In the Heart of the Sea Summary
What was supposed to be a routine mission becomes an unprecedented disaster for the whaleship Essex.
Launched from Nantucket in 1819, the Essex is expected to take a two- to three-year jaunt to the Pacific Ocean before returning home with oodles of whale oil. Led by the newly promoted Captain George Pollard Jr. and his mates Owen Chase and Matthew Joy, the Essex is manned by an amateurish crew that includes fourteen-year-old Thomas Nickerson and Chase's nephew Owen Coffin.
Within a few days, the Essex nearly flips after being slammed by a freak storm. Though Captain Pollard wants to return to Nantucket for repairs, he's convinced to continue by Chase and Joy. Unfortunately, they have a tough time finding whales—they don't spot a single one until crossing the equator. Thankfully, their luck turns around by the time they round the base of South America.
After reaching the Pacific Ocean, the crew decides to head to the Offshore Grounds, a newly discovered breeding ground that boasts tons of whales but is thousands of miles away from land. During a hunt, the Essex is shockingly attacked by a sperm whale—the first recorded instance of an intentional attack on humans by a sperm whale. Chase misses an opportunity to kill the whale before this happens, which is a failure that haunts him for the rest of his life.
Desperate, the surviving crewmembers rig their tiny whaleboats with sails and attempt to make the long journey to South America. Each officer is placed in charge of a whaleboat: Coffin is on Uncle Pollard's crew, while Nickerson travels with Chase. Once again, Pollard has only been convinced of this (risky) course of action thanks to the prodding of Chase and Joy: he had wanted to travel to the Society Islands instead. Oh, if only he had insisted.
Although they hit a few strokes of luck—catching a few fish and chancing upon a tiny island, for example—the whaleboats are eventually separated, and the starving sailors descend into (oops) cannibalism. At one point, Pollard's crew runs out of food, and Owen Coffin is killed and eaten. In the end, five sailors (including Pollard, Chase, and Nickerson) are rescued near the coast of South America (three men had remained on that tiny island and were rescued later), though the Essex tragedy continues to haunt them until their deaths.
- For young Thomas Nickerson, stepping aboard the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship, is "the most pleasing moment of [his] life" (1.1). It's his first whaling voyage, so he's stuck with the lowly position of cabin boy.
- It's July 1819. Although most of America is mired in an economic crisis, Nantucket is doing quite well due to high oil prices. And where does that oil come from? Whales.
- As a Nantucket native, Nickerson is psyched to be joining his first crew. Even better is the fact that his bros Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and Charles Ramsdell are a part of the crew—though that's because Coffin's uncle is the Essex's new captain.
- That's Captain George Pollard, the ship's former first mate. Another longstanding member of the crew, Owen Chase, is taking over the new captain's former position.
- There's only one problem: as the Essex is being readied, a "comet appeared in the night sky" (1.1). In Nantucket's unique brand of superstition, that can only mean bad things.
- Let's rewind for a second and talk about Nantucket. While the small island was once home to a native population, the arrival of the English in 1659 led to the founding of the town of Nantucket.
- Things aren't great at first—Nantucket's no place for a bunch of farmers. But then these settlers realize that they have something far more valuable swimming in their sea: whales.
- Right whales, to be specific. These dudes are relatively small, so they regularly make their way into Nantucket's harbor. Also, in case you don't know, whales were once the world's preeminent source for oil.
- It isn't until the beginning of the 18th century that Nantucketers first start hunting whales. These missions are always led by white Nantucketers, but the Nantucketers also employ Native Americans via a system of "debt servitude" (1.16).
- In 1712, Captain Hussey stumbles into a massive success. After his boat is pushed out to sea unexpectedly, Hussey stumbles upon—and kills—the biggest whale he's ever seen. It's a sperm whale. Though they're far tougher than those yellow-bellied right whales, sperm whales contain oodles more oil.
- Over the next century, Nantucket whalers wipe out the local whale population, which forces them to voyage as far as Africa and South America just to meet quotas. Unfortunately, this means that whaling missions now average out at two to three years.
