Essex was an American whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts, which was launched in 1799. In 1820, while at sea in the southern Pacific Ocean under the command of Captain George Pollard, she was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. Stranded thousands of miles from the coast of South America with little food and water, the 21-man crew were forced to make for land in the ship's surviving whaleboats.
By the time of her fateful voyage, Essex was already an old ship, but because so many of her previous voyages had been profitable. Essex had recently been totally refitted, but at only 88 feet in length, and measuring about 239 tons burthen, she was small for a whale ship. Essex was equipped with four whaleboats, each about 28 ft in length.
Essex departed from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, on what was expected to be a roughly two-and-a-half-year voyage to the bountiful whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. The crew numbered 21 men in total.
Two days after leaving Nantucket, a sudden squall hit Essex in the Gulf Stream and knocked her on her beam-ends, nearly sinking her. She lost her topgallant sail and two whaleboats were destroyed, with an additional whaleboat damaged. Despite this, Captain Pollard elected to continue the voyage without replacing the two boats or repairing the damage.
Essex rounded Cape Horn in January 1820 after a five-week transit, which was extremely slow. Combined with the unsettling earlier incident, the crew began to talk of ill omens. Their spirits were temporarily lifted when Essex began the long spring and summer hunt in the warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean, traveling north along the western coast of South America up to the Spanish-ruled Royal Audience of Quito (present-day Ecuador).
Whaling grounds depleted
After finding the area's population of whales exhausted, the crew encountered other whalers who told them of a vast newly discovered hunting ground, known as the "offshore ground", located between 5 and 10 degrees south latitude and between 105 and 125 degrees west longitude, about 2,500 nautical miles (4,600 km) to the south and west. This was an immense distance from known shores for the whalers, and the crew had heard rumors that cannibals populated the many islands of the South Pacific
When Essex finally reached the promised fishing grounds thousands of miles west of the coast of South America, the crew was unable to find any whales for days.
At eight in the morning of November 20, 1820, the lookout sighted spouts, and the three remaining whaleboats set out to pursue a pod of sperm whales. On the leeward side of Essex, Chase's whaleboat harpooned a whale, but its tail struck the boat and opened up a seam, forcing the crew to cut the harpoon line and return to Essex for repairs. 2 miles (3 km) away off the windward side, Pollard's and Joy's boats each harpooned a whale and were dragged towards the horizon away from the Essex in what whalers called a "Nantucket sleighride".
Chase was repairing the damaged whaleboat on board the Essex when the crew sighted an abnormally large sperm whale bull (reportedly around 85 feet (26 m) in length) acting strangely. It lay motionless on the surface facing the ship and then began to swim towards the vessel, picking up speed by shallow diving. The whale rammed Essex, rocking her from side to side, and then dived under her, surfacing close on the ship's starboard side. As its head lay alongside the bow and the tail by the stern, it was motionless and appeared to be stunned. Chase prepared to harpoon it from the deck when he realized that its tail was only inches from the rudder, which the whale could easily destroy if provoked by an attempt to kill it. Fearing to leave the ship stuck thousands of miles from land with no way to steer it, Chase hesitated. The whale recovered, swam several hundred yards forward of the ship, and turned to face the ship's bow.
Owen Chase said: „I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [500 m or 550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44 km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. 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 whale crushed the bow, driving the vessel backwards, and then finally disengaged its head from the shattered timbers and swam off, never to be seen again, leaving Essex quickly going down by the bow. Chase and the remaining sailors frantically tried to add rigging to the only remaining whaleboat, while the steward William Bond ran below to gather the captain's sea chest and whatever navigational aids he could find.
Essex was attacked approximately 2,000 nautical miles west of South America. After spending two days salvaging what supplies they could from the waterlogged wreck, the 20 sailors prepared to set out in the three small whaleboats, aware that they had wholly inadequate supplies of food and fresh water for a journey to land.
They are unable to sail against the trade winds; however, the boats would first need to sail south for 1,000 mi before they could take advantage of the Westerlies to turn towards South America, which then would still lie another 3,000 mi to the east. Even with the knowledge that this route would require them to travel twice as far as the route to the Marquesas, Pollard conceded to the crew's decision and the boats set their course due south.
Only a couple of sailors were rescued after terrible journey which lasts 3 months.
First Mate Owen Chase had completed an account of the disaster, the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex; Herman Melville used it as one of the inspirations for his novel Moby-Dick (1851).