You all know the story of Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s masterpiece, about the obsessed captain, and the object of his obsession, a sperm whale with a tendency to destroy whaling ships. Moby Dick is indeed a staple of Western literature, but the true story is even better.
In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the whaling ship the Essex, which sunk in 1820 after being rammed by a massive sperm whale. But where Melville stops after the Pequod goes down, Philbrick continues, telling the arguably more interesting story of a crew stranded in the Pacific, and the lengths they went to to survive.
The book begins on the island of Nantucket, exploring a culture obsessed with, and built on whaling. It follows the crew of the Essex, and reconstructs their journey with the first person accounts of the first mate Owen Chase, and a young Nantucketer named Thomas Nickerson. They depart from the island, under the command of Captain Pollard, for a two-three year whaling expedition. After sailing around South America they end up in a vast, isolated region of the Pacific called the Offshore Ground, at this time one of the only places where the sperm whale population hadn’t been decimated by whaling ships. Out in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from civilization in either direction, the Essex was rammed and sunk by a colossal 80 foot sperm whale.
This event was the inspiration for Melville’s novel, but he chose not to explore the aftermath, which is where it gets really interesting. The crew splits into the three whaling boats, and tries to set a course of action. They are few hundred miles from islands to their west, but fearing the savagery and rumored cannibalism of the native peoples, they decided to sail for South America, almost three thousand miles away, in what amounts to three glorified row boats.
Stranded in the ocean, sailing against the wind, hunger and dehydration takes its toll. Crew members start dropping dead, and in a horrible twist of irony, the men are forced to eat their dead shipmates to stay alive.
Philbrick has crafted a brilliant, and eerie book, that’s captivating from start to finish. It is a suspenseful, horrifying and heartbreaking tale about survival, and the endlessly fascinating culture of whaling. Philbrick admirably, and engrossingly brings this incredible story to life, and gives it its rightful place in American history.