- Besides whales, Nantucket is chiefly defined by Quakerism. In fact, the entire town had converted because one prominent woman, Mary Coffin Starbuck, was moved to tears by a roving Quaker preacher.
- As you might have guessed, this is one tight-knit community. This does have some nasty side effects, though—for example, Nickerson is left "on the outside looking in" because his father wasn't born in Nantucket (1.31).
- Regardless, every Nantucketer is raised to be a whaler from the day he or she is born. Walk around town and you'll likely find old women and little kids alike spouting so much nautical terminology that they might as well be extras in Waterworld.
- Whaling also affects the way that Nantucketers' marriages operate: wives must be independent, because their husbands are always out at sea. These ladies are also known for having devices known as "he's-at-homes,'' which even the most innocent among you should be able to figure out (1.57).
- For his part, Nickerson loses his romantic view of whaling as he prepares the ship. Money is a factor: in the best-case scenario, Nickerson will earn "about $150 for two years' work" (1.61).
- Quaker whalers are known for being pretty cheap. For example, Essex is both (a) in need of repairs and (b) in need of additional supplies. The owner of the Essex chooses (c) none of the above.
- Although these crews consist mostly of Nantucketers, there are a few off-islanders in the mix as well. Often, these dudes are looked at with great suspicion by the Nantucketers.
- The Nantucket whaling industry also uses African Americans as cheap labor, essentially filling the role that Native Americans had a century before. Of course, this "exploitative hunger for labor" flies in the face of the Quakers' much-avowed distaste for slavery, but that's America for you (1.92). There are seven black men hired to the Essex's crew.
- Finally, on August 11, 1819, the Essex sets out for the open sea.
- Just getting out of the harbor is tricky business for this massive ship. Since both Captain Pollard and his crew are new to the job, this process is nearly disastrous.
- Luckily (or unluckily, depending on the person you're talking to), first mate Owen Chase is as rough n' tough as John Wayne.
- That night, the crew is given their whaleboat assignments. Nickerson "found himself on Chase's boat," while his buddies get assigned to Captain Pollard's (2.26). Second mate Williams Joy is stuck with a boat full of off-islanders.
- The Essex is a heavily segregated ship, with officers sharing luxe cabins while the crew shares a smaller space. And the black crew? They're stuck in the back of the boat.
- By the way, here's the plan: Essex will head down the Atlantic Ocean, scoot around the horn of South America, chill in the Pacific for a bit, and then head home. Easy enough, right?
- It's been three days, and things are going well. Essex is cruising at high speeds thanks to Pollard's decision to put up the "studding sails," which boost speed but limit maneuverability (2.43).
- Unfortunately, the crew can see a storm approaching. This usually would prompt the removal of those studding sails, but Pollard delays his decision in favor of going fast and furious.
- That's a bad move—the storm hits the crew before they can take the sails down. Pollard decides to "turn [...] in the opposite direction" of the wind to ease the pressure from the massive gusts (2.50), but our captain once again makes the wrong decision.
- The wind slams into the ship, rolling the Essex to a ninety-degree angle (grab that protractor, son). That's bad. Really bad. On the bright side, it does give the crew some brief relief from the rain.
- Somehow, the ship rights itself. Pollard wants to head back to Nantucket, but Chase and Joy convince him to continue the journey—even though the ship has lost three of its five whaleboats.
- The Essex makes provisional stops at some small islands, picking up one additional whaleboat, though it's as rinky-dinky as they come.
- They don't see their first whale until they "crossed the equator" (3.8). That one's a swing and a miss. They don't see their second whale for another three months.
- This time, however, they're ready. The crew clambers into the three whaleboats and get ready for the first hunt.
- Here's how it works: the officer on each whaleboat tracks the whale. From there, the harpooner snags it with a tethered harpoon, slowly wearing out the creature until it dies. Rinse and repeat.
