Study Guide

Owen Chase in In the Heart of the Sea

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Owen Chase

Owen Chase is one of the trickiest guys to understand in the whole of In the Heart of the Sea. On the one hand, we really want to dislike the guy—he sometimes seems like an unholy mixture of every horrible boss on the face of the planet. On the other hand, there's nobody you'd rather have at your side when the going gets tough than Chase.

As it happens, the going does get pretty tough when you're working on a whaleship like the Essex.

Taking His Talents to the Essex

There's no two ways about it—Chase is an ambitious dude. It's almost as if he's looking past the Essex mission because he knows he'll be able to captain his own ship if it's successful. That would be especially impressive, because Chase is a relatively young guy: he's like the LeBron of the whaling world. Still, it took LeBron more than a few years to win his first championship. Chase as to learn that lesson the hard way.

Naturally, this power-hungry 'tude makes Chase unpopular on the Essex. He's referred to as a "tyrant" and "a bully who had no qualms about using physical force to obtain obedience" (2.21). Not exactly a raving review. In fact, Chase is so obsessed with doing things right that he kicks Benjamin Lawrence off harpooning duty so that he can take the position himself. In the whaling world, that's a slap in the face. Needless to say, Chase's hard-nosed leadership style isn't going to win him any popularity contests.

Chase Has Made a Huge Mistake

This ambitious nature also leads Chase to make some foolish decisions. Whenever a disaster hits the Essex, Chase always manages to convince Pollard to do what he wants: "the first mate's cocksure attitude [making] it difficult for Pollard [...] to assert his own style of command" (2.15). Unfortunately, Chase's decisions are more wrong than ketchup on spaghetti.

Here are a few of this guy's tragic mistakes:

  • He convinces Pollard to keep sailing after the Essex nearly flips for the first time. If Chase had simply allowed Pollard to return to Nantucket, the Essex would never have sunk in the first place.
  • He uses up whaleboats like they're Kleenex. Chase's reckless use of their limited number of whaleboats has some heavy consequences, as having those boats after the sinking of the Essex would have given them extra storage space for food.
  • He doesn't kill the attacking whale when he has the chance. Chase is so ashamed about this one that he neglects to "mention that he had the chance to lance the whale" in his account of the disaster (5.57).
  • He convinces Pollard to head to South America instead of the Society Islands. Just think: Chase's desire to avoid cannibals directly leads to him becoming a cannibal himself. What a coinkydink.

Yeah, that's a pretty substantial list. Whether driven by ambition, fear, or greed, Chase makes some seriously bone-headed choices that make life much harder for the crew of the Essex.

Bring it Around Town

Despite these mistakes, Chase eventually becomes an exceptional leader, his negative qualities shifting to positives after the sinking of the Essex. His tendency to "go with his gut" is now an asset, as their predicament requires both split-second decision-making and the determination to follow though. Likewise, his authoritarian nature eventually proves useful as well: his crew fares best because "Chase had strictly, even obsessively attended to the distribution of rations" (10.25). Suddenly, the same men that were once calling him a tyrant now praise him as a "remarkable man" (11.19).

As you can see, Chase is a complicated, often contradictory man. On the one hand, he's a strict and overbearing leader; on the other, he takes better care of his men than Captain Pollard does. He goes on to great professional success after the Essex disaster; at the same time, his personal life explodes into a fiery wreck. But this contradictory nature is awfully fitting for a Nantucket whaling captain. In one of the most contradictory businesses in the world (a violent industry led by non-violent Quakers), maybe only contradictory men can succeed.