The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
It’s that time of year again! February is just around the bend and with it comes The Big Read, a program the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) created to broaden understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. This is the 13th time Coastal Georgia has been lucky enough to participate. That’s right: 13th! Under the outstanding leadership of Heather Heath, executive director of Golden Isles Arts & Humanities, who writes the grant to bring us The Big Read – anyone and everyone is invited to read ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ by Nathaniel Philbrick. A New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Award in 2000, this book has been said to rank as one of the most incredible survival stories of all time. The author combines excellent storytelling skills with meticulous research bringing to life the astonishing true adventure of the crew of the 19th century whale ship Essex, which sank after being destroyed by a furious bull whale. The story of the disaster was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic, “Moby Dick.”
The Essex, with 20 men aboard, left Nantucket on its last whaling voyage in 1819. This was the captain’s first time in command and most of the crew were “greenhorns,” new to whaling. On top of this, they were heading into unfamiliar territory in the central Pacific. On Nov. 20, 1820, some 1,500 miles west of the Galapagos Islands and 40 miles south of the Equator, the ship, according to the records provided by members of the crew, was “stove by a whale.” An enormous 80-ton sperm whale in a pod under attack by the whalers fought back, striking first the port side and then the bow of the Essex. It wrecked the boat, and after completing what the first mate called “decided, calculated mischief,” the whale swam away never to reappear. The ship went down and, in the short but lucrative history of whaling, this was apparently an extremely rare event.
For the next 90 days the men were adrift in three small open boats. There was little to no wind to fill the makeshift sails and one day, an orca, or killer whale, slammed into one of the boats. Sharks loitered near the boats and for a terrifying period, the men drifted, helpless, among a pod of the same immense whales that had once provided them with a living.
The whalers had close to nothing: a few navigational instruments, little food and fresh water. They endured fierce storms and tried to live on morsels of bread that were harder than rocks. Their skin became fried and covered in sores. Some of the men starved to death or went mad from dehydration; there was cannibalism and some offered to die to feed those who might live. Against all odds eight men lived and were rescued by passing ships. Some survivors even returned to the whaling life, a choice that seems incomprehensible after reading this gruesome – yet fascinating – account.
Philbrick, a historian and the author of books on sailing, grew up hearing the story of the Essex. As an adult, he moved to Nantucket in the mid-80s and lives there still. For this book he relied on two first-hand accounts of the voyage: one published by the first mate, Owen Chase, in 1821, and the other from the unpublished diary of the 14-year-old cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, discovered in an attic about 1960. Their accounts bring to life the horrors of starvation and dehydration; and the courage and unconquerable spirits of the sailors as they struggled against the overwhelming forces of nature.
Philbrick provides an in-depth examination of the men who lost their ship and of the place they came from – Nantucket – which comes across as quite sinister and clannish in the 1820s. In many ways that island determined what happened, who lived and who died. The author not only puts his readers in the boats as the men fight to stay alive, he also tells the whale’s side of the story. In the pages just after the attack on the Essex, he notes that the animal has the largest brain of any creature that has lived on Earth and adds that it has a “highly sophisticated ability to generate and process sound.” He provides details, too, about the sperm whale’s system of communication among its own kind. By researching whales so thoroughly, Philbrick shows why where once Americans saw only a source of oil, we now see a complicated, magnificent creature that is part of the biological diversity on this planet. He also elevated the adventure of the Essex to a rich and alarming study of how and why things happened as they did, holding up what we know now of human and animal behavior against the 1820 circumstances and actions.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a beautifully written, terrifying book that’s so much more than an adventure yarn. Do yourself a favor and pick up a free copy at area libraries and then join in some – or all – of the activities planned for this Big Read. And, here’s the pièce de résistance: Nathaniel Philbrick will discuss his book at the Ritz Theatre in Brunswick at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16. Tickets are $10 per person, and students will be admitted free.