- Chase's harpooner, Benjamin Lawrence, has just missed his shot when suddenly "a second whale had come up beneath them," upturning their boat (3.25). The floating crewmembers are picked up and returned to the ship.
- The crew gets another chance several days later. This time they make it count, killing the whale.
- Now it's time for the nasty stuff: stripping the whale of its blubber, draining it of oil, etc, etc. It's a gross process. Seriously. So. Gross. This takes "as long as three days" (3.39).
- Some time later, the crew spots a penguin.
- Meanwhile, the crew is getting increasingly angsty. Why? They're mad that the officers get way more (and way tastier) food than they do. They confront Pollard about this.
- Although Pollard is normally nicer than Santa Claus, he loses his lid this time, shouting and stomping "in a fury" (3.56).
- Needless to say, the crewmembers don't get any extra food.
The Lees of Fire
- The Essex is about to go around Cape Horn, the bottom-most tip of South America. This is the riskiest part of the voyage, though Nantucketers have "been rounding it regularly ever since 1791" (4.3).
- It takes the crew a month, but they finally round the horn. It's now January 1820.
- Finally, the Essex's luck seems to be turning around. By the time they reach the coast of Peru, "Pollard and his men boiled down 450 barrels of oil, the equivalent of about eleven whales" (4.9).
- In May, the Essex happens upon another ship: the Aurora. By chance, the Aurora is captained by Daniel Russell, former captain of the Essex. It's a family reunion.
- Russell comes bearing good news: he's heard of a "new whaling ground" in the middle of the Pacific dubbed the Offshore Ground (4.18). If the rumors are true, this place is the mother lode.
- Pollard decides to head out to this new pasture, stopping first for provisions. The Essex also loses something as well: Hendry De Witt, an African American crewmember, deserts while in port.
- By October, the Essex is cruising toward the Galapagos Islands. They're forced to make some repairs when they arrive, but everything still seems to be going peachy.
- Things are especially peachy because Galapagos turtles are quite tasty. The crew loads hundreds of these massive turtles onto the boat, endangered species list be dashed.
- Before leaving, crewmember Thomas Chappel decides to play a hilarious prank—setting "Charles Island" on fire (4.47). It's a bad joke that also devastates the island's animal population.
- By November, "the Essex had sailed more than a thousand miles west of the Galapagos" (5.2). They're in desolate waters now.
- The crewmembers haven't been able to snag a whale in a while, however. Things have got so bad that Chase demotes Benjamin Lawrence and makes himself the harpooner.
- The Essex's first try with this new set-up fails miserably. Just as before, a whale surfaces underneath Chase's whaleboat and wrecks it.
- Another whale is spotted four days later. Chase leads his boat out, leaving Lawrence to steer the Essex.
- Can you guess what happens? Once again, a whale takes Chase's boat out of commission, "opening a hole in the boat's side" (5.12). Chase and company return to the ship, leaving Chase to frantically repair his boat while novice Nickerson takes the helm of the Essex.
- Nickerson spots the whale that knocked them out of commission—it's a big 'un, about eighty-five feet long. Oh, and it also happens to be heading straight toward the Essex.
- To everyone's utter shock, the giant whale collides with the ship. Chase has an opportunity to throw a lance at the whale, but he decides to refrain in case it damages the ship.
- Meanwhile, the whale heads "several hundred yards ahead of the ship" before turning around and careening toward them faster than before (5.24). Ruh-roh.
- Bam! This second head-butt is even harder, and the boat is now filling with water. The Essex is sinking.
- As this happens, a crewmember named William Bond has a stroke of genius. He hustles down to the officers' quarters and grabs the "navigational equipment" (5.28). This is key.
- The remaining crewmembers hustle into the damaged whaleboat and abandon ship. It's only now that the other two whaleboats notice what happened. The mood is understandably tense.
- The book presents a possible explanation for this incident, suggesting that the sound of Chase hammering at his whaleboat was interpreted as a mating call by the giant male whale. Even though the first attack might have been accidental, though, the second strikes were definitely intentional attacks.
