A sailor screamed in disbelief. First Mate Owen Chase was clambering across the deck of the whaling ship Essex to hoist a signal flag alerting the other whaleboats that the vessel was taking on water. The Essex had just been damaged in a collision with a whale. Chase reeled around to see the same gigantic sperm whale charging the ship a second time. Later, he would write that he saw the whale approach “with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared, with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.” The whale rammed the Essex and left a fatal hole in the ship’s bow. In minutes, the vessel began to tilt to one side and sink into the water.
Chase took a minute to gather his wits. Then he grabbed a compass, an astrolabe, and some maps and launched the single whaleboat still with the ship. Eventually, the other two whaleboats, which had been out chasing whales, returned to the grim scene. The Essex remained afloat, thanks in large part to its cargo of whale oil, but it was a loss. Scrambling across the ship’s hull, the men used hatchets from the whaleboats to break in and salvage as much as possible of the drinking water, hardtack, and other provisions. But they were in dire straits, and most of the men knew it.