On 12 August, 1819, the whaleship Essex (owner Gideon Folger, 1, 2) departed Nantucket Island for a two-and-a-half year cruise, 29 year-old Captain George Pollard commanding, with 21-year-old first mate, Owen Chase, another veteran of the ship's previous, very lucky voyage.
This one was not to be so lucky. Rounding Cape Horn after a disproportionate five weeks of trying,* Essex entered the Pacific whaling grounds in January of 1820, heading northwards first for the west coast of South America, and then for the "offshore ground," a newly-discovered whaling ground between 5 and 10 degrees South and 105 and 125 degrees West. Before cruising this vast area, Essex headed towards Floreana Island in the Galapagos to water and hunt tortoises. There, a crewman set a fire as a prank that turned into an island-devouring wildfire.
Difficult whaling suggested that nature might be getting ready for a suitably ironic revenge, but since it was thirty years yet to the publication of Moby Dick, the whalers could have no clue about the Dramatic Literary Symbolism coming their way. (If they had, they might have done things differently, if only to spare generations of their descendants from the agony of writing essays on whether the Great White Whale is an allegory or a metaphor.) On 20 November, 1820, a bull sperm whale rammed Essex twice and left it in a sinking condition.
If my facetious tone suggests that I am taking this with a bit of a grain of salt, it is because I am. The accident, as described, is implausible. There is a raging debate over whether this kind of behaviour is at all typical of bull sperm whales, but that is not the point. It is a sad whaler that is lost to stove-in sides, and the story describes a freak-of-science 85ft bull ramming the 88ft Essex bow-on at "twice" a sperm whale's normal surface speed of 24 knots. (Sperm whales are fast!) That said, it was not unknown for a whaler to return to Nantucket leaking a thousand strokes an hour. It would, eventually, serve all concerned well to present the loss of Essex as a freak episode rather than as an example of poor workplace safety and, as we shall see, poor management.
So the survivors of the crew abandoned the ship on three whale boats. At this point, the crew of Ann Alexander, an old ship in poor condition which was lost to a side-stoving sperm whale in 1861, elected to head north to pick up the rainy, west-trending tropical winds that would have taken them to Polynesia had they not been picked up three days later. Bligh, under similar conditions and not that far away, took a single launch weighed down by 19 men on a 47 day, 4000 mile voyage to Timor.
Bligh had the good sense to head downwind. The crew of the Essex, on the other hand, voted to head south towards prevailing winds that might, with luck, take them to South America. The logic was that they preferred to avoid the "cannibal isles" of the Marquesas and Societies.
This they did not do. The boats touched at Henderson Island, today a remote and uninhabited dependency (but with its own website!) of the Pitcairn Islands territory, 120 miles from that island. Three sailors decided to stay on Henderson, in spite of its paucity of water.
They survived just fine.
The ones who didn't underwent gruesome suffering and, ultimately, cannibalism. (This was unfortunate for the victims, but at least ensured that the memoirs of the survivors would sell well.) It's all either a tragedy in "the heart of the sea," or a Darwin Awards-level performance, and I'm personally inclined to vote the latter after reading the appalling statistics compiled in Custom of the Sea. who would have guessed that the losers in "cannibal ballots" would turn out to be disproportionately from the bottom ranks of the shipboard social hierarchy?
Whatever. I'm sure that the self-serving narratives of Captain Pollard and Owen Chase are entirely accurate.
In lieu of pencil sketches of the loss of the Essex, which do not do justice to what was likely not a very visually dramatic episode anyway, due to boats being low in the water and whales even lower, here is a more picturesque Google search item for "wreck of the Essex:" boats moored at the west end of the Langmere Wharf, Essex, England.