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 by Nathaniel Philbrick X
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
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  • First Published:
    May 2000, 302 pages
    May 2001, 302 pages


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By hurling the harpoon he would transform this gigantic, passive creature into an angry, panicked monster that could easily dispatch him into the hereafter with a single swipe of that massive tail. Or, even worse, the whale might turn around and come at them with its tooth-studded jaw opened wide. New boatsteerers had been known to faint dead away when first presented with the terrifying prospect of attaching themselves to an infuriated sperm whale.

As Lawrence stood at the tossing bow, waves breaking around him, he knew that the mate was analyzing every one of his movements. If he let Chase down now, there would be hell to pay.

"Give it to him!" Chase bawled. "Give it to him!"

Lawrence hadn't moved when there was a sudden splintering crack and crunch of cedar boards, and he and the other five men were airborne. A second whale had come up from beneath them, giving their boat a tremendous whack with its tail and pitching them into the sky. The entire side of the whaleboat was stove in, and the men, some of whom could not swim, clung to the wreck. "I presume the monster was as much frightened as ourselves," Nickerson commented, "for he disappeared almost instantly after a slight flourish of his huge tail." To their amazement, no one was injured.

Pollard and Joy abandoned the hunt and returned to pick up Chase's crew. It was a dispiriting way to end the day, especially since they were once again down a whaleboat, a loss that, in Nickerson's words, "seemed to threaten the destruction of our voyage."

Several days after Chase's boat was repaired, the lookout once again sighted whales. The boats were dispatched, a harpoon was hurled - successfully - and the whaleline went whizzing out until it was finally snubbed at the loggerhead, launching the boat and crew on the voyage's first "Nantucket sleigh ride," as it would come to be called.

Merchant seamen spoke derisively about the slow speeds of the average bluff-bowed whaleship, but the truth of the matter was that no other sailors in the early nineteenth century experienced the speeds of Nantucket whalemen. And, instead of doing it in the safe confines of a large, three-masted ship, the Nantucketer traveled in a twenty-five-foot boat crammed with half-a-dozen men, rope, and freshly sharpened harpoons and lances. The boat rocked from side to side and bounced up and down as the whale dragged it along at speeds that would have left the fleetest naval frigate wallowing in its wake. When it came to sheer velocity over the water, a Nantucketer-pinned to the flank of a whale that was pulling him miles and miles from a whaleship that was already hundreds of miles from land-was the fastest seaman in the world, traveling at fifteen (some claimed as many as twenty) bone-jarring knots.

The harpoon did not kill the whale. It was simply the means by which a whaleboat crew attached itself to its prey. After letting the creature tire itself out-by sounding to great depths or simply tearing along the water's surface-the men began to haul themselves, inch by inch, to within stabbing distance of the whale. By this point the boatsteerer and the mate had traded places, a miraculous feat in its own right on a craft as small and tender as a whaleboat. Not only did these two men have to contend with the violent slapping of the boat through the waves-which could be so severe that nails started from the planks in the bow and stern-but they had to stay clear of the whale line, quivering like a piano wire down the centerline of the boat. Eventually, however, the boatsteerer made it aft to the steering oar and the mate, who was always given the honor of the kill, took up his position in the bow.

If the whale was proving too spirited, the mate would hobble it by taking up a boat-spade and hacking away at the tendons in the tail. Then he'd take up the eleven to twelve-foot long killing lance, its petal-shaped blade designed for piercing a whale's vital organs. But finding "the life" of a giant swimming mammal encased in a thick layer of blubber was not easy. Sometimes the mate would be forced to stab it as many as fifteen times, probing for a group of coiled arteries in the vicinity of the lungs with a violent churning motion that soon surrounded the whaleboat in a rushing river of bright red blood.

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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