Pollard, the 28-year-old first-time captain who had spent all but seven months from the last four years aboard the Essex, received a letter from the ship's principal owners that detailed exactly what was expected of him. He had just married Mary Riddell, a 19-year-old Nantucketer of a well-to-do family, and took this chance to make one last townward glance before ordering the ship to be prepared for weighing the anchors.
The crew got right to work with all the awkwardness and confusion associated with settling into the new roles they would subsume over the next years. Chase, a young cocksure mate, would be ready to captain after this journey despite his young age of only 22. Nevertheless, the crew had difficulty putting up the sails, so Chase cuffed Nickerson in the ears to establish his authority and inspire fear in the crew. This was a common transformation for ship officials when they left for sea. This was Nickerson's effective entrance into manhood.
The next step was to divide the crew into two shifts, or watches: alternating four-hour shifts on deck for the first and second mate. After this Pollard gave a short speech in gentlemanly tones about the coming trip, saying that the officers should be strictly obeyed. The quarters were split racially, which proved to be an advantage in some regards as the black sailors could dance, sing, play, smoke, or whatever they pleased to do without worrying about annoying the officers, who were toward the front of the ship alongside the white sailors.
Some men became seasick and had to undergo the treatment that may well be worse than the malady: swallow a piece of pork fat tied to a string and pull it back up again. To make matters worse, each man had to climb the highest mast to look out for whales for two hours, which was difficult for the men who were weak from vomiting.
They would pick up extra provisions in the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, but on the way they met another ship, the Midas. Undoubtedly, the Essex was the faster of the two ships, something that the crew took great pride in. Shortly afterward a squall (a sea-storm) set in and it was time to shorten sail, but Pollard unwisely tried to have the crew ride it out. By the time lightning struck it was too late, and the ship was in the worst possible position: sideways to the wind. The ship was rolled over to almost 90 degrees, which provided a strange calm in which the crew was blocked from the wind. Pollard took this moment to bring the crew to their senses and to work out the situation. By the time the ship was upright, the wind was blowing the ship backwards, which put an immense pressure on the masts and rudder. The crew had to act quickly to shorten sail before the ship was permanently damaged. Several sails had been shredded to tatters and two whaleboats had been torn off and washed out into the ocean.
Pollard determined that they would turn back for Nantucket for repairs and whaleboats, but Chase wanted to continue on to their provisioning sites and see if they could pick up cheaper boats there. Chase won. Nickerson thought that this decision was probably arrived at because, if they were to head back, a not insignificant number of crew members would jump ship.
The division of the crew into two teams is a symbol of the future divisions that will occur between the men at sea. While they must work as a unified crew to perform the complex tasks of shortening sail, steering out of the squalls, and so forth, they must also remain competitive with one another. The journey always operates under Pollard's yoke, but with strong leadership also coming from Chase, something that the movie exaggerates to a great degree. Whereas Pollard's imprudence in dealing with this first squall cost the crew a great deal, Chase's fiery leadership got the crew on the same page to work efficiently.
It seems that aside from Chase, the whole crew was having difficulty getting used to working the ship. This awkwardness was to be expected on such a ramshackle crew though, because they had not pulled the team together until the very last minute, as the Essex had a few bad omens going into its journey (the comet appearing in the sky, the replacement by a newer ship after this voyage, etc.). When it comes to Pollard's decision to turn around, perhaps Chase was aware of the fact that many men would probably jump ship if they returned home. The crew was not well-equipped to deal with Pollard's imprudence as captain.