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 now, the two immense, four-barreled iron try-pots were full of pieces of blubber. To hasten the trying-out process, the blubber was chopped into foot-square hunks, then cut through into inch-thick slabs that resembled the fanned pages of a book and were known as bible leaves. A whale's blubber bears no similarity to the fat reserves of terrestrial animals. Rather than soft and flabby, it is tough, almost impenetrable, requiring the whalemen to resharpen their cutting tools constantly.

Wood was used to start the fires beneath the try-pots, but once the boiling process had begun, the crispy pieces of blubber floating on the surface of the pot-known as scraps or cracklings-were skimmed off and tossed into the fire for fuel. The flames that melted down the whale's blubber were thus fed by the whale itself. While this was a highly efficient use of materials, it produced a thick pall of black smoke with an unforgettable stench. "The smell of the burning cracklings is too horribly nauseous for description," remembered one whaleman. "It is as though all the odors in the world were gathered together and being shaken up."

At night the deck of the Essex looked like something out of Dante's Inferno. "A trying-out scene has something peculiarly wild and savage in it," stated a green hand from Kentucky, "a kind of indescribable uncouthness, which renders it difficult to describe with anything like accuracy. There is a murderous appearance about the blood-stained decks, and the huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there, and a ferocity in the looks of the men, heightened by the red, fierce glare of the fires." It was a scene that perfectly suited Melville's sinister artistic purposes in Moby-Dick. "[The] darkness was licked up by the fierce flames," Ishmael tells us, "which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful act."

Trying out a whale could take as long as three days. Special try watches were set, lasting between five and six hours, and affording the men scant sleep. Experienced whalemen knew enough to sleep in their trying-out clothes (usually an old short-sleeved shirt and a worn pair of woolen drawers), postponing any attempts at cleaning themselves until the casks of oil had been stored in the hold and the ship had been thoroughly scrubbed down. Nickerson and his friends, however, were so revolted by the noisome mixture of oil, blood, and smoke covering their skin and clothes that they changed after every watch. By the time the first whale had been tried out, they had ruined nearly every piece of clothing stored in their sea chests.

This forced them to purchase additional clothing from the ship's slop chest - the nautical equivalent of the company store - at outrageous prices. Nickerson estimated that if the Essex ever made it back to Nantucket, he and his fellow green hands would owe the ship's owners close to 90 percent of their total earnings from the voyage. Instead of warning the teenagers about the potential perils of dipping into the slop chest, the ship's officers were content to let them learn the economics of whaling life the hard way. Nickerson's judgment: "This should not have been."

One night, not far from the Falkland Islands, the men were up in the rigging, reefing the topsails, when they heard a scream: a sharp, shrill shriek of terror coming from alongside the ship. Someone had apparently fallen overboard.

The officer of the watch was about to give the order to heave to when a second scream was heard. And then, perhaps with a nervous laugh, someone realized that it wasn't a man but a penguin, bobbing beside the ship, piercing the night with its all-too-human cries. Penguins! They must be nearing Antarctica.

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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