In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Summary and Analysis of Chapter 8: Centering Down


Pollard's ship vanished into darkness on the 17th night and no cries could contact them from Chase's ship. They were not supposed to seek the crew, as agreed, but they decided to make a small effort. When they met, even Chase felt a certain ecstasy that he might easily have accompanied with an extra ounce of food for him and his mates, but he resisted. In fact, he always slept with at least an arm or leg draped across the chest, a loaded pistol in his hand.

A school of flying fish came by and Chase managed to catch one and eat it whole. It was the first time anybody had laughed since the wreckage. When the wind died away the next day, he proposed they eat the second tortoise, just as they had eaten the first 11 days earlier.

After 23 days had passed, it became clear that they would not reach South America by the sixtieth day as they had planned. Chase announced that they would cut rations of hardtack in half and then studied his crew's face. There was no sign of resistance.

Although the ration for water was the same, the men were entering a dire state of thirst. Their saliva was thick, their tongues clung to their teeth, and some were even losing the capacity to speak. A severe pain developed in their heads and necks; the skin on their faces shrunk; and many people began to hallucinate. Yet, the men could not help but moan with their woes until they entered a state called "living death" in which there is virtually no remaining moisture left in the body and even where the skin is cut, no blood seeps out.

Some of the men decided to cool their bodies off in the water, hanging on the edge of the boat. It was there that they found the gooseneck barnacles on the sides of the boat, which they ate with glee. Once again, they could not resist eating all the food (i.e. the barnacles) at once.

They entered a new area of the Pacific Ocean called the "desolate region" (150) where there are few signs of life in sea or air. Another plank had pulled loose on the bottom of the boat. Lawrence, the man who was unable to harpoon the whale earlier, now offered himself to the task of diving under the boat to fix the board.

The dead of the sea was intolerable, so Pollard came up with a plan to increase rations during the day and have the crew row until some breeze would show up. They lasted three hours. That night welcomed a nice breeze, but once again, it was in the exact wrong direction.

They had nowhere near enough water to make it to the coast of Chile, and their hair was beginning to fall out in clumps. Strangest of all, their eyes began to sink into their skulls and their cheekbones projected, making them all look alike. "Patience and long-suffering" (134) was the mantra that they silently kept. As the one-month anniversary of the sinking of the Essex approached, many men gave up, but at that same moment, William Wright stood up and cried "There is land!" (134)


The men are starting to show signs of physical deterioration. Philbrick brings in W.J. McGee's 1906 study on the experiences of Pablo Valencia, who "survived almost seven days in the Arizona desert without water" (126). The graphic description of Valencia's bodily state at the time of his salvation helps to inform the experience of the sailors aboard the whaleboats. Though they were finally able to take advantage of the abundance of life surrounding them in the ocean (flying fish and goose barnacles), their entrance into the 'desolate region' saw the end of even this minimal prospering.

The title of the chapter, "Centering Down," reminds the reader that any hope of survival was optimistic from the start. If they were to survive the journey on a starvation diet, they would need to be rescued very soon. "Patience and long-suffering" seems to be the way of the Quakers back in Nantucket, but they would never have imagined just what those words meant until it was the embodiment of their salvation. When William Wright saw land, one cannot help but feel that it must have been just another mirage.