In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 6 : The Plan | Summary



The weary men spend a rough first night, setting watches to avoid jagged debris that could poke a hole in the fragile whaleboats. The next morning they scavenge the drowned ship for additional provisions, taking two tortoises aboard each boat. The Essex's sails are used to make smaller ones for the whaleboats, and to further enhance their seaworthiness, the men build up their sides by over half a foot with cedar boards from the wreck. Each crew wraps the hardtack (bread) in layers of canvas to keep it dry and stores it in their ship's cuddy, a space like a cupboard at the back of the boats, as far away as possible from the breaking waves.

What is left of the floating hull, still visible and accessible, is breaking apart, and the oil from the burst casks begins to surround the whaleboats in an oil slick. The men are reluctant to untether themselves from the wreck, but Owen Chase urges Captain George Pollard Jr. to chart a course. The closest islands are the Marquesas, but all three officers fear the islands' reputation for cannibalism. Pollard wishes to sail to the Society Islands, about 2,000 miles away, but he is overruled by Chase and Joy, who think there might be cannibals there as well. They propose instead to return to South America—specifically sail south 1,500 miles, against the wind and the current, and then catch the "variable breezes" that could propel them to Chili or Peru. The mates determine they can cover 60 miles a day, and they had about 60 days' worth of bread and water.

The narrator comments on the Nantucketers' ignorance of the Pacific. They should have known, for example, of good reports coming out of the Marquesas and that there was "a thriving English mission" on Tahiti in the Society Islands. Nantucketers were suspicious and insular and didn't trust information that hadn't come from one of their own group. "Only a Nantucketer in ... 1820 possessed the ... combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to shun a beckoning ... island" and choose a long sea voyage instead, the narrator says. He also notes that Pollard was not authoritarian enough in the early days of the crisis to impose his will on the mates, lacking the requisite "fishiness" of a captain who exhibits no doubt and no tendency toward self-examination. Rather, Chase seemed to have these traits and not the more tempered, personable nature suitable for a first mate.

Twenty men must be divided among three boats, and since Chase's was in the worst shape, his carries six. Nantucketers' natural clannishness determines the composition of the boats, as well as rank. Nine of the crew are from the island, five are white off-islanders, and six are African Americans. Pollard takes five islanders, including his cousin Owen Coffin and his friends Charles Ramsdell and Barzillai Ray, and one African American. Chase gets two islanders, including Thomas Nickerson, two Cape Codders, and one African American. Joy's boat has no one from Nantucket (except him), one Cape Codder, and four African Americans. Joy's family had recently moved to Hudson, New York, off the island, and Chase and the captain know he is sick with an undiagnosed illness. Not surprisingly, he gets most of the "coofs" (off-islanders). Although the captain is still in command, each mate must serve as captain of his boat; Pollard gives each officer a pistol, keeping the musket for himself.


How quickly a great treasure turns into a great danger. The hundreds of gallons of oil the men have labored so hard to wrest from the body of the dead whales—representing hard cash—now turns into a deadly oil slick endangering their lives on the small boats. Still, the men are reluctant to untether themselves from their dying ship because it represents security to them, and soon they will be at the mercy of the open sea and open sky. Captain George Pollard Jr. now makes the fatal decision to listen to Owen Chase rather than follow his own instincts. Philbrick faults Pollard for lacking the authoritarian steel needed in a captain. The narrator explains that shipowners hoped to pair "a fishy, hard-driving captain with an approachable and steady mate. But ... the Essex had ended up with a captain who had the instincts and soul of a mate, and a mate who had the ambition and fire of a captain." Philbrick makes use of juxtapositions throughout In the Heart of the Sea to build an unspoken narrative for the reader to ponder. The juxtaposed personality types (of captain and first mate) playing a hand in the crew's misfortune is one example. The men finding themselves in reverse fortune connected to the sperm whale is another—they take the oil, now the oil threatens them. These patterns will play out consistently throughout the narrative, yet Philbrick is careful not to point too directly to them.

The insularity and lack of imagination of the Nantucketers, as well as their ignorance, is clearly on display when they draw up their plans. They choose to brave the type of danger and suffering they are accustomed to—the hardships of the open sea—rather than possibly run into something unknown. This poor choice costs the lives of most of the crew and unbearable suffering for the survivors. Their clannishness is evident as well in the way they make up the boats, as well as their race prejudice. The black sailors are not the only green hands, after all, yet most of them end up in the boat with the second mate, who is third man on the totem pole of officers. Rank will partially determine who will survive as well, since Matthew Joy (and the man who takes his place after he dies) won't receive any navigation tools, as will be seen in the next chapter. Also evident, perhaps, in the way Matthew Joy is treated is the law of the jungle—the inevitability of the law of tooth and claw. Clearly Joy is ill and unlikely to live through the ordeal, so he gets the worst treatment. Equally bad, however, is the arrangement for the "coofs" (off-islanders) who end up in his boat, with an ailing leader who must rely on the others to navigate. When Joy's boat (later captained by Obed Hendricks) is separated from Pollard's, their fate is sealed.

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