For the first time in the history of Nantucket whale fishery, a whale had attacked a ship. The Essex was rammed and sunk by a large sperm whale measuring approximately 85 feet. The crew suddenly found themselves castaway in a desolate ocean with only themselves to rely on. The 20-man crew had to act fast to salvage the limited resources available to them, modify their whaleboats, and make another life changing decision. Instead of sailing to the nearest islands just west of their location, the crew set sail for South America, which was almost 3,000 miles away. Along the way as they were forced to face their greatest fears...starvation, dehydration, death, and cannibalism. By the time the ordeal was over, only eight men would survive, and none of them would ever be the same.
The Bottom Line: In the Heart of the Sea is a compelling and quick read. At first I was hesitant to choose this for my book club, but I am glad that I did. There is so much to discuss in this book from the history of Nantucket island to the tale of survival, from cetacean behavior to leadership styles. This book is fascinating, and I found myself wondering what I would have done differently from the crew in each situation. The writing style is engaging and kept me hooked. Readers should be aware that there is an extensive "Notes" section at the end of the book that should not be dismissed. I recommend reading each chapter's notes along with the story rather than reading all the notes at the end. Also, in addition to two maps, there is a glossy black and white section featuring photographs and illustrations.
It's interesting to note that Herman Melville's classic, Moby-Dick, was based in part on the sinking of the Essex. However, where Moby-Dick ends, the real story of survival just begins in Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.
Ultimately, I was spellbound by the story of the Essex. This book is highly recommended for fans of maritime history and those who enjoy tales of survival. On the other hand, those who are a bit squeamish may want to skip this one due to the details of whale hunting, cannibalism, and the effects of starvation and dehydration on the body.
For more information about the author and the book (including book discussion questions), visit Nathaniel Philbrick's website. Also, I recently read that a movie is in development with Chris Hemsworth signed on to play the first mate, Owen Chase. I hope the movie is as thrilling as the book.
Details: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. Paperback published by Penguin Books in 2001. 302 p. ISBN: 978-0-14-100182-1