Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

In the Heart of the Seaa

I’ve never been a big fan of adventure thrillers, whether sfnal or mainstream. Such stories tend to be filled with straw dog characters whose main functions are to serve as victims or aggressors rather than people, and events which stretch credibility in their attempt to continually shock the reader or stun them with fear or heartbreak. For somebody who prefers character-driven stories, adventure thrillers are generally shallow reading.

But awhile ago National Geographic Adventure picked their choices as the 100 best nonfiction adventure books of all time. I bought and read that issue, and was enthralled by their descriptions of those books. These were real people undergoing real adventures for various reasons, whether exploration (such as the popular arctic sub-genre), thrills (which dominated the mountaineering books), or accidental side effects of “routine” jobs (which occurred frequently in the oceangoing books).

My fascination with these books caused me to seek out a few nonfiction adventure books to read. The first book I bought was called Points Unknown, which contained excerpts from various nonfiction adventures, such as Apsley Cherry-Garraud’s The Worst Journey in the World and Ernest Shackleton’s South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition. Both were exciting excerpts, but a bit too damned cold for me.

I mulled over some other popular sub-genres, such as mountaineering (too high!) or desert-crossing (too hot!) before deciding that the books which most struck my fancy were oceangoing adventures. So I bought Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of the Sea. This is the story of a whaleship which was attacked in the midst of the Pacific Ocean by a huge sperm whale, destroying the ship and sending its crew fleeing thousands of miles across the ocean in three tiny whaleboats. It was a true ordeal since the survivors (only 8 of the original 21 crewmembers) spent 3 months on the water subsisting on little more than water and hardtack.

The book begins with an examination of Nantucket, the center of the American whaling industry in the early 19th century. The inhabitants of Nantucket were primarily Quakers, peaceful religious people in their everyday lives who became rabid killers in their whaling zeal. Life on the island mainly consisted of women running local businesses and raising large families while their husbands were away at sea 90% of the time, often dying in the rigors and dangers of whaling. Their lives alone were often heartbreaking and set the foundation for a very emotional book.

Philbrick told his story in a very dry, factual manner which managed to be as gripping as a fictional thriller without being exaggerated or sensationalized in any way, and which made the events even more thrilling than they might otherwise have been.

From Nantucket he takes us on a voyage on the whaleship Essex. We view life among the crew as they begin their two year whaling trip. We see them seek out whales, and I could not help empathizing more with the majestic mammals than with the crew members themselves (which, I admit, is purely a personal preference which might not be the same for other readers). What solidified this pro-whale stance was a detailed telling of a successful whale kill. It was fascinating reading, but I could not help wondering why whales did not merely dive under the sea when they were caught by a harpoon. As Philbrick told it, the harpoons did not kill, or even weaken the whales, in any manner. They were merely the method by which the whalers “lassoed” the whales, beginning a frantic race across the water in which the whale tried to outrun its pursuers, dragging them along with it until it tired, enabling the whalers to move close enough to begin the actual killing process. Wouldn’t a prolonged dive beneath the water drown the pursuers effectively, thus freeing the whale?

After the successful kill comes the incident where a huge sperm whale attacks the Essex, seemingly unprovoked and, in the eyes of both the first mate and the cabin boy–both of whom wrote detailed logs which were the basis of both the popular 19th century book which made the incident famous and Philbrick’s contemporary book as well–was obviously a deliberate attack. The whale destroyed the ship, sending the crew into the whaleboats–which were little more than large rowboats–for safety. They escaped with only water, hardtack, and three tortoises each as their basic subsistence for their voyage.

The bulk of the book was the saga of the crew members’ voyage across the Pacific, a voyage which would have been considerably less strenuous had they not made a basic initial mistake. They assumed that traveling west toward Asia would have brought them to islands filled with cannibals, a thought which frightened them. Instead they headed in the direction of South America, an unnecessarily-long route which proved deadly to 13 crew members.

Over the next three months we see the captain prove an ineffectual leader, letting both mates overrule his decisions, often with disastrous effects. We see a detailed picture of how dehydration and starvation gradually destroy a human body. We see occasional events which raise their hopes only to be shattered soon thereafter. This occurred most noticeably when they reached a small island, hoping to find shelter and food there. Instead the island was mostly uninhabitable rock with little or no food and water. After a few days eating whatever animal and plant life the crew could find, they returned to their voyage. However, three crew members could not bear returning to the endless ocean and stayed behind on the island. Ultimately, while they also suffered from dehydration and near-starvation, those three men were among the eight eventual survivors.

And then we see the most brutal part of the voyage. Out of food, men begin dying, and the survivors make the forced decision to extend their own lives by eating their fellow crew mates. This sad development reaches its nadir on one of the three whaleboats when a handful of survivors, desperate for sustenance, are forced into the traditional practice of “casting lots” to determine which of them would be the source of food for his fellow desperate survivors.

In the Heart of the Sea is a gripping book which provides food for thought [pun unintentional], both in its depiction of the whaling life and its depiction of men trying to survive under stressful conditions. First mate Owen Chase becomes the hero of the book as his harsh disposition on the whaleship adapts to the forced voyage across the Pacific as a combination of toughness in distributing their meager rations–which the captain was unable to do on his whaleboat, forcing the “casting of lots” to survive–and compassion and inspiration in encouraging his fellows to survive. Three members of his whaleboat survived, the largest group of any of the three.

I recommend In the Heart of the Sea highly. It has encouraged me to seek out other nonfiction adventure books as well as other seagoing sagas.


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