Wired.com reminds us that November 20, 1820 marks the real life event that inspired one of the classics of American literature, Moby-Dick.
The story of the Essex was the inspiration for a young Herman Melville who himself served time at sea on similar whaleships. More recently the Essex story was chronicled in nonfiction fashion by Nathaniel Phlibrick in his award winning book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex .
The Essex had taken its share of whales and on Nov. 20 appeared ready to take a few more when a pod was sighted off the starboard beam.
The ship’s three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale’s flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.
As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.
The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.
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