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on 10 November 2013
Well this was quite something. Recommended by a friend, this is the true story that Herman Melville based his classic, Moby Dick on. Philbrick does an excellent job of pulling all his source material together to tell the story as accurately and effectively as possible, something that he succeeds in doing admirably.

It should be pointed out that this is a tale of woe from the first to last page. The story details Captain Pollard's first command. The Nantucket whale ship Essex on a voyage to hunt Sperm whales in the Pacific ocean. Basically everything that could possibly go wrong, does go wrong and then some. Culminating in absolute unmitigated horror.

Much more than the story of a whale attacking a ship and sinking it, the book is quite an education as well. Eminently readable and compulsive, we get to learn about not just the lives of the whalers and the vagrancies of whaling but the history of the island of Nantucket and societies of the Southern and Pacific oceans, the horrors of starvation and cannibalism, the rise and fall of the whaling industry and the effects on the lives of the people it touches and indeed the flora and fauna that suffers as a result. It really seems to capture the Zeitgeist of an era long gone.

There is so much of interest packed in here that there is not a dull page from cover to cover. An excellent, fascinating and valuable read, I highly recommend it to just about anyone. Although probably not good if you are easily perturbed, as it reaches into the depths of hell and does not return.
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on 5 November 2016
Well, as the Americans would say when confounded by something " oh my Gad!" I just could not put this book down as it is so well written and fascinating tale . Almost thought of it as fiction but the intriguing details of Nantucket and the past whaling industry plus the facts that this tale is an account of a very real trip makes it non- fiction. I am old enough to remember when in U.K there was an attempt to make fresh whale meat available but we ended up offering it to the cat and dog as none of our family liked it. Ponged a bit plus was bright red? Yuck! The story told though is based on what survivors told about this nightmarish trip on the Essex to catch whales for the oil etc , sailing out of Nantucket and being the first ship to be attacked by a living monster bull whale plus details of the effects of the industry on the quaint port which was their base. Wow! No holds barred so be prepared for nauseating details of chopping up of whales plus inevitable cannibalism that the survivors had to sink to in order to exist out in the vast ocean. It is a bit stomach churning and it pulls no punches but the author is not trying to glamorise characters or shock readers. It is just an account really of a few courageous survivors of a rather unseaworthy whale ship sunk in a disastrous situation.Well worth reading! I found it far better than the original book ,Moby Dick by Melville and the Gregory Peck film. ( the film of this title by the way far outstrips that one). Would also recommend to young readers maybe still at school who want to read actual fact history of such places and how community life was for Quakers in the last century woven into a jolly good yarn.
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on 13 November 2012
A few years ago I read 'The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex' written by Owen Chase The Wreck of the Whaleship "Essex", the first mate on the doomed Essex. I therefore picked up this book with mixed feelings but I need not have worried. It was the story of the Essex which inspired Hermann Melville, himself a crewman on a whaleship, to write Moby Dick a fictionalised account based on the story of the 'Essex'.

I have never read 'Moby Dick' but this is a gripping and informative real-life account of the sinking of the 'Essex' and the awful consequences for its crew. The ship was attacked in the far Pacific by a sperm whale allegedly 85 feet long. Two head butts from the whale sealed the fate of the 'Essex'. The day to day accounts of the voyage, the sinking, and the aftermath are drawn from the writings of those who were there, including Owen Chase. The book also benefits from a recently discovered account written by Thomas Nickerson the youngest boy aboard the ship. He was only 14 when the ship set sail with him as the cabin boy. He survived to tell the tale and like all those who survived he returned to sea.

Initially the entire crew survived the sinking of the ship but only a minority survived the aftermath of 90 days or more in open boats striving to reach land. It is a story of awful things happening to ordinary men. Immediately after the sinking of the 'Essex' the men decided to avoid sailing for the known islands of the Society group or the Marquesas because of rumours of fierce cannibalism amongst their inhabitants. That was a bad decision which had the result of the surviving crew members indulging in cannibalism themselves in order to prolong their lives.

Philbrick's account of the whaling industry and its processes and its economics is very interesting. So too is his account of the role of black (African American) crewmen on the whaling ships. About one in three of the crew of the 'Essex' were black seamen. Philbrick draws a very vivid picture of Nantucket at the beginning of the 19th century as a Quaker dominated, whale-centred society. He also traces the decline in the island's fortunes to faded glory as the whaling fleet withered away later in the century. Finally he brings us up to date with the current up-market style of the place as a tourist magnet. How times change.

