Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ship of the Month 3

Ship of the Month 3


Kevin Scott Bolinger

   Hello and welcome aboard once again to my ship of the month. Forgive the absence of this, as real life has gotten in the way of my writing. This month, I will take us farther back in time then I have thus far. I bring to you a vessel of old, powered not my steam or diesel, but by wind. I bring you the true story that inspired one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, MOBY-DICK. Let me now welcome you aboard the whaling ship ESSEX  and her fateful meeting with a sperm whale in the Pacific ocean. Let me just add that this ship was covered in fantastic detail by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book  In The Heart of The Sea. I highly recommend this outstanding look at a lost piece of American history.
An early example of whaling.

    To begin this tale, we must delve into the history of whaling itself, at least where it pertains to the  ESSEX  herself. Whaling for the early United States was mainly begun out of Nantucket island. In the early days, when whales were plentiful, long boats would be launched from shore, with harpooners aboard. The crew would row out to a pod of whales, and then strike. With the harpoon struck fast, the men would be taken on what became known as the “Nantucket sleigh ride,” where the whale would pull the long boat behind it till it grew tired. Lances would then be deployed, striking the worn out whale till it spouted blood. The whale would then be towed back to shore for processing.

     The men from Nantucket grew quite good at their jobs, so good, in fact, that the whale populations fell sharply in the waters near Massachusetts. A new way was needed to hunt the whale. So, the whale ship was born. A vessel, capable of circumnavigating the globe in search of it’s prey. Back n land, the whales would be cut up, and the blubber taken to rendering factories, where the oil would be extracted. A portable rendering factory was soon placed on board whale ships, allowing them to travel further, rendering the oil themselves, and storing it in barrels for the trip home. Traditional methods, such as the long boats and harpooners were still employed, but now the boats were launched from the ship to hunt.

A Sperm Whale, largest toothed mammal on Earth.

     Originally, the Right Whale was the proffered species to hunt, but soon man discovered a substance that existed in only the brain casings of Sperm Whales,  spermaceti, a waxy substance used back then to make long burning candles, soap, and other useful products. They would also find the highly sought after ambergris, another waxy substance found in the animals digestive tract, that when aged, became a fixative for use in perfume. In this way, the sperm whale became a highly profitable whale to hunt.

     Folks today look at television programs, like Deadliest Catch, and think how dangerous it is. It is nothing compared to hunting sperm whales. The death rate for whale men was extremely high. Some ships would set out from Nantucket, never to be heard from again. Many a Nantucket widow would keep her lonely vigil, waiting for husbands that would never return.  Today, many sea shore communities have houses featuring porches on the second, or even third floors, know as widow’s walks. They are called this, because in the days of whaling and wooden ships, that is what they literally  became. It took men of great courage to hunt the sperm whale, and despite the mortality rate, it was a very lucrative career.

     As time went on, and the task of whaling grew more successful, the ships would have to travel farther and farther to get sufficient quantities of oil. Voyages would regularly last two, even three years. As whales in the Atlantic grew scarce, men pursued them to the Pacific, either by going round South America’s horn or by way of Africa’s Cape of Good hope. Both were very dangerous propositions, not to be taken lightly. Deadly storms would swallow whole vessels, leaving no trace in their wake.

Model of the ESSEX.

    The ESSEX herself was laid down in Nantucket in the late 1700’s. At 87 ft in length, and only 238 tons when empty, she was small for a whale ship. However, she had many successful voyages in her day, and was thus considered a “lucky” ship. She was laid up and extensively refitted in the winter of 1819. By mid summer, she was ready to depart, under the command of 29 year old George Pollard, Jr., one of the youngest men to ever captain a whale ship. His first mate was 23 year old Owen Chase. The two men had served together on the  ESSEX during her previous, highly successful voyage, prompting both men to be promoted upon arrival back in Nantucket. Thomas Nickerson was the youngest on board of the twenty-one man crew. At 15, he served as cabin boy.
      The ship had four whale boats on board, all clinker type boats. A clinker boat was built with overlapping planks, instead of the traditional flush fitting planks which provided better water tightness. The clinker boat was not made to be durable, but was built for speed, they had to be able to easily catch a whale once they were lowered into the water.

