Nathaniel Philbrick,
In the Heart of the Sea:
The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

(Viking, 2000)

Nathaniel Philbrick carefully reconstructs the voyage and sinking of the whaleship Essex and the struggle of the crew to survive in open whaleboats in their attempt to reach South America and safety.

In August 1819, the Essex left the harbor of Nantucket, bound for the Pacific whaling grounds. None of the 21 crew members guessed it would be the ship's final voyage. Indeed, the Essex was plagued with ill luck from the start, enduring a "knockdown" from a storm three days out of port. A crew member defected in South America, leaving them short-handed. The whales mostly eluded them, and it soon became clear that their voyage would take longer than they hoped.

Then, on November 20, 1820, a bull sperm whale perhaps 85 feet in length attacked the ship, ramming it and sinking it, stranding the crew in three whaleboats. They managed to salvage some provisions and water, and the quick-thinking steward saved some navigational tools, but as they were to learn, it wasn't enough. In the days and weeks to come, they would know dehydration, starvation and even cannibalism.

Philbrick weaves a social history of Nantucket around and through his account of the tragedy. The history adds dimension and depth to the narrative. The reader has a clearer understanding of the actions and reactions of the crew. Without sensationalizing the events, Philbrick paints a clear and vivid portrait of the crew and its travails. The book reads like a gripping, enthralling novel, but it is all the more horrifying because it really happened -- indeed, the story inspired part of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. Thorough end notes and a bibliography extend the text and point the reader to further resources.

This book doesn't just take you to the heart of the sea; it explores the depths of the human heart and soul. It's a sea story you'll never forget.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 30 June 2001

Buy it from