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Cannonball Read #10: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

Here we are with another maritime disaster, although this one takes place long before most of the others on the list. In 1819, the whaleship Essex, sailing from its home port of Nantucket, was attacked and capsized in the middle of the Pacific ocean by an 80-foot-long sperm whale. The members of the crew set out in three small whaling ships (roughly 25 ft oar boats) for the coast of South America, a trip of close to 3000 miles. Before the end, six men would die of hunger and thirst, three would be lost at sea, one would be executed, and the rest would resort to cannibalism. The men sailed for nearly 93 days straight, suffering from starvation, dehydration, exposure, and an almost crushing sense of despair. This story comes from the accounts of the survivors.

The author, Philbrick, has done an excellent job with research. (There are nearly 50 pages of notes at the end of the book as well as an extensive bibliography.) There is quite a bit of information about the whaling trade itself, as well as about the island of Nantucket's place in that trade. As an island with a mere 3000 residents (many of whom were gone for years at a time on whaleships, home only to drop off their precious whale-oil cargo, resupply, and take off again), the environment was very influential on those who had grown up there, and definitely effected the dynamics of the stranded sailors. There was also quite a bit of information about the daily lives of whalers and how they lived. However, the most interesting parts were the accounts of the survivors.

This is a story about overcoming all odds, and the consequences and guilt that remains after doing anything and everything to survive. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good sea-story or well-researched non-fiction. (I will say that it can be disturbing at some parts and is not recommended for children or the faint-of-heart.)

Comments

vtinjp said…
I totally agree with you, I was amazed by Philbrick's research and how many first-hand accounts he had in there. It was a both terrifying and fascinating read.

I've been thinking I should pick up his newer one about the Mayflower...will the Caustic Critic be picking that one up too?
I may eventually, but I'm currently reading another book by Brian Hicks, this time about the Mary Celeste. After that, I have about 3 more maritime disasters, and then I'm starting in on fires. However, I'll keep an eye out for the new Philbrick.

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