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 7: At Sea


Again, the crews were divided into two watches. While half the crew slept in uncomfortable positions, the other half steered, tended the sails, and so forth. Whereas Pollard and Chase each had compasses, quadrants, and maps, Joy, the second mate, had nothing. He was also ill, which put his boat at a serious disadvantage from the start.

The possibility of being seen, even though there were at least seven whaleships in the vicinity, were slim to none because of their travel path. To search for these ships could cost them the chance of getting to land before their food ran out. They had to depend on their own labors, not chance. Each man was given six ounces of hardtack and half a pint of water a day, which was about a quarter of an average man's daily energy needs. If they even reached South America, they would be little more than breathing skeletons. Just to increase the difficulty of this voyage, most whalemen were heavy tobacco users and so they would also be undergoing nicotine addiction withdrawal on this voyage.

Chase was on his third night of sleeplessness, a phenomenon now called a "tormenting memory," which is a common response to disasters. It was this phenomenon that Melville's Captain Ahab suffered from for the rest of his days. Chase and his shipmates, however, had to fight for their lives, not for revenge. Chase was cured through keeping a journal.

The constant spray of salt water left the men with sores all over their skin, exacerbated by the bouncing of the boats. Lawrence began ritually twisting strands into a piece of twine that he would save if he survived this ordeal. Keeping track of the distance and position of the boats, Pollard noticed that they had travelled 11 miles over their daily requirement. Nickerson was focused on the fact that the boat was in such terrible shape that he would not feel safe traveling in it for ten miles, let alone the thousands that they had to cover.

A large wave overtook Chase's boat and soaked some of the hardtack that they had carefully wrapped to protect from the seawater. They dried out as much as they could, but it had taken on the salt of the ocean, the worst possible thing for men in such a condition. They discovered that a plank had sprung lose underneath the hull; to fix it, Chase and Pollard had to nail it back in with extreme precision to prevent new nail holes from increasing their problems. Their boats also had a heavy leeward leaning without centerboards, so this had to be taken into account with steering. But this didn't really matter because the wind turned in the exact wrong direction; then, as if to mock their efforts, it started blowing very hard.

When evening came, Pollard yelled for the nearest boat, which had drifted very far apart. His boat had been attacked by a killer whale, taking a huge bite off the back and splitting the boat's stem. The men punched it in its sides until it swam away. Without the protection of the ship, the men had become the prey.

Meanwhile, the men in Chase's boat began to suffer from hypernatremia, the effect of extreme excesses of sodium in the body that brings on convulsions. Chase recorded that there was no worse calamity in the human experience than raving thirst. Chase diverted his attention to the meticulous care of their dilapidated boat.

Schools of dolphins swam by and the men were finally persuaded by hunger to eat one of the tortoises. Some of the men could not make themselves drink its blood, but all of them had a deep animalistic instinct to eat its vitamin-rich heart and liver. Nobody was willing to delay eating the tortoise, despite its consequences on their shrunken stomachs.

Not long after, Chase and Pollard lost track of Joy's boat. After lots of effort with lighting lanterns, firing pistols, and whatever noise they could make, the boats found each other. It was agreed upon that if they should become separated again, no effort would be made to rejoin. However, they clung to one another as if guided by an involuntary instinct.

They collected saltwater, but it was just as salty as seawater. When gale-force winds overtook the ocean, it was surprisingly advantageous to the small whaleboats. They glided over the crests of the waves and had temporary relief from the wind with the massive forty-foot waves' protection. Needless to say, they did not get sleep that night. Chase pushed his men on to raise the sails, but they were dispirited and resisted. Although they had made good ground of 1100 nautical miles, they were farther from South America than when they'd started because of the easterly direction of the winds.

On their third week away from the Essex, they drew near the Society Islands. if they'd headed west, they would have reached Tahiti in less than a week sailing with the wind instead of against it. But to them, it was up the coast or nowhere at all.


This chapter may be better known as a chapter of torments. Although the sailors are surrounded by edible wildlife and water, these things serve only to make their hunger worse and their thirst harsher. Once again, it seems that the calming process of writing out one's thoughts has a real effect on the way the men conduct themselves. Chase's records of these events in that little whaleboat have come all the way to the readers of this study guide almost two centuries later, which is only a further testament to the power of words.

By the end of this chapter, the sailors should have been well on their way to the coast, but the winds had not favored their journey. Whether it was a matter of Pollard's incompetence as a navigator or the cruelty of fate can never be known. One may note here that, unlike in Ron Howard's film, which celebrated the heroism and correctness of Chase throughout, Chase was in the wrong by deciding to head toward the South American coast. His latent racism, ignorance of the ocean, and aggressive pressure on the captain all played a part in this decision, which ultimately led to the death of several men.