Monday, May 6

North American Journeys, 6

By the evening of Wednesday, August 11, all save for Captain Pollard were safely aboard the Essex. Anchored beside her, just off the Nantucket Bar, was another whaleship, the Chili. Commanded by Absalom Coffin, the Chili was also to leave the following day. It was an opportunity for what whalemen referred to as a "gam"--a visit between two ships' crews. Without the captains to inhibit the revelry (and with the Bar between them and town), they may have seized this chance for a final uproarious fling before the grinding discipline of shipboard life took control of their lives.
     At some point that evening, Thomas Nickerson made his way down to his bunk and its mattress full of mildewed corn husks. As he faded off to sleep on the gently rocking ship, he surely felt what one young whaleman described as a great, almost overwhelming "pride in my floating home."
     That night he was probably unaware of the latest bit of gossip circulating through town--of the strange goings-on out on the Commons. Swarms of grasshoppers had begun to appear in the turnip fields. "[T]he whole face of the earth has been spotted with them . . . ," Obed Macy would write. "[N]o person living ever knew them so numerous." A comet in July and now a plague of locusts?
     As it turned out, things would end up badly for the two ships anchored off the Nantucket Bar on the evening of August 11, 1819. The Chili would not return for another three and a half years, and then with only five hundred barrels of sperm oil, about a quarter of what was needed to fill a ship her size. For Captain Coffin and his men, it would be a disastrous voyage.
     But nothing could compare to what fate had in store for the twenty-one men of the Essex.

Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea

No comments: