Only a handful of the men on board that ship made it out of that journey alive.
In November 1820, thousands of miles from their destination, the ship and crew were struck by a devastating whale attack. It was no ordinary attack – a large whale, often described as a monster, rammed the boat, battering it and trying to bring it under.
After its attack, it disappeared into the sea, leaving the Essex to sink. Though the boat sank, 20 sailors survived, along with three whaleboats.
As the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase, recalled:
The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf. We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech. Many minutes elapsed before we were able to realize the dreadful accident; during which time he passed under the ship, grazing her keel as he went along, came up alongside of her to leeward, and lay on the top of the water (apparently stunned with the violence of the blow) for the space of a minute; he then suddenly started off, in a direction to leeward.
The shipmates were stunned by what had happened, said Chase:
Amazement and despair now wholly took possession of us. We contemplated the frightful situation the ship lay in, and thought with horror upon the sudden and dreadful calamity that had overtaken us. We looked upon each other, as if to gather some consolatory sensation from an interchange of sentiments, but every countenance was marked with the paleness of despair. Not a word was spoken for several minutes by any of us
They were soon an even more dangerous adventure, as they left the sunken ship and decided not to head to the Marquesas islands, but towards South America.
Surviving at sea
As their food and water ran out, they took to drinking their own urine. All the while, their whaleboats needed patching up. They landed on Henderson Island, which was uninhabited, but managed to live on birds, eggs and crabs.
But they knew this wasn’t enough, and headed off for Easter Island. They drifted too far, and turned for Más a Tierra island. But the men began to die. Some of the men ended up being executed and eaten by their shipmates (like what happened to this Limerick cabinboy).
In the end, some of the men – after their terrible, harrowing journey – survived. An account of what happened was recounted by survivors Owen Chase, the ship’s first mate, and Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy on board the ship.
Their tale went on to inspire Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, and now it has gone on to be turned into a movie directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, called In The Heart of the Sea.
The film also stars big-name Irish actors Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy.
The film is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s his bestselling book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which is about the maritime disaster. As the New York Times put it, Philbrick’s book “begins where Moby Dick ends”.
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube
The film will be released by Warner Bros in Ireland on St Stephen’s Day. Chris Hemsworth leads the cast as the vessel’s veteran first mate, Owen Chase, with Gleeson as elder Tom Nickerson and Murphy as second mate Matthew Joy. It also features up-and-coming Irish actor Sam Keeley.
Ben Whishaw stars as novelist Herman Melville, who read Chase’s book and tried to find out more about what happened – his inquiries helped bring the story to light. Tom Holland stars as young seaman Tom Nickerson, and Gleeson plays the elder Nickerson.
In the Heart of the Sea explores the encounter with the famed whale, and its harrowing aftermath, as the ship’s crew is pushed to their limits in order to survive.