In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 7 : At Sea | Summary



Early in the voyage, the boats are carrying twice their usual weight, and they don't have rudders for steering. Each boat is using a less effective steering oar, and there's no centerboard on the bottom of the boat to help them track through the water. Once again watches are established, but it is difficult to sleep among the tortoises or leaning against the seats. The boats stay in sight of each other. This is most important for Matthew Joy's boat, which has no navigational equipment, since Captain George Pollard Jr. and Owen Chase have the two sets of compasses, quadrants, and navigation manuals salvaged early on. The Essex had sunk about 300 miles north of the Offshore Ground. The men might come upon a whaleship in that area, which would take about five days to reach. However, the Offshore Ground is twice the size of Texas, so the odds of finding a whaleship are low. They decide to continue with their plan to head toward the coast of South America.

The men are on rations of half a pint of water a day, but the body needs at least a pint to remove its waste products; they receive six ounces of hardtack (dried bread) a day, about 500 calories, only a quarter of the body's daily requirements. The men know, on these rations, they "will be little more than a breathing skeleton" by the time they reach South America.

Owen Chase has trouble sleeping, obsessing about how the normally passive sperm whale had turned on them. He begins keeping a sea journal with the sheets of paper and pencil in his sea chest. To keep track of position, a sailor needs to reckon both latitude (how far north or south from the equator) and longitude (how far east or west from the Prime Meridian). Captain Pollard decides to give up the idea of recording longitude, since they don't have the equipment to measure it, and he does not know how to use the alternative method of lunar observation. The crew of the Essex is sailing blind, unable to measure how far they are from South America.

The crew now undergoes several trials. Chase's boat almost capsizes. Then the hardtack is soaked with seawater, making it full of salt when it dries. With nothing else to eat and already dehydrated, the men experience hypernatremia (salt poisoning) caused by eating the seawater in the bread. The boats constantly spring leaks and must be fixed. Then Captain Pollard's boat is damaged by an attacking orca whale. Owen Chase marks November 28, 1820, as the beginning of their days of extreme suffering. "[T]he violence of raving thirst has no parallel in the catalogue of human calamities," he says.

Chase kills one of the tortoises for food, and they build a fire, using the tortoise's shell, to cook the meat. Some of the men drink the blood (some cannot bear to), and they all stuff themselves with tortoise meat. The boats begin to lose track of one another, and the three officers decide not to keep trying to regroup, since they are losing too much time. After 17 days at sea, the men have travelled about 1,100 nautical miles, but because of the easterly winds, they are further from South America than when they began. On December 9 they reach the latitude of the Society Islands and could have reached Tahiti in a week if they had gone west. But they keep going south.


While it is easy to see how the officers and men may lose their powers of judgment once they are suffering the long-term effects of starvation and dehydration, it is hard to understand why they made so many poor decisions early on in the voyage. For example, in the previous chapter the mates determine they will be able to travel 60 miles a day to reach their destination—1,500 miles to get far south enough to catch the variables (variable winds), and then that many more miles to the final goal. The officers are seasoned sailors and know how many things can go wrong at sea—especially in a rickety open boat dependent on the wind, with no rudder and no centerboard. Yet they feel quite secure that their 60-days' worth of rations will see them through. This is the beginning of certain elements in the story not quite adding up.

Similarly, they choose to forgo keeping track of their longitude. While Captain George Pollard Jr. and the others probably do not know how to use lunar observation, they certainly could have used dead reckoning—in fact they start to keep track of longitude much later in the journey. Dead reckoning requires a compass and a "knotted length of line with a piece of wood at the end of it (called a log line)" that was put in the water to determine "how much of it ... ran out in a set period of time." Some sort of timepiece would also be necessary. While the Essex men had neither a log line nor a timepiece, Captain William Bligh, who successfully navigated a long journey in an open boat, made his own log line and taught his men how to count off seconds. The men of the Essex could have easily done the same, but instead they determine it is futile to try to keep track of longitude because they don't have the right equipment. Philbrick effectively creates tension by pointing out the officers' mistakes and by making the right decisions look obvious. This, along with including expert advice, creates a compelling argument about the importance of good leadership. Not just a cautionary tale, In the Heart of the Sea seeks to inspire readers by drawing them into the story and letting them decide for themselves what perhaps they may have done or would do if faced with extraordinary circumstances.

It appears the crew may be in denial about the extremity of their circumstances and perhaps exhibiting unrealistic optimism as a coping mechanism. It is natural for people to hope for the best, even when negative expectations better match the reality of a situation. But perhaps if they had been more negative about the possible outcomes of a long voyage back to South America, they would have opted to take the chance to sail to the Society Islands and then would have saved themselves. Philbrick explains that they could have reached Tahiti in a week and some of the other islands in the same area in half the time. They would also have been sailing with the wind. Yet, "despite the numerous setbacks they had faced, despite the extremity of their sufferings, Pollard, Chase, and Joy pushed on with the original plan." In Nickerson's account of their ordeal, he faults them for their stubbornness: "I can only say there was gross ignorance or gross oversight somewhere, which cost many ... fine seamen their lives."

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