Excerpt from In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea
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  • First Published:
    May 2000, 302 pages
    May 2001, 302 pages

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Chapter Three
First Blood

After in the Azores, which provided plenty of fresh vegetables but no spare whaleboats, the Essex headed south toward the Cape Verde Islands. Two weeks later they sighted Boavista Island. In contrast to the Azores' green, abundant hills, the slopes of the Cape Verdes were brown and sere, with no trees to offer relief from the burning subtropical sun. Pollard intended to obtain some hogs at the island of Maio a few miles to the southwest.

The next morning, as they approached the island, Nickerson noticed that Pollard and his mates were strangely animated, speaking to each other with a conspiratorial excitement as they passed a spyglass back and forth, taking turns studying something on the beach. What Nickerson termed "the cause of their glee" remained a mystery to the rest of the crew until they came close enough to the island to see that a whaleship had been run up onto the beach. Here, perhaps, was a source of some additional whaleboats - something the men of the Essex needed much more desperately than pork.

Before Pollard could dispatch one of his own boats to the wreck, a whaleboat was launched from the beach and made its way directly toward the Essex. Aboard the boat was the acting American consul, Ferdinand Gardner. He explained that the wrecked whaler was the Archimedes of New York. While approaching the harbor she had struck a submerged rock, forcing the captain to run her up onto the beach before she was a total loss. Gardner had purchased the wreck, but he had only a single whaleboat left to sell.

While one was better than nothing, the Essex would still be dangerously low on boats. With this latest addition (and an old and leaky addition at that), the Essex would now have a total of four whaleboats. That would leave her with only one spare. In a business as dangerous as whaling, boats were so frequently damaged in their encounters with whales that many whaleships were equipped with as many as three spare boats. With a total of only four boats, the crew of the Essex would have scant margin for error. That was disturbing. Even the green hands knew that one day their lives could depend on the condition of these fragile cockleshells.

Pollard purchased the whaleboat, then sailed the Essex into the cove that served as Maio's harbor, where pointed hills of bone-white salt-procured from salt ponds in the interior of the island-added a sense of desolation to the scene. The Essex anchored beside another Nantucket whaleship, the Atlantic, which was off-loading more than three hundred barrels of oil for shipment back to the island. Whereas Captain Barzillai Coffin and his crew could boast of the seven or so whales they'd killed since leaving Nantucket on the Fourth of July, the men of the Essex were still putting their ship back together after the knockdown in the Gulf Stream and had yet to sight a whale.

White beans were the medium of exchange on Maio, and with a cask of beans aboard, Pollard took a whaleboat in to procure some hogs. Nickerson was at the aft oar. The harbor was without any docks or piers, and in the high surf, bringing a whaleboat into shore was exceedingly tricky. Even though they approached the beach at the best possible part of the harbor, Pollard and his men ran into trouble. "Our boat was instantly capsized and overset in the surf," Nickerson recalled, "and thrown upon the beach bottom upwards. The lads did not much mind this for none were hurt, but they were greatly amused to see the captain get so fine a ducking."

Pollard traded one and a half barrels of beans for thirty hogs, whose squeals and grunts and filth turned the deck of the Essex into a barnyard. The impressionable Nickerson was disturbed by the condition of these animals. He called them "almost skeletons," and noted that their bones threatened to pierce through their skin as they walked about the ship.

From In the Heart of the Sea : The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. © 2000 , Nathaniel Philbrick used by permission of the publisher.

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