Herman Melville's classic novel of Ishmael and Captain Ahab and the Great White Whale known as Moby Dick might be a work of fiction, but the real events that inspired it are perhaps even more epic. Like with the true story of Hugh Glass — depicted in The Revenant — the struggle of man versus nature rarely fails to provide outstanding entertainment. The real epic tale gets its own retelling in Ron Howard's new movie In the Heart of the Sea, which is based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Philbrick's novel is based on several firsthand accounts from the few survivors, including that of first mate Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth in the movie (go here to read about the drastic weight-loss regime he underwent for the role). When Hemsworth brought director Ron Howard the script, Howard said he knew they'd found a story worth telling:
"The accounts of the whale attacking the ship and what happened are so graphic and visceral that we didn't really have to invent too much."
A Doomed Voyage
The island of Nantucket was once the whaling capital of the world. In the Heart of the Sea follows the unbelievable true story of the crew of the Essex, led by Captain George Pollard (Ben Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). The whaling crew set out on a hunting voyage on August 12, 1819. The ship had been recently repaired, but was damaged only two days after setting out from Nantucket by a violent gust of wind and waves known as a squall.
As the ship sailed further and further out to sea over the next year, the sailors spoke openly about their journey being cursed. One careless sailor almost burned the ship entirely. Pollard and Chase fought often. But everyone was nonetheless committed to bringing home that precious and valuable whale blubber, which could be sold to light oil lamps.
Nantucket Sleighride Gone Awry
On November 20, 1820, an entire year after having set sail from Nantucket shores, they finally spotted a pod of whales nearby. In the smaller whaleboats — or what remained of them — they pursued the pod, hurtling harpoons at their gargantuan prey. Chase managed to sink one weapon into the side of a whale, but as they were being pulled along by the whale in what was known as a "Nantucket sleighride," the whale's tale thrashed against their tiny boat. They had no choice but to sever the rope and go back to the Essex to repair their skiff.
A Monster Attacks
Once back aboard the Essex, another more brutal whale attack took place. An 85-ft. sperm whale — what must have undoubtedly seemed like a monster to the crew — rammed the ship in a head-on collision. It then floated in the water, possibly unconscious from the force of the crash, before rallying and returning for a second attack. Chase describes it in his personal account, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, the book which would ultimately inspire Herman Melville to write Moby Dick:
I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam of a rod in width, which he made with the continual violent thrashing of his tail; his head was about half out of water, and in that way he came upon, and again struck the ship.
The crew had no choice but to abandon the sinking Essex. They gathered what supplies they could and crowded into the three remaining whaling boats. The coast of South America was 4,000 miles away. Their food provisions went quickly, and they'd resorted to drinking seawater by the time they drifted up on what is now known as Henderson Island. This miraculous little plot of land provided them with crabs and eggs to eat, but the famished sailors were depleting the island's resources quickly. Chase convinced them they should press on. Some men chose to stay behind, while the rest continued on toward Easter Island.
The food stores they'd collected from Henderson Island ran out in just days. The first few men that died of starvation and dehydration were buried at sea. But as hunger and desperation took its toll, they eventually resorted to cannibalism of the dead.
As circumstances grew still bleaker, they ultimately decided that one of the survivors needed to be sacrificed so that the others could eat. Pollard's 17-year-old cousin wound up being the unlucky one.
Ultimately, eight men survived the journey. Among them was young Thomas Nickerson, who was just a 14-year-old cabin boy (played by Tom Holland) when the Essex first set sail. He ultimately wrote his own account of the journey in The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats in 1876 at the encouragement of writer Leon Lewis. However, Lewis abandoned the manuscript and it wasn't found again until nearly 100 years later. It was finally authenticated and abridged in 1980.
Owen Chase never truly recovered from the ordeal. He suffered lifelong headaches and nightmares. In his retirement, he was discovered hoarding food in his attic — likely a symptom of PTSD from the trauma he faced at sea — and was placed in an insane asylum for eight years.