Sunday 20 November 2011

A Nantucket Sleighride

She was 87 feet long.  She weighed 283 tons.  She was American.  She contained 4 whaleboats, each 20 to 30 feet long.  Her name was the Essex.  Her captain, Geoge Pollard, was a mere 29 years old.  She left Nantucket on August 12, 1819 on a two and a half year voyage to the whaling grounds off the coast of South America.  She sailed thousands of miles, survived a squall where she lost 3 whaleboats, and her crew survived the unknown waters dotted with islands where cannibals lived.  However, there was one foe that she could not beat:  an 85-foot long sperm whale lurking in the Pacific Ocean.

On November 20, 1820, the Essex was searching for whales 2000 miles off the coast of South America when her crew spotted a sperm whale pod and took hot pursuit.  The Captain and the second mate had harpooned a small whale in their whaleboat and were being dragged away in a "Nantucket Sleighride".  Back on the ship, the sailors saw a giant sperm whale off of their bow.  With incredible speed, it rammed the ship and battered it from side to side.  One of the crew thought about harpooning the mammal, but reconsidered after seeing how close it was to the Essex's rudder.  The whale then circled the ship and sat in wait, ready to pounce.  With one final approach, it opened its 18 foot long jaw, bearing its giant teeth and gave the ship a blow, "crushing it like an eggshell", then disengaging itself and disappearing under the waters surface. 

The Essex was mortally wounded and its crew was forced to abandon ship, finding refuge in one of the whaleboats.  The sailors were lost at sea for weeks; many died of starvation and were buried at sea.  After 95 days, the whale ship Dauphin picked up the seven survivors, many of whom later returned to the sea. 

A young man named Herman Melville read about this battle between a boat and a beast and he started writing a novel.  With already two successful books under his belt, he thought this story would also be well received.  However, after the book garnered mixed reviews, the story was largely forgotten.  It was not until the 1920's, that the book was re-discovered and became a staple of American Literature.  We all recognize its title, Moby-Dick.

Painting courtesy

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