In the Heart of the Sea – Coffins of Nantucket

in the heart of the sea essex.jpg

Based upon the incredibly true yarn = story, (Nathaniel Philbrick’s book The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex), that inspired Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In 1819, a crew of Nantucket whalers including members of the Coffin family set sail for Hawaii to attempt to harvest 2,000 barrels of whale oil by the Nantucket Sleigh Ride and are attacked by a great white sperm whale that rams and sinks their ship. The crew set out 2,000 miles from land in 3 life boats and end up starving to the point of cannibalism.


Nantucket Sleigh Ride


Coffin Ancestors of Nantucket :

The Essex, an American whaleship from Nantucket, Massachusetts, sank after a sperm whale attacked it in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820. Having lost their ship, the crew of the Essex attempted to sail to South America in whaleboats. After suffering from starvation and dehydration, most of the crew died before the survivors were rescued in February 1821.

In retelling the story of the crew’s ordeal, Philbrick utilizes an account written by Thomas Nickerson, who was a teenage cabin boy on board the Essex and wrote about the experience in his old age; his account was lost until 1960 but was not authenticated until 1980 before being published, abridged, in 1984. The book also utilizes the better known account of Owen Chase, the ship’s first mate, which was published soon after the ordeal.[1]

Owen Coffin (1802 – 1821) was a teenaged sailor aboard the Nantucket whaler Essex when it set sail for the Pacific Ocean on a sperm whale-hunting expedition in August 1819. In November the next year, a whale rammed and breached their hull in mid-Pacific, causing Essex to sink. Following months in a small whaleboat, members of the near-starving crew finally concluded a member must be sacrificed. They drew straws, which Coffin ‘lost’, and he was shot and eaten.

Owen Coffin (August 24, 1802 – February 2, 1821) was a teenaged sailor aboard the Nantucket whaler Essex when it set sail for the Pacific Ocean on a sperm whale-hunting expedition in August 1819, under the command of his cousin, George Pollard, Jr. In November the next year, a whale rammed and breached the hull of Essex in mid-Pacific, causing Essex to sink.[1]

The crew of Essex escaped in small whaleboats, with sufficient supplies for two months, but were not rescued within that time. During January 1821, the near-starved survivors began to eat the bodies of those who had died. When even this resource ran out, the four men remaining in Pollard’s boat agreed to draw straws to decide which of them should be slaughtered, lest all four die of starvation. Coffin ‘lost’ the lottery, and was shot and eaten. The captain volunteered to take Coffin’s place but Coffin refused, saying it was his ‘right’ to do so that the others might live.

Coffin was the son of Nancy (Bunker) and Hezekiah Coffin.[2]

In popular cultureEdit

  • The title song of the 1971 album Nantucket Sleighride by American rock band Mountain is titled in full “Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)”. While there is no evidence that the song is specifically about Coffin or the ship Essex (and the lyrics are in parts obscure in meaning), it is written from the point of view of a sailor on a ship undertaking a “three-year tour… on a search for the mighty sperm whale”, and co-writer Felix Pappalardi, in an interview for the British music weekly Sounds (issue dated November 20, 1971), confirmed that the Owen Coffin in the dedication was the one from the Essex tragedy.
  • German funeral doom metal band Ahab released The Divinity of Oceans, a concept album about Essex, and one song, Gnawing Bones (Coffin’s Lot),directly references Coffin’s fate.
  • The story of the Essex is known to have greatly interested Herman Melville, who annotated a copy of Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, an account of the shipwreck and its aftermath by the ship’s surviving first mate, Owen Chase. The story inspired part of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.
  • Owen Coffin was played by British actor Frank Dillane in the 2015 film adaptation of the story of the EssexIn the Heart Of The Sea, directed by Ron Howard.
  • Owen Coffin was played by Jassa Ahluwalia in the BBC film of the true story of the sinking of the whale ship Essex, entitled The Whale.





The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little–known documents-including a long–lost account written by the ship’s cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing read, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.

In the Heart of the Sea


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