      On August 12, 1819, the ESSEX set out from Nantucket on what was supposed to be a two and a half year voyage to the whaling grounds off the Pacific coast of South Africa. The voyage had an ominous start, when two days out from Nantucket, the ship was caught in a sudden and very deadly squall. She lost her topgallant sail, and three of her four whale boats were destroyed. Instead of turning back for repairs, Captain Pollard decided to press on.

      In January of 1820, the ship began to round South America’s Cape Horn. Again, she ran into many storms, and it took her five weeks to round the cape and enter the Pacific. The men began to speak of ill omens, some wishing to return to Nantucket empty handed. In fact, in September of 1820, one of the men, Henry De Witt, would desert the ship when she landed in Ecuador to re-supply.

     After the long winter spent mostly rounding the horn, the ESSEX  and her crew found themselves spending the spring near the Galapagos islands where they could get new provisions. During the long voyage, the ships carpenter had built three new whale boats, with help from some of the other crew members. However, upon reaching the nearby fishing grounds, they came to learn that the whales had been fished out. A few returning whale ships informed Pollard and his men that a new whaling ground had been discovered. The catch was that it was 2500 miles to the south-west. The ship had never before been taken so far from the safety of land. It was a long trip, but, they had to do it, or return profitless.

     This area of the Pacific was fairly unknown in that day and age. Rumors of many islands populated by cannibals abounded. Yet it is to this uncharted region the ship and her crew were soon heading towards. Upon arrival, they were coming up empty, day in and day out. Tension began to rise, especially between Pollard and his first mate Chase. Chase’s whale boat had been heavily damaged when a whale surfaced directly below it. Then, on the early morning of November 8, 1820, the lookouts spotted a pod of whales. Three of the boats were lowered into the water to hunt. Chase’s boat was again damaged, when the whale they had harpooned struck it with it’s fluke, breaking open the planking.

     While Chase and his men returned to the ship, now empty handed, the Captain in his boat, and second mate Matthew joy, had each scored hits, their boats being dragged n Nantucket sleigh rides. Chase was on board the ESSEX, repairing his boat when he spotted a rather large male sperm whale acting odd a few hundred yards off the ships port side. The whale , unusually large, estimated at 85 feet in length, or roughly the size of the ESSEX herself, laid upon the surface, it’s head pointed towards the ship. Suddenly, it began to move, picking up speed until it rammed the vessel on her side, causing the ship to heel over. As she righted herself, the whale surfaced along the starboard side, its head near the bow, tail by the stern.

A drawing of the whale's first attack.

    Chase looked down upon it, thinking the whale had been stunned by the impact. He grabbed a harpoon, and was going to strike, when he noticed how close the beast’s fluke was to the ships fragile rudder. If he harpooned the whale, it could destroy the rudder, trapping the ship in the middle of the Pacific ocean. In hindsight, this might have been a better option. What happened next had never been seen before in the recorded history of whaling. The whale moved away from the ship, and resurfaced some 550 yard away. It turned its head towards the bow, and began to approach, even faster then before. With a mighty crash, it slammed head on into the bow, crushing it and pushing the ESSEX backwards! After the whale dislodged itself, it swam off, never to be seen again.
     The ship was sinking fast. Owen Chase moved as quick as he could to get rigging into the last remaining whale boat. The steward went below, grabbing what navigational equipment he could. As the ship went under, the Captain and Second mate’s boats returned, after seeing the attack from a distance. They two had cut their prey free to return to the stricken vessel.
Thomas Nickerson's account of the sinking.

    For two days, they salvaged what supplies they could from the ship, then the three boat, woefully under supplied with food and fresh water, headed away from the scene. The captain wanted to steer a course to the west, using the prevailing winds to carry them to the Marquesas islands, the nearest too them, yet still over 1,200 miles away. The crew, lead by Owen Chase, objected, fearing cannibals, and demanded to head towards South America, some 2,000 miles east. The flaw in this plan was they would have to sail south, until the prevailing westerlies could carry them to South America, which by that time would then be 3,000 miles away. This decision would cost all but eight of the remaining men their lives.

     As the days became weeks, supplies began to run out. Then, miraculously, the men spotted an island, just as the first of them were beginning to die from dehydration. They landed on what is known as Henderson’s island, which is a part of the modern British territory including the legendary Pitcairn’s island, where the famous mutineers from the HMS BOUNTY would make their home, but that is a tale for another day. Henderson’s island had  fresh water spring, and there were fish and birds prevalent. However, by December 26, 1820, the men had exhausted most of the tiny island’s food supplies. All but three men decided to return to the boats.