- The crew strips the Essex of its remaining materials: water, hardtack (bad quality bread), tools, and a few turtles. With nowhere else to go, the crew ties their three whaleboats to the wreckage to chill for the night.
- The next morning, the crew gathers more equipment from the Essex, which is still slowly sinking. They "make sails for the three whaleboats" from the Essex's tattered sails (6.5).
- In addition, the crew also "built up the sides of each boat by more than a half a foot" (6.7). This is a stroke of genius, as it protects the men (and their food) from the salty waves.
- This flurry of productive activity ends as night falls. The crewmembers tie the whaleboats back up to the Essex and try not to freak out too badly.
- Given that the ship is almost entirely sunk by the next morning, our dudes had better think up a plan ASAP. Captain Pollard suggests traveling west to the Society Islands, which would take about thirty days.
- Fearful of savage cannibals (ironic, huh?), Chase and Joy disagree. They want to head south and catch an easterly wind to the coasts of Chile or Peru—which is a perilous trek by any measure.
- Chase and Joy manage to convince Pollard. Spoiler alert: this is a bad decision. Somehow, Chase and Joy are unaware of the fact that there's "a thriving English mission" on the Society Islands (6.22).
- Now it's time to split up into whaleboats: six in Chase's boat and seven in the other two. Pollard gets a majority-Nantucketer crew, including Coffin, Ramsdell, and Ray. Chase gets Nickerson. Joy, being the lowest-ranking officer, is given a majority African American crew. We thought Quakers were supposed to be not racist?
- Finally, the crewmembers begin their journey.
- A day passes. The crew has decided to keep all three whaleboats together, partly for comfort and partly so that they can share the navigational equipment.
- After a tiny meal, the crew goes to sleep. Everyone except for Chase, that is. Instead of snoozing, Chase "continued to dwell obsessively on the circumstances of the ship's sinking" (7.15).
- Chase writes in his journal to maintain sanity. Everyone has a little ritual like this: for example, Lawrence spends his days weaving string into twine.
- The crewmembers check the navigational equipment: they're heading south on schedule. Oddly, however, Pollard abruptly decides "to abandon [...] any correct longitudinal reckoning'" (7.22). Really?
- The whaleboats are hit by some nutso storms over the next few days. Although they escape unscathed, their bread becomes soaked with salty water—not good for such thirsty fellows.
- The crewmembers discover even worse news the next morning: Chase's boat is sinking. Though it's tricky, Chase and Pollard manage to seal the rift.
- That night, Chase is awoken by shouting from another boat. To his utter shock—and horror—Pollard explains that "his boat had been attacked by a whale" (7.41).
- It was a killer whale. Sure earned its name today, huh? The crewmembers spend a tense night in fear and fix up Pollard's boat in the morning.
- But dudes are getting hungry. Seeing this, Chase finally decides to eat their first tortoise, which is consumed in one sitting.
- Though they're separated at times, the three whaleboats manage to stick together. They've gone far south, but not east—in fact, they're only a week away from the Society Islands at this point.
- On December 9th, Pollard's boat disappears. They search for him that night to no luck, but the next morning "all three crews were reunited" (8.5).
- Being a paranoid dude, Chase moves all of the provisions to his personal chest. Real classy. Luckily, the men manage to catch some flying fish for a quick midday snack.
- The wind has been quite bad lately, so these guys are behind schedule. These are hard times, daddy: the crew desperately needs water after consuming that salty hardtack.
- On the 15th, Chase realizes that his boat is leaking. In a courageous move, Lawrence dives into the ocean and fixes the leak himself.
- Pollard tries to motivate the crew to start rowing, but after mere minutes, "man after man collapsed in a slumped heap" (8.36).
- With the wind being so bad lately, the crew is forced to reckon with the fact that they might not survive. Just then, it happens—someone has spotted an island.
- Though they think it's a "mirage" at first, the men quickly realize that this is real life (9.1). Still terrified of non-white people, however, the crew drops off Chase and two sidekicks to scout.
