On November 20, 1820, an enraged sperm whale, 85-feet long and weighing about 80 tons, rammed the Essex with its giant head. After the first blow, the furious whale swam off a short distance, turned, and charged again, smashing a hole in the ship’s bow. The Essex promptly filled with water and rolled over, a total wreck.
Most of the crew were in the boats at the time, pursuing whales. Owen Chase had harpooned one, which promptly smashed his boat with its tail. Chase and his crew returned to the ship to make repairs. The pounding of their hammers echoing through the water may have provoked the whale’s attack.
No whaling vessel had ever been attacked and sunk by a whale before. The men were stunned. They were also more than 1,000 miles from land.
“ ‘My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?’
“ ‘We have been stove by a whale.’ ”—Captain George Pollard Jr. and Owen Chase
Preparing for a Long Boat Journey
Steward William Bond saved two sea chests and some navigational instruments from the sinking Essex, while others managed to free the spare whaleboat. After efforts to right the ship failed, the crew worked for two days preparing for the long passage ahead. They salvaged supplies and provisions from the wreck. They rigged their boats for sailing using spars, rope, and canvas cut free from the Essex, and they built up the boats’ sides with cedar planks to deflect high waves.
“At best, a whale-boat is an extremely frail thing . . . and constructed of the lightest materials.”—Owen Chase
With their ship wrecked in the middle of the ocean, Captain Pollard and his crew crowded into three small boats. After efforts to right the Essex failed, Pollard decided his men should sail southwest with the prevailing winds to the Society Islands—2,000 miles or about 30 days away. Fearing cannibals, mates Chase and Joy objected and convinced Pollard they should sail south and then east more than 3,000 miles back to South America’s familiar shores.
Preserving the ship’s whale-hunting hierarchy, the captain and mates each commanded a boat and kept their accustomed boatsteerers with them. All the Nantucketers sailed with Captain Pollard and Chase, while Joy’s crew were all off-islanders, including most of the black men. Joy’s boat also lacked navigational tools, the salvaged ones being in the other boats.
“It was decided that we should go up the coast as they term’d it. Fatal error. How many warm hearts has ceased to beat in consequence of it?”—Thomas Nickerson
Pollard and his mates possessed the skills needed to sail themselves to safety, but their plan to head against the prevailing winds through waters not frequented by whalers and traders was a calculated risk. Could they make it before their limited food and water ran out?