August 28, 2000.
The Tragedy of the Essex
After the whaleship Essex was destroyed by a sperm whale (the incident inspired Melville to write Moby Dick) the Essex lay on her side for several days during which time the crew cut holes in the hull and ransacked it for food and water. They found casks of bread and water. Several Galapagos tortoises swam from the wreck and approached the whaleboats. They were taken aboard and eaten in the succeeding weeks. The crew used their time next to the Essex hulk to build up the sides of the three whaleboats by about 18 inches using cedar boards salvaged from the wreck. They made masts out of the spars, and rigged the fragile whaleboats as schooners. Then they left the hulk of the Essex behind and set out for Easter Island 2000 miles away. There were three boats: one in the command of Captain Pollard, one in command by the First Mate Owen Chase (who laterwrote an account of the trip) and a third commanded by the second mate Joy. They suffered horribly from exposure to the sun and weather, from thirst and from hunger. On the sixth night of their journey Pollard's boat was attacked by what they thought was a killer whale. It bit the bow stem hard enough to split it. (Although from their description it seems more likely to me that it was a shark).
Twenty-two days later they came to Henderson Island, just to the north of Pitcairn Island, but they thought it was Ducie Island a day's sail to the East. After a long search they finally found water and refreshed themselves by eating seabirds and their eggs. But there was not enough food on Henderson Island to sustain 21 men so they pushed on, three of the crew electing to remain on the island. (They were later rescued by a ship that had received word of their plight once the other survivors had been rescued and which arrived in time-just before they starved to death.)
Storms blew the three boats so far south of Easter Island that they decided it was too risky to try to beat back upwind towards it, so they continued towards the South American coast instead. The skippers of the three whaleboats tried to keep together, but the same storms ultimately separated them and in the end each had to make his way alone.
Before the boats separated, the second mate grew sick and died. His place was taken by a boatsteerer named Hendicks. Two days later Chase's boat separated from the others and 9 days thereafter Hendricks and Pollard lost sight of each other's boats as well. Starvation now ruled their lives. Four men died in one week and the corpse of one of them used as food by the others. Cannibalism had begun. A week later the men in Pollard's boat drew straws and Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard's 18 year old cousin, got the short traw, was excuted, and eaten. They were now barely alive, much of the time too weak to steer, and therefore more or less at the whim of the winds and currents. After 89 days, Chase was finally rescued by a passing ship and five days later Pollard was picked up as well by a different vessel. Months later the third whaleboat was found by a naval vessel. It had washed ashore on Ducie Island, having made an almost perfect circle (with a diameter of 1000 miles) from where it had set out. Aboard it were four skeletons.
Those who survived had come about 5000 miles-500 miles further than Captain Bligh travelled in the Bounty's longboat, and five times further than Shackelton's famous voyage in a lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia. The Crew of the Essex surely achieved one of the most extraordinary open boat voyages in the history of seafaring. This gripping tale is freshly told in a recent book by Nathaniel Philbrick called: In the Heart of the Sea (It is published by Viking).
© 2000 - Roger Payne