- The men do some exploring. They quickly realize that the island is made up entirely of coral—in other words, they have little chance of finding fresh water. The do find a tiny spring, however, so they decide to stay the night.
- The rest of the crew touches down on the island. They have a minor feast of crab and birds before deciding to chill for another day.
- On December 22, the crewmembers find "a spring bubbling up from a hole in a large flat rock" (9.28). They collect as much as they can before the spring seals up once again.
- By Christmas Eve, the crew has hunted just about every bird on the island. In fact, birds have started avoiding it altogether. Rude.
- The crewmembers decide to leave on Christmas. However, three crewmembers—Thomas Chappel, Seth Weeks, and William Wright—decide to stay on the island. It's an emotional goodbye, but the remaining crew ships out.
The Whisper of Necessity
- The next few days are rough. The men realize that after forty-four days, they're still less than halfway to Chile.
- That's when Matthew Joy makes an unusual request—to be moved to Chase's boat. As it turns out, Joy has been sick for some time and is about to die (which he does a few days later). Hendricks takes command of Joy's boat.
- That's when Hendricks makes a horrifying discovery—Joy did not closely monitor "the distribution of his boat's provisions" (10.15). In other words, they'll be out of food in a matter of days.
- The next night brings an intense storm. Chase's boat is separated from the other two once again, but this time they don't find each other the next day. Chase's crew is on its own.
- Pollard and Hendricks are still together, however, but that might not be a good thing. Hendricks's crew has run out of food, so Pollard is forced to give them what little he has.
- Chase, on the other hand, has rationed his food expertly. Even still, his entire crew is on the verge of starvation.
- In fact, Richard Peterson (on Team Chase) tries to take "some bread" but is caught (10.34). Chase considers executing Peterson but thinks better of it.
- On January 20, Richard Peterson buys the farm. The crew gives him a burial at sea.
Games of Chance
- It's January 20. Pollard and Hendricks are almost out of food when an African American member of Hendrick's crew named Lawson Thomas dies of starvation.
- You can probably guess how this one ends, folks—it's cannibal time.
- "Two days later" Charles Shorter "died and was eaten" (11.9). Like Thomas, Shorter was an African American.
- Meanwhile, Chase's crew is similarly desperate, though Chase's strong leadership skills help keep morale up.
- Back at Team Pollard/Hendricks's mobile HQ, another African American crewmember named Isaiah Sheppard dies and is eaten. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
- On January 28th, Samuel Reed dies and is eaten.
- The following night, Pollard loses sight of Hendricks's ship and "lacked the strength" to search for it (11.34). At this point, Pollard's crew now consists of him, Coffin, Ramsdell, and Ray.
- Then, on February 6th, a serious decision is made. Sixteen-year-old Ramsdell suggests casting lots to decide who will be killed and eaten so that the others can survive.
- Though resistant, Pollard agrees. To his horror, Coffin is chosen. (Coffin is Pollard's nephew and Ramsdell's best friend, by the way.) No one wants to go through with it, but Coffin "had already resigned himself to his fate" (11.44).
- The deed is done.
In the Eagle's Shadow
- Meanwhile, Chase's crew has about two weeks' worth of bread left—so much less exciting than cannibalism. Still, these dudes are starving to death, anyway.
- On February 8, Isaac Cole dies. Though they plan to give him a sea burial, Chase tells his crew that their only hope is to "eat a dead shipmate" (12.12). So they do.
- Barzillai Ray of Team Pollard dies three days later. You can probably guess what happens to him.
- Thankfully, Team Chase's human feast has given them some much-needed strength. They're only about five days from Juan Fernandez, a small island off the coast of Chile.
- That's when a miracle happens: Chase spots an island. Nickerson has almost lost hope by now, but Chase is able to talk him off the ledge. As this happens, the men see a ship in the distance as well.
- That ship is the Indian, "from London," led by Captain William Crozier (12.37). The Indian brings Chase's crew onboard. Holy smokes—it's over.
