The Essex was a lucky ship, or so the old-timers used to say. Although old and small, her previous whaling voyages had been disproportionately successful (and–more importantly–profitable), especially the last one, in which George Pollard Jr. and Owen Chase had done so well, they had earned their promotions to captain and first mate, respectively.
So there was no reason to think this latest voyage would be any different. The Essex left Nantucket on August 2, 1819 for what was expected to be a two and a half year whaling trip. Captain Pollard was at the helm with Chase by his side, supported by a crew of 21 men.
But just two days into their trip, the first sign of trouble arose when a sudden squall destroyed one of their sails and nearly sank the ship. Battered and beleaguered, the crew nevertheless succeeded in making it to their intended destination–the rich whaling waters off Cape Horn. The bad luck, however, arrived with them, and they found the area over-fished and unproductive, a first in the history of the ship. This, combined with the previous storm, left the crew feeling nervous. Already a superstitious bunch, there was talk of bad spirits and omens, enough that one crew member abandoned ship at Atacames.
Captain Pollard, however, was undeterred. The remaining crew set sail for richer waters of the South Pacific where, at first, it seemed as if their streak of bad luck had broken. Thousands of miles from any body of land, they finally found whales. Lots of whales.
On November 20, 1820, Pollard and several members of the crew set out from the Essex in three whaleboats, leaving Chase behind to repair some damage to another whaleboat that had occurred during the previous day’s hunt. It was during this time that Chase suddenly spotted something odd.
An impossibly large sperm whale lay motionless on the surface of the water, facing the ship. At first, Chase believed it to be dead. Then, as if released from some invisible harness, the whale suddenly began swimming towards the boat at incredible speed. Chase could only watch in horror as the whale smashed head-on into the ship, causing the entire vessel to sway dangerously back and forth, before diving under her and re-emerging on the starboard side. Chase made for the harpoon but hesitated, fearing further destruction to the ship if provoked.
A moment’s hesitation was all the great whale needed. It circled and returned, this time at even greater speed, headed straight for the ship’s bow.
“I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase later recalled to missionary George Bennett. “…The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”
The bow of the Essex smashed, water rushed into the ship. Knowing she was lost, Chase and his men tried frantically to finish the rigging on their remaining whaleboat and gather whatever navigational supplies, food, and water they could find. They were only meagerly successful before being forced to climb aboard to avoid being sucked into the swirling waters of the South Pacific along with the shattered timbers of their “lucky” ship.
The whale was never seen again.
Pollard, meanwhile, had seen his ship from a distance, returning to watch as it slowly vanished beneath the steps.
“My God, Mr. Chase,” he is said to have exclaimed, “What is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
But this, unfortunately, was only the beginning of their ordeal. Twenty men in three small whaleboats were now adrift nearly 2,000 nautical miles west of South America. The closest land were the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands 1,200 miles to the west but the crew, in a macabre twist of irony, feared the rumors of cannibalism that swirled around the islands and convinced Pollard to sail south instead, hoping to catch the Westerlies which would ferry them eastwards back towards South America.
It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
What little food and water Chase and his men had managed to secure was soon saturated with seawater. Dehydration quickly set in. The sun beat down on them relentlessly. The boats leaked constantly, exasperated by rough seas and frequent storms. Two weeks after the sinking, the men reached land, but found it barren and uninhabitable. Despite this, three of the crew decided they’d rather chance survival on land than climb back into those cursed boats. Leaving them behind, the remaining 17 returned to the water on December 27.
Those who remained on the island were eventually rescued. For those on the boats, it would prove to be another fatal–and gruesome–mistake.
Whales attacks continued to plague the already-frazzled survivors. The boats began to disintegrate beneath their feet. Currents swept them in different directions, and the different crews soon lost sight of one another. As rations continued to decline, the men on board began to die off one by one. What happened next would haunt Chase for the rest of his life. Faced with no other option, the crew resorted to cannibalism, roasting the flesh of their fallen comrades on a flat stone.
But the men’s appetites grew larger and faster than their departed companions could fill them. After nine weeks on the sea, the men on Pollard’s boat decided to hand their fates over to an old nautical custom–the drawing of straws. This time, however, the straws would determine who would be eaten next.
The shortest straw was drawn by Owen Coffin–Pollard’s own first cousin. Pollard tried to intervene, but the boy would have none of it.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would later say, “and nothing of him left.”
On February 18, 1821, the remaining three men on Chase’s boat were rescued by an English ship called Indian. A week later, Pollard and one other man were found by an American ship, the Dauphin. Years later, the third boat was found on Ducie Island with nothing but skeletons on board.
Although all surviving crew members eventually returned to a life at sea, for Pollard and Owen, the “lucky” captain and first mate of an even luckier ship, the experience was one from which they would never truly return.
First Mate Owen Chase, haunted by recurring nightmares and panic episodes, was institutionalized before his death in 1869. Before giving in to the madness, he penned a novel entitled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which would become the basis for Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick.
Captain Pollard survived two more shipwrecks, though neither involved whales. The incidents, however, were enough to earn him the label of “Jonah”–an unlucky sailor–and no ship owner would ever trust him again. He retired on Nantucket and became the village’s night watchman. It’s reported that every November 20–the anniversary of the Essex sinking–he would fast in his room, not only out of remembrance for that horrid ordeal, but out of a never-ending sense of guilt for the fate of his cousin.