocean. In the Heart of the Sea, however, takes the reader back more than a century earlier, when Nantucket’s economy was still mainly based on farming. These early chapters of In the Heart of the Sea provide the reader with information crucial for understanding the motivations for and conditions that shaped the voyage of the Essex and its crew, the focus of the novel.

As Philbrick explains, Nantucket went from having an economy based on farming to one based on oil produced from the whales living in Nantucket harbor once it was realized that whale blubber could be converted into oil. In the years following this discovery, whale hunting would become a way of life among those in Nantucket, where it would become standard for children to be trained to hunt whales from an early age. As the whaling industry grew larger, natives of Nantucket, who were also largely members of the Quaker religion, came to form an insulated community, preferring to work only with other natives of Nantucket. This was a social effect of the growth of the whaling industry in Nantucket.

Another effect was the eradication of the whale population in and around Nantucket harbor, forcing Nantucketers to travel farther and farther in pursuit of whales. At the time the Essex set sail, whaleboats were not expected to return home for at least two years.

The majority of the crew aboard the Essex were native Nantucketers – including the ship’s captain, George Pollard, and first mate, Owen Chase, whose memoirs, along with those of cabin boy Nickerson, serve as one of the primary sources used by Philbrick in researching his book. Also among the crew were some men from the mainland as well as several African Americans. Although most whaling expeditions were conducted by crews consisting exclusively of Nantucket natives, the Essex was setting out late in the season and so had to settle for those who were available, many of whom had little prior experience serving on whaling expeditions.

The ship was heavily segregated, with Nantucketers, and especially higher ranking ones, receiving much better living accommodations, and much better monetary compensation for the journey. The diversity of the crew is reflected in the differences found in the first-hand accounts of the events that would befall the Essex. One of Philbrick’s great accomplishments in writing In the Heart of the Sea is that he weaves these different accounts into a single narrative.

As Philbrick tells the story, the voyage of the Essex was fraught with misfortune and with poor decision making from the start. Leaving the harbor on the outset of the journey, Captain Pollard fails to take necessary precautions in order to brace for the approaching storm, leading to the ship being nearly overturned by the wind, taking out all but three of the ship’s lifeboats, and causing great structural damage to the Essex itself. Rather than returning to Nantucket Harbor for the materials needed to repair the ship properly, Captain Pollard decides to make do with materials available on the ship – fearing that a return to Nantucket harbor would prompt many of the crew members to abandon the mission.

The Essex sails on towards the Pacific Ocean. Several months pass without the crew sighting a single whale. The crew set a course for a region known as the Offshore Ground, a known breeding ground for whales located many thousands of miles away from land. It is there that a sperm whale, perhaps in retaliation for the whales that had already been killed, rams into the Essex, and the ship sinks. The crew abandons ship and splits up into three small lifeboats and head towards South America in search of food and shelter. Hungry and still a long way from land, some members of the crew resort to cannibalism. In the end, only five of the twenty original crew members are rescued.