All in all, a gripping story well written.
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on 3 February 2016
I have just finished this. This was well written and I assume an accurate account of the Essex whale boat, Nantucket Island and the survivors of both the boat and the island. I knew that cannibalism would be mentioned and was not sure how I would deal with these thoughts when reading, however, Philbrick dealt with this in a way that was sensitive enough to keep me reading but didn't avoid the subject which of course is essential to the history. A great historical account!.... Don't think I will watch the film though! :-)
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 29 December 2011
This book tells the story of the Whaleship Essex, which was sunk by an angry sperm whale in the 19th century and which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.

It's a rollicking read, real Boys' Own Adventure stuff, wrecked ships, survival at sea, cannibalism, hardships, rescue - I read it in a day and scarcely put it down for a moment. It's quite a harrowing read in places - poor Captain Pollard eating his own cousin after promising his aunt to take of the boy is particularly wrenching. Probably more so for the boy himself, of course.

Philbrick lives in Nantucket himself, and he excels at painting a portrait of a time when the tiny island ruled the whaling industry, ships coming in, barrels of whale oil going out, fortunes made, all presided over by a very tight-knit community. It's a wonderful evocation of a different era, an era when the world must have seemed a whole lot bigger - and if you ask me, this book is more entertaining, more enthralling, more fascinating and dramatic than Moby Dick ever could be.
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on 10 August 2007
I never thought there was a recorded account of an actual sinking of a ship by a whale...how wrong I was! This is the true story of the sinking of the whale ship Essex by an 80 ton sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1820. This is `thee' actual story that prompted Herman Melville to write his famous Moby Dick novel.

Having been rammed by an angry whale the Essex sank within ten minutes and its twenty one man crew took to the sea with scant provisions in three whaling boats. What follows is a four thousands mile plus sea odyssey of incredible suffering and privation. Despite some serious errors of judgement where closer landfall could have been reached such as Easter Island, Pitcairn or Tahiti...the survivors show remarkable seamanship in reaching Chile after spending a desperate three months adrift.

This is not a tale along the lines of Shackleton's epic South however where all live to tell the tale of their ordeal. Only two of the three boats reach safety and only eight of the twenty one crewmen survive the journey, the remainder die a terrible death mainly from lack of food, water or from the elements. When I say `mainly', some of the occupants die by `lot' selection by their crewmates and are simply killed....you can guess what comes after that...yes you guessed it messmate cannibalism!

This is a well written explanatory book that as well as highlighting the individual characters involved also gives a good descriptive narrative of the whaling techniques and equipment of the period. The description of the boat journeys however is the coup de main as the suffering and the despair of the crew leaps out from the pages....a great read!
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on 16 December 2013
A very interesting read, and a real nightmare of a tale.

It had me seeking out and watching the old film again -- only to find myself nodding off in front of Queequeg (who'd have thought?), and waking up just in time to see Ahab surface and beckon the others to join him.

I read 'Moby Dick' years ago, and remember feeling that it was a bit of a slog.

Not so this book -- though I did find myself thinking more than once that a glossary of all the specialist and nautical vocabulary/terminology used in the book would have made it an even better read.
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on 15 March 2016
I bought this by chance after watching an interview with Ron Howard - he directed the movie version. He was talking about how he loved true stories and how this one was special. Ron is right. Mr Philbrick is a master journalist/historian who takes you inside the whaling industry on Nantucket - the detail is what makes the book entertaining. Then he unfolds the amazing story of the captain and crew of one whaling ship and the story that would inspire Moby Dick. When I read this I reflect on how easy are our lives. I can't imagine surviving what these guys went through. In fact, they very nearly did not survive. It wasn't a great time for whales, either. So, no spoilers but well done Nathaniel Philbrick and good to see the movie bringing your great story to a wider audience. I must watch it - but I know the movie can't ever give the reader the complexity and detail of the book.
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on 2 September 2017
I'm a bookworm, I love reading, writing, you name it. A small part of what first attracts me to books is the design or picture on the cover. The pictures that I've attached tell the story of why I've only given this 5 stars before I've even read it. The first one is the one I ordered and the second one is the one I received.
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on 29 December 2015
I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction and wouldn't usually pick up a book like this. However, I'd seen the trailer for the film and thought that it sounded like a brilliant story. I actually thought it was based on Moby Dick - when I looked into it further, I realised that this book was the basis for the film and decided to give it a go.
Another reviewer has said that the book has a bit of a slow start in describing the island's history; I'd certainly agree with that but all of that information is vital in understanding how the minds of these men worked and what caused them to make the decisions they did.
I was gripped from the moment they set sail. The description of the men's harrowing experience was so vivid; I've never read such a horrific account of the effects of dehydration and starvation. I couldn't put it down.
Definitely worth reading. And now I want to go to Nantucket!
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