The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Aug 22, 2014
Richard Cornelia will give an illustrated talk on The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Saturday, Aug. 30, at 1 p.m. at the Camden Public Library

Camden — Richard Cornelia will give an illustrated talk on The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Saturday, Aug. 30, at 1 p.m. at the Camden Public Library, as part of Camden’s Windjammer Festival celebrations.

The 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819, to hunt whales in the Pacific. On Nov. 20 1820, the Essex met with an unprecedented disaster — it was attacked by a giant sperm whale, and damaged so badly that it sank the next day. The 20-man crew, alone in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean in fragile 28-foot boats with little food and water, would fight starvation, dehydration, and storms on the longest survival voyage in history.

Although the story became the source for Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick," the harrowing voyage of the Essex’s crew after the sinking is a far more compelling tale. Their ordeal was the longest survival voyage known to history. The men would fight severe dehydration, starvation, and storms in open boats under a blazing sun for 90 days and covering 4,500 miles. (See Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the "Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" for a gripping reading of the voyage. The book won the National Book Award in 2000.)

The Essex was a three-masted, square-rigged ship measuring 87 feet stem to stern and weighing 238 tons, somewhat smaller than the average whaler. She was 20 years old, the average lifetime of a whaleship, when she sailed. Whaling was a million dollar industry in the early 1800s; whale oil lit the lamps of the world, whale bone yielded the stays for women’s corsets and material for kitchen implements, and ambergris and spermaceti furnished perfume. At its height, 400 whaling ships sailed from the Nantucket and New Bedford areas. American whaling dominated and spanned the globe. The Essex departed Nantucket on Aug. 12, headed around Cape Horn into the Pacific, carrying a crew of 21. The crew were mostly green hands with no sailing experience, which was not unusual for this period.

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