“HERE HE IS—HE IS MAKING FOR US AGAIN!”
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.
The 20-man crew of the Essex divided up among the three seaworthy whaleboats. More than 1,000 miles lay between them and the nearest land in the Pacific Ocean in that November 1820. Rather than make for the closest island where, ironically, their 19th-century prejudices led them to believe that savages would eat them, they decided to head for South America—3,000 miles away.
The crew suffered thirst, hunger, sunburn, and disorientation during their initial weeks on the ocean. After about a month, they reached a small island, but there was not enough food or water there to sustain them. Three sailors refused to leave the island with the rest of the crew. They were the lucky ones.
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