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A real-life blockbuster


Photography by Jonathan Prime

During an interview in November, Philbrick shed some light on the three years of research he conducted for the book as well as his excitement for the film, for which he served as a consultant and briefly, a movie extra.

“[What happened to the Essex] was big news because never before in history had a whale attacked a ship,” Philbrick says. “This was a very disturbing story. It was inconceivable for whale men that their prey would turn the tables on them.”

As he researched the story, Philbrick found himself wanting to know more: What happened with the whale? What is the science of starvation? Were there other such tragedies that ended in cannibalism? Another question came to him repeatedly: What would I have done? “All I can say is I am no hero,” Philbrick says. “I like sailing . . . and I prefer to keep land in sight.”

Philbrick determined there were two critical moments that decided the men’s fate. The first came as the Essex was sinking. As the men scavenged provisions from the ship to load on the whaleboats, the captain and his first and second mates, Owen Chase, 21, and Matthew Joy, 25, had to decide whether to go west with the current in the direction of the Marquesas and Society Islands including Tahiti, or to head back east, a considerably longer journey of some 2,000 miles. Had they chosen the first option, Philbrick says the men may have arrived at the islands in just a few weeks.

According to Philbrick, it is surprising that in 1820 these Nantucket sailors did not know more about the islands and their inhabitants in that part of the Pacific. The men of the Essex entertained rumors that cannibalism was practiced on the islands, and they feared going there. Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy of the Essex who wrote an account of the tragedy, states that in the end, Chase and Joy convinced the captain to head east, and so in that direction they went. According to Nickerson, this decision proved the “fatal error.”

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