- The ordeal is still ongoing for Team Pollard, however. Now it's just Pollard and Ramsdell, each of them gone mad from their recent experiences.
- These fellows are picked up by the Dauphin. The Dauphin hooks up with another ship, the Diana, and the three captains (including Pollard) gather to discuss the fate of the Essex.
- On February 25, Chase, Lawrence, and Nickerson arrive in Chile. They're practically celebrities after the ordeal they've been through.
- Meanwhile, the Dauphin and the Diana have hooked up with another ship, the "Two Brothers" (13.9). Pollard and Ramsdell are then transferred to the Two Brothers, which is heading for Chile.
- Finally, the five remaining crewmembers of the Essex reunite. Afterwards, everyone but Pollard heads back to Nantucket aboard the Eagle. Pollard's health is still too shaky for the voyage.
- Have you forgotten our three island-dwellers? We sure did. Another ship, the Constellation, heads to Henderson Island, where they pick up Chappel, Weeks, and Wright. Huzzah.
- And what about Hendricks' crew? Well, months later, a ship stumbles across "a whaleboat [...] with four skeletons inside" (13.23). Oh, well.
- The Eagle arrives in Nantucket on June 11. On the bright side, Chase discovers he has a fourteen-month-old daughter.
- Pollard doesn't arrive for another two months. This time, however "no one said a word" when he stepped foot on land (13.37).
- Pollard has some business to handle, anyway—like talking to Nancy Coffin, his cousin and Owen's mother. Understandably, "Nancy Coffin did not take it well" (13.44).
- Chase has already begun working on a book about the Essex disaster, presumably ghostwritten by William Coffin Jr. Chase is basically only writing it for the extra green.
- Naturally, Chase makes himself look as good as possible. This does, however, lead to him being ostracized by the tight-knit Nantucket community.
- Pollard, on the other hand, is shown a great deal of respect. He even captains the Two Brothers just three months later with both Nickerson and Ramsdell as crewmembers.
- In February 1823, disaster strikes the Two Brothers when it runs into "a coral reef" (14.8). That's bad. Pollard and crew abandon ship and are quickly picked up by the Martha, another whaling ship.
- Pollard gives up on sailing after that. He becomes Nantucket's night watchman, which is a low-prestige position but one that fits Pollard's personality.
- Chase, on the other hand, would go on to be a hugely successful captain. Sadly, "his personal life [...] proved less fortunate" (14.23).
- First, Chase's wife dies in childbirth. He then marries Nancy Joy, the widow of Matthew Joy. Sadly, Nancy also dies in childbirth less than a decade later.
- Naturally, Chase remarries quickly to a woman named Eunice Chadwick. After returning from his final voyage (given his age) he discovers that she was cheating on him. Womp womp.
- Nickerson, Lawrence, and Ramsdell stay in the sailing business as well. Ramsdell and Lawrence become captains of whaling ships, while Nickerson eventually joins the merchant service before moving to Brooklyn.
- Although the Essex disaster is all hush-hush in Nantucket, it becomes a global media sensation. Ever heard of a book called Moby-Dick?Yeah, that's based on the Essex. Though it's now considered a literary classic, Moby-Dick actually bombed when it was published.
- By the mid-1800s, Nantucket has become a completely different town. There are far fewer Quakers than before, which leads to some ostentatious displays of wealth from "rich islanders" (14.59). These garish displays eventually burn to the ground after a fire tears through town.
- Later, the Gold Rush will put the final nail in Nantucket's coffin. With their whaling business taken by other port towns, Nantucket is now a shadow of its former self.
- In the 1870s, after Chase's and Pollard's deaths, Nickerson decides to start writing his memories of the disaster.
- Lawrence dies in 1879. Before his death, he donates a very special object to the Nantucket Historical Association—the "piece of twine" he had wound each day during the ordeal (14.83). This, along with a small chest found floating in the Pacific Ocean decades earlier, is the only remnant of that fateful journey.