Saturday, January 15, 2011

History of the Whaleship Essex

In July 1819, the Essex was one of over 70 Nantucket whale ships in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. At 87’ long and 238 tons displacement, she was quite small. But she had a reputation on Nantucket as being a lucky ship; throughout the last decade and a half, she had done well by her Quaker owners, regularly returning at two-year intervals with enough oil to make them wealthy men.

Over the course of four voyages her previous captain, Daniel Russell, had been successful enough to be given command of the Aurora, a new and larger whale ship. Russell’s promotion allowed George Pollard, Jr. (the former first mate) to take command of the Essex and Owen Chase (one of the boatsteerers … or harpooners) to move up to first mate. Three other crew members were elevated to the rank of boatsteerers. The Essex was not only lucky but an apparently happy vessel: According to cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, the Essex was “on the whole rather a desirable ship than otherwise.”

By the end of July, her upper works (about everything at deck level and above) had been totally rebuilt, including a cookhouse and a new layer of pine decking. At some point, immense block-and-tackle systems were strung from her masts to the wharf to haul her onto her side so her bottom could be sheathed in copper. This would protect it from marine growth that could turn her four-inch-thick oak hull planking into a soft, porous veneer.

At 20 years of age, the Essex was old and reaching a point when many vessels begin to show structural deterioration. Whale oil acted as a preservative, providing most whale ships with a longer life than that of typical merchant vessels, but rot, teredo worms and iron sickness (where the ship’s rusted iron fastenings weakened the oak) were potential problems.

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