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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Not until the Essex had crossed the equator and reached thirty degrees south latitude - approximately halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires - did the lookout sight the first whale of the voyage. It required sharp eyes to spot a whale's spout: a faint puff of white on the distant horizon lasting only a few seconds. But that was all it took for the lookout to bellow, "There she blows!" or just "B-l-o-o-o-w-s!"

After more than three whaleless months at sea, the officer on deck shouted back in excitement, "Where away?" The lookout's subsequent commentary not only directed the helmsman toward the whales but also worked the crew into an ever increasing frenzy. If he saw a whale leap into the air, the lookout cried, "There she breaches!" If he caught a glimpse of the whale's horizontal tail, he shouted, "There goes flukes!" Any indication of spray or foam elicited the cry "There's white water!" If he saw another spout, it was back to "B-l-o-o-o-w-s!"

Under the direction of the captain and the mates, the men began to prepare the whaleboats. Tubs of harpoon line were placed into them; the sheaths were taken off the heads of the harpoons, or irons, which were hastily sharpened one last time. "All was life and bustle," remembered one former whaleman. Pollard's was the single boat kept on the starboard side. Chase's was on the aft larboard, or port, quarter. Joy's was just forward of Chase's and known as the waist boat.

Once within a mile of the shoal of whales, the ship was brought to a near standstill by backing the mainsail. The mate climbed into the stern of his whaleboat and the boatsteerer took his position in the bow as the four oarsmen remained on deck and lowered the boat into the water with a pair of block-and-tackle systems known as the falls. Once the boat was floating in the water beside the ship, the oarsmen - either sliding down the falls or climbing down the side of the ship-joined the mate and boatsteerer. An experienced crew could launch a rigged whaleboat from the davits in under a minute. Once all three whaleboats were away, it was up to the three shipkeepers to tend to the Essex.

At this early stage in the attack, the mate or captain stood at the steering oar in the stern of the whaleboat while the boatsteerer manned the forward-most, or harpooner's oar. Aft of the boatsteerer was the bow oarsman, usually the most experienced foremast hand in the boat. Once the whale had been harpooned, it would be his job to lead the crew in pulling in the whale line. Next was the midships oarsman, who worked the longest and heaviest of the lateral oars-up to eighteen feet long and forty-five pounds. Next was the tub oarsman. He managed the two tubs of whale line. It was his job to wet the line with a small bucketlike container, called a piggin, once the whale was harpooned. This wetting prevented the line from burning from the friction as it ran out around the loggerhead, an upright post mounted on the stern of the boat. Aft of the tub oarsman was the after oarsman. He was usually the lightest of the crew, and it was his job to make sure the whale line didn't tangle as it was hauled back into the boat.

Three of the oars were mounted on the starboard side of the boat and two were on the port side. If the mate shouted, "Pull three," only those men whose oars were on the starboard side began to row. "Pull two" directed the tub oarsman and bow oarsman, whose oars were on the port side, to row. "Avast" meant to stop rowing, while "stern all" told them to begin rowing backward until sternway had been established. "Give way all" was the order with which the chase began, telling the men to start pulling together, the after oarsman setting the stroke that the other four followed. With all five men pulling at the oars and the mate or captain urging them on, the whaleboat flew like a slender missile over the wave tops.

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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