Whale Ship or Training Ship?

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I only just recently read the excellent book “In The Heart Of The Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick.  It has been on my reading list forever but I just hadn’t got to it for whatever reason.  My interest was renewed a couple of years ago when I heard Nathaniel Philbrick speak during the gala dinner at a Tall Ships America conference.  When I found a second hand copy at our local bookstore, Lunenburg Bound, where I stopped in to stock up on books just as we were starting to see the effects of the pandemic here, I knew it was finally time.

My first impression was that this book was impeccably researched.  I know there have been other books written about the sinking of the whale ship Essex and about Nantucket’s whaling industry in general, and this one seems to synthesize that previous research.  Philbrick’s storytelling style makes it an engaging read, transporting the reader back to what it was like aboard and ashore in those days.  That he was also a friend of the captain’s should not have surprised me.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it’s all about the ill-fated voyage of the whaling ship Essex in 1819, setting out from Nantucket to catch and render whales into oil in the South Pacific, returning a couple of years later with a hold full of barrels of whale oil.  Spoiler alert: the voyage didn’t go as planned.  Seriously, skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to read it, or see the movie based on the book, and don’t already know how it goes.  I’ll give you a moment to cast your eyes ahead…  For the rest of you still with me, there are a series of unfortunate events which culminate in the ship being rammed and sunk by a whale in pretty much the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific that leads to all the grisly places you might imagine it could.

I read this book while working on updating the itinerary for Picton Castle’s upcoming Voyage to the South Pacific.  We are obviously making a very different voyage.  First, no whale hunting.  We like to see whales when we’re lucky enough to encounter them, but finding them is not our mission. Hurting them would be an anathema. While much of the routing is similar much of it is quite different too.  Second, the route is very different.  In 1819 the Panama Canal didn’t exist so a ship had to sail from Nantucket, off the Atlantic coast of the USA, almost to Europe to catch the winds that would eventually take them around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America and into the Pacific.  Third, we have a much better idea of what lies ahead.  After the Essex sank and the crew were in small boats, they opted not to travel west to the Polynesian islands that were not that far away because they feared that they would be eaten by cannibals.  Instead they chose to sail south and then east, aiming for the coast of South America, better known to the captain of the Essex. This was a mistake deadly consequences.  In Picton Castle, we look ahead to the Polynesian islands with excited anticipation.

Despite the different mission and the horrible circumstances those sailors found themselves in, there are still some similarities between the voyages.  I was interested in reading about how they provisioned the ship with food and water for the crew, then depleted that stock as they ate and drank and fill its space below decks with whale oil.  And they had to stop in ports along the way to re-provision, making those sailors explorers and adventurers (the book also contains some important lessons on what not to do ashore).  One of the accounts that Philbrick draws on heavily is that of Thomas Nickerson, the youngest crew member who signed aboard at age 14.  Reading his account of being away from home for the first time and learning with his young shipmates how to sail the ship and what life at sea is all about had some familiar tones.

The Essex was sunk in 1820, so 200 years ago.  Most things in our lives today are very different than they were 200 years ago.  Even life in a sailing ship has changed, but enough of the basic technology of the ship and its small boats are similar that my time sailing in Picton Castle helped me understand the story better.