Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Choices

By Nathaniel Philbrick


His first mate, however, disagreed. Chase urged that they continue on, despite the damage. (2.62)

This is the first in a string of very bad decisions made by Chase. Although he's just the first mate, his overambitious nature (not to mention his poor problem-solving skills) directly leads to the sinking of the Essex.

Given the shortage of spare boats aboard the Essex, caution [...] might have been expected, but caution [...] was not part of the first mate's makeup. (5.8)

Here's foolish decision #2 from our main man Chase. Just as before, Chase lets his passion for the hunt overwhelm his rational faculties. This makes us wonder if things would have turned out differently if these guys had had the extra whaleboats, if only to help them carry additional supplies.

Part of him was guilt-wracked, knowing that if he had only hurled the lance, it might have all turned out differently. (5.57)

Ironically, Chase first shows caution at the worst possible moment. While things might have ended just as disastrously if Chase had attacked the whale, it would have at least given them a fighting chance. Instead, they simply got smashed.

"Not wishing to oppose where there was two against one," Nickerson remembered, "the captain reluctantly yielded to their arguments." (6.18)

Time and time again, Captain Pollard is pushed around by his subordinates. The worst part is that, each time this happens, Pollard is actually right. If only the dude had grown a backbone, things might not have ended as badly as they did.

Only a Nantucketer [...] possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to [...] choose instead an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles. (6.28)

The officers' choices are shaped by their personal biases and beliefs. As we see here, their fear of "savage" Pacific Islanders leads them to make perhaps the most boneheaded decision of all time: heading for faraway South America instead of nearby Tahiti. Of course, the irony that their fear of cannibalism leads to their own use of cannibalism is not lost on us.

Pollard had known better, but instead of pulling rank [...] he embraced a more democratic style of command. (6.29)

This is one of those instances when democracy isn't such a good thing. Disasters like this require split-second decision-making, as no one knows what the next moment will bring. This small change of strategy might have made a world of difference.

From the beginning, Chase had strictly, even obsessively attended to the distribution of rations aboard his boat. (10.25)

Although he makes a lot of wrong-headed choices, Chase survives because he shows unflinching determination. In fact, Chase's obsessive attitude toward rationing directly leads to his boat's high rate of survival.

Hendricks and his crew dared speak of a subject that had been on all their minds: whether they should eat, instead of bury, the body. (11.1)

Although this is a choice that no one should have to make, desperate times call for desperate measures. Even so, we can't help but look back at all of the foolish decisions from Chase and Pollard that forced them into this horrifying predicament.

But Coffin had already resigned himself to his fate. "I like it as well as any other," he said softly. (11.43)

This represents a big change for Coffin. Earlier in the journey, he had tried to pull the family card to get out of hard labor. Now, even though he has an out, he willingly sacrifices his life for his comrades.

It is in his account of the decisions made prior to the ordeal in the whaleboats that the first mate is the most self-serving. (13.52)

Chase is never able to forgive himself for his part in this disaster. In fact, this shame leads him to whitewash the true circumstances behind the disaster to make himself look better. It's an understandable impulse, but it doesn't do justice to the men who suffered and died under his command.