The whaler, Dauphin, cradle-rocked under full sail off the Chilean coast that February morn. Then in the length it takes a breath to spark a babe or silence a codger, the vessel settled. “She's gone grave calm,” Captain Zimri Coffin murmured on the quarterdeck.
The captain watched his cabin boy heave-to at the starboard rail, stomach unsteady for the lack of sway under his Nantucket feet. The lookout called and Coffin raised his spyglass.
On the dead still sea, a boat, impossibly small for the open ocean. The craft drifted closer and Coffin spotted a pair of jury-rigged sails, bleached by the tropics, stiff with salt air, ready to crack.
A whaleboat, it was, Captain Coffin realized: double-ended, two dozen feet long, just like the half dozen stowed aboard the Dauphin for chasing down the spermers and subduing them at the point of harpoon lances.
The good captain scanned the horizon for a mother ship, but found none. Back to the whaling boat he glanced: no one at the steering oar. “Hard up the helm,” he shouted to the mate at the wheel.
The Pacific returned to itself, the least passive of waters. Swells swept the Dauphin past the open boat, but they saw it; from Captain Coffin to third mate Murphey, to the sailors and cabin boy, they saw the bony cargo of the crumbling whale boat. Human bones it were, littering the craft floorboard to thwart.
The ship and boat bobbed nearer until the Dauphin's crew could see that two men lay curled upon the piles of bones, one fore, one aft. Their tatters hung loose in places about their bodies, but some rags tattooed the men firm as burning ink. Sores blotched exposed skin and hollowed it like the temples on their skulls. Patches of black and white and gray festooned their Crusoe beards. Their eyes bulged while their split lips chomped and sucked at the marrow of bones they clutched, wilder than simpering dogs in the summer sun.
Captain Coffin had heard of men adrift so long their madness turned murderous, but his Quaker roots commanded a boat be lowered. When this was done, the skeletal pair in the whale boat clung to their bony plunder, slapping feebly at the Dauphin crew who tugged them to wobbly feet, then carried them to the Dauphin's boat.
Shadows of spars and sails cast a ghosty pall on the two rescued men. For, though carried aboard in a weakened state beyond all reason of survival, they were men, not apparitions. And one, when fed in Coffin's cabin, cleared his mind of jibberish enough to say, "I am Captain George Pollard, Jr."
Captain Coffin knew the name, but not the wasted features. "Of what ship?" he inquired.
Spindle-shanked, cadaverous, Pollard nevertheless straightened o'er the table. "I am captain of the Essex out of Nantucket. Adrift for three months since being stove by an eighty foot sperm whale a thousand miles west of the Galapagos." Pollard sopped and scraped hardtack through something purported to be gravy, then added, "And that whale was mighty deliberate. Rammed 'er just forward of the forechains. And it come back in full fury and rage for a second blow, plowed clean through our port bow."
Though it meant a loss of time and money to his shareholders back home, Captain Coffin turned the Dauphin about, setting a heading for Valparaiso. Scarce a fortnight later, off St. Mary's Island, the Dauphin anchored aside a fellow Nantucket whaler, the Hero, skippered by a first mate name of Obed Starbuck. Starbuck was a man with a tale to tell of escaping capture at the hands of Spanish pirates. They'd lost their captain, Starbuck said, but made their getaway with the loss of but one man more.
"That's a fine report," Captain Coffin said to Starbuck as he sat him down at his table, "but I'd like you to meet the captain of the Essex."
And so the story passed from ship to ship, around the Horn, 'til it reached Nantucket and back again to the Pacific. Every man asea, especially if he a whaler be, heard the tale for a generation.
On a Pacific gam a score of years hence, a New Bedford deck hand, Herman Melville, met the son of the Essex's first mate and the legend turned literary, the whale bleached whiter than the bony cargo of Captain Pollard's tiny boat.