Book review: In The Heart of the Sea

POPULATED with heroism, survival and cannibalism, this true maritime yarn will surely appeal to anyone with a yen to expand their seafaring insights. 

Nathaniel Philbrick

William Collins, €11.80;

ebook, €7.20

A compelling tale of obsessive determination and failure that inspired Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, this non-fiction adventure still manages to grip the reader with a well constructed and thrilling trawl into the past.

When the whaling ship, the Essex, sailed from Nantucket — one of the New World’s key industrial centres in 1821 — only to be relentlessly attacked and destroyed by a vengeful sperm whale, it created one of the world’s great maritime legends.

Cast adrift in three small boats, the 20 survivors faced the full force of the elements, as well as further attacks from another, smaller whale as they were blown aimlessly across the tempestuous waves. 

Forced to eat the flesh of those who died, they veered between dehydration, starvation, and emotional despair as the weeks without rescue rolled up. At one point, they were forced to draw lots for who would next be killed and cannibalised.

Finally, making landfall along the coast of Chile, the eight surviving crew had covered 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific in those flimsy crafts, 1,000 miles further even than Captain Bligh after the mutiny on the infamous HMS Bounty.

Philbrick, who is himself a director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a champion sailor, draws mainly on an account by first mate Owen Chase, who subsequently went on to captain his own ship, as well as a memoir by the Essex’s cabin boy discovered decades after the event.

Running in tandem with the drama of the whale attacks and the dreadful fate of those shipwrecked sailors, Philbrick delves into the life of Nantucket as a centre of maritime commerce — the requirements needed to join the crew of a whaler, the conditions onboard the boats and the different kinds of whales that were chased. The process involved in converting those vast carcasses into oil for the lamps of America and Europe is illuminating in itself.

However, while the Quaker community that mainly dictated the social and commercial mores of Nantucket encouraged advances in technology, it was less than inclusive in its attitude and treatment of those non-white sailors within its boundaries.

To Philbrick, the story of the ill-fated Essex was a survival tale and an essential part of American history. 

At that point of the early 19th century, the continent had other frontiers other than the well chronicled West — there was also the untamed sea from whose bounty one of the first industries emerged. 

“A survival tale peels away the niceties and comforts of civilization,” he says.

“Suddenly, all the technology and education in the world means nothing. I think all of us wonder while reading a survival tale, what would I have done in this situation?

“We read these stories to experience vicariously the essential truths of life and, of course, death.”

While Shackleton’s traverses of Antarctica or Mallory’s attempts to summit Mt Everest were the trials of true adventurers, Philbrick does not place the sailors of the Essex in the same category. 

The crew were ordinary whalers trying to make a living who found themselves unexpectedly at the mercy of a vengeful beast — and there was surely nothing adventurous about the sufferings they subsequently endured.


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