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From a bad decision came one of the greatest sailing stories of all time

2016 January 1
Some the actors in the 2015 movie “In the Heart of the Sea” had to suffer for a few weeks with a diet that consisted of small portions of fruit, yogurt, spinach, chicken and salads so they would lose some weight and look a little like starving shipwrecked sailors. Life is tough on the movie set. 

The 19th-century sailors they portray in the film had to subsist for three months on six ounces or less of moldy hardtack a day except for the times when they augmented their diet by means of “gastronomic incest.” 

That novel term is from the non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick on which the film is based. The book, published in 2000, is about the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820, and like a whaleship it is constructed of heavy material, including cannibalism, an irony that ranks as one of the most consequential in the annals of human foibles and a shocking event that inspired one of America’s most admired literary works.

For sailors, there’s more, for within that sturdy framework, Philbrick (a racing sailor, by the way) wove one of the greatest sailing stories of all time. It is the story of how the crew of the sunken Essex sailed in flimsy, open boats from the farthest reaches of the Pacific to the coast of South America. They sailed 4,500 miles—500 miles more than William Bligh in his epic voyage following the mutiny on the Bounty and five times farther than Ernest Shackleton on his legendary passage from the Antarctic to South Georgia island.

The 20 men of the Essex set off from the position of the sinking some 2,000 miles west of the Galapagos in three battered whaleboats. Most of the crew were sons of Nantucket for whom sailing was as natural a form of motion as swimming is for fish. 

Shipwreck survivors from a different culture would likely have been appalled at the boats to which they were forced to entrust their lives on the open ocean. The 25-foot, low-freeboard, clinker-built double-enders were designed for rowing. Unlike the larger, more evolved whaleboats you can see at Mystic Seaport, these had no centerboards, rudders or sailing rigs.

The whalemen, skilled as they were in the sailing arts, made two-masted schooner rigs for the three boats from spare spars and cordage taken from the whaleship before it sunk and sewed triangular mainsails, foresails and jibs from cloth cut from the ship’s sails. They used boards salvaged from the wreck to raise the boats’ freeboard by six inches.

Then they sailed away, steering with clumsy 18-foot steering oars into ocean conditions that should have overwhelmed their frail craft. As detailed in accounts by the first mate and the cabin boy of the Essex, storms were frequent, gales common. Philbrick speculates that given the reported wind velocities and the vast fetch of that part of the Pacific, the boats likely encountered 40-foot waves. Seas broke over the boats, filling them to the gunwales. Planks sprung loose, leaking was constant. 

And yet, two of the boats and five sailors were able to make it to points near the coast of Chile, where they were rescued by passing ships. Three of the crew had elected to stay on an island in the South Pacific where the boats had made a landfall, and were eventually rescued. Those who perished succumbed to starvation, except for one who was sacrificed for food. That the sea directly claimed none of them attests to the fact that this was a sailing feat for the ages.

It was the sinking of the Essex, stove in by an enraged sperm whale that was about the same length as the 87-foot-long whaleship, that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. 

In Philbrick’s book, the treatment of the cannibalism to which the survivors resorted as an alternative to death is illuminating and surprising. Though it was considered a “cultural embarrassment,” it was not judged harshly by Nantucket’s devout Quaker community, even though one of the sailors, chosen by lottery, was executed to nourish the others.

The profound irony that has haunted the story since the Essex crew raised the sails of their little jury-rigged boats is that it was the sailors’ irrational fear of cannibals that caused them to become cannibals themselves. They could have set a course for Tahiti, a comparatively easy downwind passage of perhaps two weeks, but based on myth and outdated sailors’ yarns feared they would be eaten by Tahitian cannibals. In fact, the island had for many years been a safe place with a Christian mission. 


“Only a Nantucketer in November 1820,” Philbrick wrote, “possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance and xenophobia to shun a beckoning island and instead choose an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles.”

However foolhardy, that voyage deserves an elevated place in the hierarchy of sailing achievements, and in its telling in Philbrick’s book, and even in the movie, are lessons for today’s sailors. 

Though our boats are virtually indestructible and outfitted with sophisticated equipment and magical navigational devices, they sometimes founder in sea conditions that the Essex sailors managed handily in their open boats. The lessons are that the strength of the skills of the sailors means more to survival at sea than the strength of the vessel, and that the ability of sailors to hand, reef and steer is the most important safety device on board.

I guess another lesson might be—watch out for whales, but don’t worry about cannibals.