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You’re probably familiar with the book "Moby Dick". Even if you’ve never read it, you know the story: Captain Ahab goes in search of a great while whale, and is finally killed when the whale attacks and destroys his ship. But you probably didn’t know that this scene in Herman Melville’s novel was inspired by an actual event in the year 1820 - the sinking of the whaling vessel "Essex" in the South Pacific. Just like the ship in "Moby Dick", the Essex was rammed by a whale. As it sank, the captain and crew abandoned ship and climbed into the three whaleboats. These were twenty-five foot seqgoing rowboats that were normally used to chase and kill whales. But now they would be used to carry the survivors of the Essex more than three thousand miles, over a period of 93 days, to the coast of South America.

It is difficult to comprehend the torments and extreme agonies these men must have suffered, constantly exposed to the brutal rays of the sun, having very little to eat or drink and both starving and dying of thirst. In fact, many of the men did not survive the trip. But those who did described the voyage as three months of constant torture. As the first mate, Owen Chase, recorded in his journal, "The privation of water is justly ranked among the most dreadful of the miseries of our life. . . The violence of raving thirst has no parallel in the catalogue of human calamities." On the twenty-third day after the sinking of their ship, he wrote, "[Our] thirst had become now incessantly more intolerable than our hunger, and the quantity then allowed [half a pint per day] was barely sufficient to keep the mouth in a state of moisture, for about one third of the time. . . In vain was every expedient tried to relieve the raging fever of the throat. . . Our suffering during these . . . days almost exceeded human belief." ["In the Heart of the Sea," p. 116]

As Nathaniel Philbrick writes in his book about the disaster,

"The Essex survivors had entered . . . the ’cotton-mouth’ phase of thirst. Saliva becomes thick and foul-tasting; the tongue clings irritatingly to the teeth and the roof of the mouth. Even though speech is difficult, sufferers are often moved to complain ceaselessly about their thirst until their voices become so cracked and hoarse that they can speak no more. A lump seems to form in the throat, causing the sufferer to swallow repeatedly in a vain attempt to dislodge it. Severe pain is felt in the head and neck. The face feels full due to the shrinking of the skin. Hearing is affected, and many people begin to hallucinate. Still to come . . . were the agonies of a mouth that has ceased to generate saliva. The tongue hardens into . . . ’a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth.’ Speech becomes impossible, although sufferers are known to moan and bellow. Next is the "blood sweats" phase, involving ’a progressive mummification of the initially living body.’ The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws. The eyelids crack and the eyeballs being to weep tears of blood. The...

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