Owen Chase,
The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex
(1965; Harvest, 1999)

Herman Melville once heard a tale about a maddened sperm whale that attacked and sank a Yankee whaling ship -- and left its crew of 20 afloat in three small boats, thousands of miles from the closest known land. That tale inspired Melville to write Moby Dick -- but that literary classic pales in comparison to Owen Chase's real-life account of the events following the destruction of the Essex on Nov. 20, 1820.

Chase, the first mate of the Essex, was pursuing and slaughtering whales in the Pacific Ocean when one of the wounded sperm whales deliberately rammed the ship -- twice. While most of the crew was already in the small lifeboats -- tiny vessels from which they wielded their harpoons -- Chase and his men had returned to the Essex for repairs after a wounded whale's tail had breached the side of their boat. Was it the same whale who soon surfaced and drove holes into the side of the larger whaler? There's no way to know. All too soon, Essex was sinking and the sailors were scrambling for the hastily patched lifeboat.

Chase was far too busy surviving over the next few months to write an account of his adventures. But he did write it all down after reaching land -- one of eight survivors who made it over countless miles of ocean, through storms, sharks and dehydration, through the last resort of cannibalism....

There have been several books written about the incident, but Chase's own words, preserved here, are a riveting tale of survival against the greatest of odds. The narrative is plainly written but never dry -- this is history straight from the source.

The great whale Moby Dick who carried a personal vendetta against the mad Captain Ahab might be a bit too fanciful for belief; the bull whale that avenged itself on the men who attacked it and its pod was real. So is the story of their fantastic sea voyage and the determination to live that brought some of them home again.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 24 July 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.