In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 2 : Knockdown | Summary



Twenty-eight-year old George Pollard Jr. is a first-time captain. The Essex, which leaves on August 12, has three masts, to which are affixed horizontal spars or yards. Sails, over 20 altogether, are attached or set on the spars, as well as to the bowsprit, which extends forward from the vessel's prow (front). The clumsy work of the green hands attempting to prepare the Essex for departure is supervised by first mate Owen Chase, 22, who is moving up quickly in the ranks and has a high opinion of his own skill. The second mate, Matthew Joy, is four years older than Chase. Young Nickerson and his friends soon realize that the Owen Chase they know on the island is very different from the bullying taskmaster they now encounter on ship.

Once underway, the men are divided into two shifts or watches, with the exception of the cooper (barrel maker), cook, and steward. The officers first choose Nantucketers, then Cape Codders, then the black sailors from Boston. When they go whale hunting the officers (captain and two mates) will each man one of three boats, and the three crews (six sailors in each boat) are assembled following the same pecking order as the watch crews. Nickerson finds himself on Chase's boat with Nantucketer Benjamin Lawrence, while Owen Coffin is in Pollard's boat. Matthew Joy, the lowest ranking officer, has no islanders in his boat. The three remaining men not chosen as oarsmen remain on the Essex as ship keepers. Eating and sleeping is segregated. The captain and mates have cabins in the aft (back of the ship); the white sailors live in steerage; and the black sailors live in the cramped forecastle in the forward part of the ship. Nickerson recalls how the green hands, all of those new to the sea voyage, suffered violent seasickness.

The whaleship will first sail south and east toward Europe and Africa, then back across the ocean to South America and work her way south, to round Cape Horn. On the first leg of the trip the ship will stop at the Azores and Cape Verde Islands for provisioning. In the Gulf Stream the ship hits bad weather, but the captain refuses to "shorten sail" (take the sails down), thinking to brave the storm. The captain waits too long to order the ship to turn away from the squall, and as a result the Essex rolls "almost ninety degrees onto her side." Eventually righting itself, the Essex is nonetheless severely damaged. Several sails have been torn, the cookhouse destroyed, and three of five whaleboats washed away or destroyed. While Captain Pollard determines to return to Nantucket for repairs, Chase convinces him to sail on. Chase argues they can likely pick up spare whaleboats in the Azores, and Joy sides with him.


Philbrick has noted in the previous chapter the low status of "coofs," or off-islanders, and also pointed out that Nantucketers are very class-conscious, with rank based on a person's station in the whaling business. For seamen who were not in the whaling trade and simply looking for a berth (a place on a ship), a whaling job was the least desirable. Therefore, it stands to reason that itinerant seamen hired at the last minute are unlikely to be the "cream of the crop" of the sailing world. Green hands of any sort were looked down upon by islanders, and while the people of Nantucket prided themselves on being abolitionists, that didn't mean they were free of race prejudice. While blacks may have been paid the same as whites, they weren't treated the same, and Nickerson in his account says the captains are "Negro drivers." Thus, the seven black sailors—presumably all green hands—have to deal with two types of prejudice when they board the Essex. They soon learn their status when they are chosen last, both for shifts and for the whaling boats.

Moreover, they are segregated and live in the worst sleeping quarters, in the forecastle. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, ordinary crewmen without specialized skills slept and ate in the forecastle, so it is hard to say whether the black sailors were there because they were green hands or because they were black. Certainly the white teenagers didn't have more experience than they, but Nickerson and his friends were islanders. "Thomas Nickerson considered himself 'fortunate indeed to escape being so closely penned up with so large a number of blacks' in the Essex's forecastle," Philbrick says.

Captain George Pollard Jr. has his first test of leadership when the ship is knocked down, due to his recklessness in not "shortening sail," or taking enough sails down in rough weather because he didn't want to lose speed. His second mistake is not turning away from the storm quickly enough, so that he practically wrecks his ship, which is in need of serious repairs. The worst mistake he makes is allowing his better judgment—to return to port for repairs—to be overshadowed by the recklessness of Owen Chase. Chase is perhaps afraid that some of the green hands will jump ship if they return to port because they have had a taste of his rough treatment, and he doesn't want to take that chance. Further, the less experienced sailors had been frightened by the knockdown and might decide not to take the voyage. Chase is also "cock sure," as Philbrick explains, and thinks he knows enough to be a captain. Thus, he doesn't think twice about bullying the captain into going on, even though they have only three whaleboats left—one badly damaged—and they should have a minimum of five. Philbrick also points out that Chase minimizes this incident in his account and doesn't mention the captain originally wanted to return to port, while Nickerson's account tells the whole story.

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