    On New Years Eve, those that were leaving, having gathered supplies for the trip, had returned to the water, and set off. However, within three days, they had consumed all the fish and birds they had gathered on the island.  All they had left were a few rations of bread salvaged from the ESSEX. Yet again, the men began to die. The first of them to go, second mate Matthew Joy, died on January 10, 1821. He was sewn up in his own clothes and buried at sea. At this point, I will tell divergent tales, as a storm came up, separating Owen Chase’s boat from the other two.

    Chase’s boat, with fellow survivors, Richard Peterson, Isaac Cole, Benjamin Lawrence, and the young cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, found themselves alone. On January 18, Peterson died, and he too was sewn up in his clothes, and buried at sea. He was followed on February the 8th by Cole, but unlike the others, he was not buried at sea. Chase and the other two remaining men had a very long discussion. With food running out, it was decided they would have to survive off of Cole’s remains. By the 15th, even that morbid source of food had become exhausted. Luckily, three days later, the British whaler INDIAN spotted the three men, and they were quickly rescued.

    Captain Pollard now only had two boats left of his command.  The second boat, now under command of Obed Hendricks, ran out of food on January 14. Pollard’s boat exhausted theirs on the 21st. On the 20th, Lawson Thomas passed away, and it was decided his body would be used to feed the rest. By the 28th, three more men had died, yet that day would see Hendricks’ boat, with Joseph West and William Bond also on board, become separated from Pollard’s. The three men were never seen again.

   On Pollard’s boat, even after consuming those that had died, the men again found themselves without food. It was decided that lots would be drawn for who would be the sacrificial lamb.  The unlucky man to draw the black spot was Owen Coffin, the young cousin of Captain Pollard, whom Pollard had sworn to protect. He offered to keep the young man from his fate, but Coffin simply replied, "No, I like my lot as well as any other." Next they drew lots to see who would kill the young boy. It fell to Coffin’s friend, Charles Ramsdell. He shot Coffin dead, and the Pollard, Ramsdell, and Brazillai Ray fed off him.

     On February 11, Ray also died, Pollard and Ramsdell using him to survive. As food again became scarce, the two men managed to live a bit longer by knowing at the bones of Ray and Coffin. By the 23rd, they had become so delusional, they never even noticed an approaching vessel. It was the DAUPHIN  a fellow Nantucket whaler. As the rescuers approached, Pollard and Ramsdell, now very dissociative,  became fearful of their own saviors.

    Shortly thereafter, in the port of Valparaiso, the five survivors from the two rescued boats were reunited. They then told of the three men they had left on Henderson’s island. A ship was dispatched, and by April 5th, though starving and near death, the three were rescued. All in all, seven crewmen had been consumed to keep those in the whale boats alive.

    All eight survivors of the ESSEX returned to Nantucket and all but one returned to a life at sea. Captain Pollard was given another whale ship, the TWO BROTHERS, but it too was lost, this time during a storm in the shoals off of Hawaii. Upon his return to Nantucket, he gave up a life at sea, becoming a Nantucket watchmen. On November 20, every year for the rest of his life, he would lock himself in a room and fast, in memory of those lost under his command.
Owen Chase in his later years of life

   Owen Chase never returned to sea. He was haunted by the memories of the experience. He was also plagued by debilitating headaches the rest of his life. He wrote an account of the sinking, entitled,  Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. In late 1841, the son of Owen Chase was on board a whale ship in the Pacific, not far from the spot where his father’s ship was lost, so many years before. A chance meeting with another whaler, the ACUSHNET, out of New Bedford, MA lead to the young Chase befriending briefly a young man on the other ship. He lent this man his father’s story.

     The young man on board the ACUSHNET you ask? Why, Herman Melville, of course, who would go on to use Owen Chase’s account of the wreck of the ESSEX , to help inspire the narrative of his greatest work, Moby-Dick, or The Whale

    Thank you for letting me share this tale with you. It is a little known one from the early days of the United States. I hope you enjoyed it. Next time, I will be tackling the story of a White Star Liner from the early part of the 20th century, but not one any of you may have heard of. Till then, be well, and enjoy the voyage.



1 comment:

  1. The most ironic part of that story, as scary as it was, is that they were afraid of cannibals and then became cannibals themselves. Very interesting story. I will never do that for a living.....NEVER!!!!