In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 8 : Centering Down | Summary



Owen Chase maintains strict discipline in food rationing. He transfers the bread to his sea chest so he can keep close watch over it. Chase's crew eats the second tortoise 11 days after the first, and they get an infusion of energy. On December 13 the wind begins to blow, so they can steer directly for South America, but then the northerly breeze disappears the next day. They are becalmed. With hundreds of miles still remaining to travel south, their provisions will have to last over 60 days. Chase cuts the bread rations in half. He can't cut water rations, since the men are suffering from dehydration and are in the "cotton-mouth" phase of thirst, with the worst yet to come.

When the men hang over the gunwale and into the water, to cool their blistered bodies from the merciless heat, they discover edible barnacles, which provide a satisfying meal. The men do not encounter much marine life, which often allows shipwrecked people to survive. They are traveling through an area that will later be named "the Desolate Region," where there is little or no sea life or birds. Chase's boat again springs a leak, and the boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence, whom Chase previously overrode as a harpooner, proposes a novel solution for a fix, which allows them to make the repair.

After unsuccessfully attempting to row out of the still waters they find themselves in, they finally catch an east-southeast wind, but it takes them further off course. By now their hair is falling out in clumps and their skin is burned and covered with sores. Their eyes are sunk in their skulls in their bony faces. Some of the men are beginning to give up, but on December 20 they spot land.


Chapter 8 continues to provide details of the harrowing journey, in which everything seems to go wrong. The wind either stops blowing, or it blows in the wrong direction, and the men of the Essex cope with storms and continual leaks in their boats. They begin to suffer the effects of dehydration and starvation. Unbeknownst to them, they are traveling through a zone in the ocean that is barren of life, which is why they cannot avail themselves of the fish and birds with which stranded mariners keep themselves alive. Philbrick explains that oceans need to have phytoplankton to support life—the base of the marine food chain. To produce phytoplankton, the ocean needs material either from rivers or streams or from the ocean floor. The region in which the Essex is sailing is very far from the coast. That leaves the ocean floor, but the region was also in the subtropics, so the cold and warm water stay separated. Since the waters don't mix, nutrients are not brought up to the surface.

The barnacles provide a brief respite, and then Chase finally does something right, which is to cut the bread rations when he admits that their setbacks have increased their travel time. This decision, and his strict discipline in maintaining the rationing, ends up keeping the men in his boat alive longer and ensures that a few of them survive the ordeal.

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