In his new movie, "In the Heart of the Sea," director Ron Howard takes us aboard the Essex, an American whaling vessel in 1820. In so doing, he introduces us to George Pollard, a young captain anxious to prove himself; Owen Chase, a first mate who believes he should captain the vessel; and several members of their hard-working crew. Perhaps most notable of these would be young Thomas Nickerson, a boy who dreams of harpooning whales when he grows up. But all these sailors have good reasons to serve aboard the Essex, whether it is to earn the captaincy of another vessel, to better their station in society, or to contribute to the financial wellbeing of their families.
The only question is this: will they have a successful voyage? A good captain, one who knows how to read the signs, to know where to go and when, can return to port regularly with enough whale oil to provide the officers, crew and shipping company with a reasonable profit. A poor captain, one incapable of getting the best out of his crew, and making the right decisions with regard to their destinations, can sail around the world and never catch enough whales to make their voyages financially feasible.
Author Herman Melville knew something of this. In his first novel Typee, based on his own whaling experience, the protagonist Tommo has heard stories of whaling ships that never return to their home port. They catch the occasional whale, dock in a foreign port to trade what little oil they harvested for food and supplies, then they sail off again, in the hopes of catching the big break that will fill their holds with barrels of oil. The crew grow old and die aboard such vessels, without ever seeing home again, because the captain knows if he returns home with little or nothing he will lose his commission and his livelihood. So Tommo flees the ship on the island Nuku Hiva when he is granted a few hours shore leave. He hopes to live a few months among the natives, then return to the island port, and sign up with another ship that will take him back home.
Unlike in Herman Melville's novel, the crew of the Essex seem a cohesive, hard-working lot. The main tension aboard the vessel is between Captain Pollard, who comes from a prestigious family of sea captains for his first voyage, and first mate Owen Chase, who has experience, but no familial connections. The two battle over each decision, and blame each other for their failures. Still, the two men and their crew manage to capture a whale, and then everyone (excepting the captain) gets down to the hard work of gleaning every usable portion of the whale for oil.
The sailors haul up the whale, dig into it, scoop out its innards, and then render the contents of the buckets into oil in the ovens on deck. They work long and hard into the night, and when all the men have harvested everything they can access, they send in young Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy who fears the confined spaces inside the whale, and discovers that the smell of a whale's insides make him violently ill. Yet everyone works together for the good of all, as catching a whale is a mixture of smarts, skill, intuition, and most of all luck, and then don't know when, or if, they'll catch another.
Perhaps this was the problem with the whaling vessel Melville served aboard. For in Omoo, the sequel to Typee, Melville's protagonist Tommo leaves Nuku Hiva aboard another whaling vessel. There he discovers a dysfunctional captain and crew. The captain is afraid to mix with his sailors, and the first mate cannot climb below decks without risking getting beaten up. When the captain grows ill, the ship docks in Tahiti. There the crew refuse to ship out again when the captain returns to health. So the vast majority of the crew remain behind on Tahiti, without money, food, or any resources beyond the clothing and other articles they brought with them in their wooden trunks. If they wish to return home, or gain employment on another vessel, they must convince the captains of those ships that they are not trouble-makers, and will not instigate a mutiny when they grow displeased with conditions aboard ship.
Today, most countries view whaling as one of the great evils that society perpetrated in the past. But back in the early nineteenth century, people regarded whale oil as a necessity to light their homes and power their societies. In every era, people will always attempt to fill a perceived need. But, as Herman Melville and Ron Howard demonstrate, life is an adventure, and only those who give their best, and work effectively with others, can achieve anything worthwhile. And even then--even then--you still need a little luck, in order to achieve success.