In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 10 : The Whisper of Necessity | Summary



The Essex crew now uses dead reckoning—a type of rudimentary navigation—to determine their longitude, so they are no longer sailing blind. At first the wind blows them toward Easter Island, but then the winds shift, and they move too far south to reach the island.

Matthew Joy dies on January 10, and the men sew him up in his clothes, tie a stone to his feet, and solemnly bury him at sea. His death casts a pall on everybody, and Captain George Pollard Jr. orders his boatsteerer, 21-year-old Obed Hendricks, to take Joy's place. Hendricks soon learns that no one has been monitoring the food on Joy's whaleboat, and there's only enough hardtack (bread) to last a few days.

The Essex crew is caught in a gale, and they again agree to keep sailing if they lose sight of one another. Owen Chase, as usual, is in the lead, and sometime in the night he loses the other boats. He slows down, drifting for about an hour, then resumes course. In the morning the other boats are not to be seen, and this becomes a permanent separation. All are heading for Juan Fernandez, about 800 miles off the Chilean coast and 1,200 miles away. Thus, the first mate makes the tough decision to halve the half-rations on his boat. Meanwhile, Obed Hendricks's boat runs out of provisions, and Captain Pollard shares his.

On Chase's boat, the men are experiencing blackouts and temporary blindness from starvation. One night Chase is awakened and informed that Richard Peterson, the old black sailor who leads them in prayer, has stolen some bread. Chase immediately gets the bread back and Peterson pleads for mercy. Chase does not punish him but warns a second attempt will cost him his life.

Chase's boat has been becalmed again. One night the boat is attacked by a huge shark, but the first mate is too weak to kill him, and the creature eventually loses interest and moves on. Chase is beginning to think it is "their destiny to die" and that "Divine Providence had abandoned [them] at last."

The wind finally begins to blow—fiercely—and Peterson refuses his daily ration of bread, saying it is time to die. Shortly after he falls into unconsciousness and dies peacefully, according to Chase's account. The next day he is also buried at sea.


The Essex crew have finally followed Captain William Bligh's example and made an improvised log line to gauge their speed; with the log line and a compass they are able to determine longitude. But neither the wind nor the weather cooperates with their efforts to "fetch" Easter Island.

It is interesting that the boats have been successful in staying together up until now—always with Owen Chase in the lead—but now Chase loses the other two boats, immediately after Hendricks discovers that Joy's crew has been pilfering the food supply. It is possible and even probable that Chase made a decision to cut ties with the other two boats. Philbrick's account of the Essex disaster is based on the accounts of Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Captain George Pollard Jr. (written down by Captain Aaron Paddack). There are discrepancies between what Nickerson and Chase report. For example, Chase does not report that it was his idea to keep sailing after the knockdown. Nor does he report he had a chance to kill the attacking whale when the Essex was sunk. Nickerson refuses to admit the men on Chase's boat ate a dead comrade. Moreover, it is possible both men chose to remain silent about certain facts.

Chase comments that separation from his comrades "could neither be remedied, nor could sorrow secure their return; but it was impossible to prevent ourselves feeling all the poignancy and bitterness that characterizes the separation of men who have long suffered in each other's company, and whose interest and feelings fate has so closely linked together." No doubt Chase felt badly, but still the separation may not have been accidental. If he had remained with Pollard and Hendricks, he would have been forced to share his provisions because he could hardly ignore their need when it was up close and personal. When he loses the other boats, he avoids that decision. He is clearly a man capable of making tough calls, as he does when he now determines to cut the rations again. "It required a great effort to bring matters to this dreadful alternative," he wrote. "[E]ither ... feed our bodies and our hopes a little longer, or in the agonies of hunger to seize upon and devour our provisions, and coolly await the approach of death." Again, Philbrick gives readers just enough detail to spark implications in readers' minds if they choose to question the narrative. Part of the visceral experience of reading the book is to wonder what was really happening versus what the real people admitted once the ordeal was over.

Chase's account of how he handles Richard Peterson's pilfering may also be suspect: "I felt at the moment the highest indignation and resentment at such conduct in any of our crew ... and immediately took my pistol in hand, and charged him if he had taken any [bread], to give it up without the least hesitation, or I should instantly shoot him!" Chase and Nickerson both report he was forgiven, but the timing of his death and the report that he went peacefully may raise suspicions in some readers' minds. Is that what really happened?

Philbrick perhaps incorrectly equates the supposed peaceful deaths of modern-day terminally ill patients who have stopped eating and drinking with the supposed peaceful death of Peterson. Philbrick says, "Modern-day proponents of euthanasia have long endorsed the combined effects of starvation and dehydration as a painless ... way ... to die." Since Peterson is described as an "old man," it is reasonable to suppose his internal organs would have shut down more quickly from hunger and thirst. But end-of-life care specialists are not in agreement about whether allowing a patient to die by withholding food and hydration is all that peaceful and painless.

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