A Dreadful Calamity

Ship Essex as she appeared on the morning of November 20, 1820 at 8:30 A.M. MS106 Folder 1

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

Ship Essex as she appeared at 9:30 A.M. when the shrouds were cut and the masts broken and falling with all sails set, the ship at an angle of 45 degrees and water logged. MS106 Folder 1

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.

Ship Essex as she appeared November 23, 1820 at noon, waterlogged and abandoned, with the boats taking their leave. MS106 Folder 1

The Boats

“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.


Each boat carried oars, paddles, harpoons, lances, line tubs, and a steering oar. The first mate’s trunk contained sheets of writing paper, lead pencil, suit of clothes 3 small fish hooks, jack knife, whetstone, and a cake of soap.

“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?

“The Boat” as it appeared in the original 2015 exhibition at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Next: Finding the Way