The Hudson Commemorative Silver Half Dollar coin with a whale on its reverse tells the tale of the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket, that met its terrible fate 194 years ago.
Way back when, the Essex was a long way from home in the waters of the South Pacific.
She was small and an old ship, but with her success, many thought of her as a lucky ship.
This trip, though, was different.
First, she was almost destroyed by a storm. She did lose a couple of her small whaleboats and had damage to her sails in the storm.
But, the ship continued onward looking for whales.
A long time after the disaster, the First Mate, Owen Chase, remembered that fateful day, November 20, 1820:
I observed a very large spermaceti whale, as well as I could judge, about eighty-five feet in length. He broke water about twenty rods off our weather bow, and was lying quietly with his head in a direction for the ship.
He spouted two or three time, and then disappeared. In less than three seconds, he came up again, about the length of the ship off, and made directly for us, at the rate of about three knots.
The ship was then going with about the same velocity. His appearance and attitude gave us at first no alarm; but while I stood watching his movements, and observing him but a ship’s length off, coming down for us with great celerity, I involuntarily ordered the boy at the helm to put it hard up, intending to sheer off and avoid him.
The words were scarcely out of my mouth before he came down upon us at full speed, and struck the ship with his head just forward of the forechains.
He gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.
The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few minutes like a leaf.
We looked at each other in perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech
Many minutes elapsed before we were able to realize the dreadful accident, during which time he passed under the ship, grazing her keel as he went along, came up alongside her to leeward, and lay on the top of the water, apparently stunned with the violence of the blow, for the space of a minute.
He then suddenly started off in a direction to leeward. After a few moments reflection, and recover ing in some measure from the consternation that had seized us, I of course concluded that he had stove a hole in the ship, and that it would be necessary to set the pumps agoing.
Accordingly they were rigged, but had not been in operation more than one minute, before I perceived the head of the ship to be gradually settling down in the water.
I then ordered the signal to be set for the other boats — at that time in pursuit of whales — which I had scarcely despatched, before I again discovered the whale apparently in convulsions, on the top of the water, about one hundred rods to leeward.
He was enveloped in the foam, that his continued and violent threshing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together as if distracted with rage and fury. He remained a short time in this situation, and then started off with great velocity across the bows of the ship to windward.
By this time, the ship had settled down a considerable distance in the water, and I gave her up as lost. I, however, ordered the pumps to be kept constantly going, and endeavoured to collect my thoughts for the occasion.
I turned to the boats, two of which we then had with the ship, with an intention of clearing them away, and getting all things ready to embark in them, if there should be no other resource left. While my attention was thus engaged for a moment, I was roused by the cry of the man at the hatchway, ‘ Here he is — he is making for us again!’
I turned round, and saw the whale about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with apparently twice his ordinary speed, and to me it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.
The surf flew in all directions, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam of a rod in width, which he made with a continual violent threshing of his tail. His head was about half out of water, and in that way he came upon, and again struck the ship.
I was in hopes, when I descried him making for us, that by putting the ship away immediately, I should be able to cross the line of his approach before he could get up to us, and thus avoid, what I knew, if he should strike us again, would be our inevitable destruction.
I called out to the helmsman, ‘ hard up,’ but she had not fallen off more than a point before we took the second shock.
I should judge the speed of the ship at this time, to have been about three knots, and that of the whale about six.
He struck her to windward, directly under the cat-head, and completely stove in her bows.
He passed under the ship again, went off to leeward, and we saw no more of him.”
Her crew of twenty men and boys quickly grabbed what they could and used their three remaining small, slender whaleboats to escape the sinking Essex.
More than a thousand miles from land and several thousand miles from their home in Nantucket, the crew faced the tremendous challenge of staying alive in the open sea.
During their ordeal, one of the three boats disappeared. One was rescued after 90 days and the third after 95 days.
Less than half of the crew survived.
The tale of their harrowing experience with the whale and the weeks before they were rescued became the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
The Hudson Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin with its spouting whale shows against a whaling ship.