Documentary to recreate fight for survival after wreck of whaleship Essex

An ex-Royal New Zealand Montague Whaler is the unlikely star in a forthcoming BBC natural history documentary about the vast Pacific Ocean.

The 28 foot boat will be used to part re-enact the harrowing story of the crewmen from the Whaleship Essex, a 238 ton vessel that was sunk in the South Pacific in 1819 and which went on to become one of the most vivid maritime tales ever told. Whilst chasing an aggressive sperm whale the Essex was twice rammed, the second blow knocking crew-members aboard the ship off their feet and fatally holing the ship below the waterline. Years later the almost unbelievable story was recounted to a young whaler Herman Melville who used the true story as the basis for the Moby Dick book. Following the sinking of the Essex, her three whaleboats (not dissimilar to the Montague whaler) set sail to the East for far-away South America, hoping make landfall at Chile or Argentina. In their desperate bid for survival they discounted the idea of sailing westward to the nearer Pacific Island as their feared cannibalistic natives.

They estimated their trip would take 56 days and rationed their food and water accordingly, although this amounted to only 40% of the daily requirement for a healthy person. After a month at sea they sighted a small, remote and barren island and landed. However it soon became clear that the island had insufficient water and food to sustain 20 men so they set sail again leaving 3 volunteers behind to await rescue. One by one the men in the boats began dying and eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive, even drawing straws to decide who would be shot and eaten. Eventually all but 8 of the original 20 men died. The three left behind on the island were rescued and the 5 who remained at sea were eventually found after 3 months afloat and 3500 miles travelled. They never did make the S American landfall they had dreamed of.

Few Montague whalers survive now, but this boat, number 235, built in Devonport, Auckland in 1984 was modified for her TV debut. Using lithograph sketches drawn by surviving crew-members, Jay Lawry of the NZ Maritime Restoration School designed the rig and Rick Johnson fashioned the sails from old canvas from the Tucker Thompson, a square-rigger based in the Bay of Islands. A bowsprit carrying a large headsail was fitted and two masts (a mainmast and foremast) were stepped rather than the usual single-masted arrangement on a Montague whaler. Thus her new rig comprised of a sprit mainsail, sprit foresail and flying jib, with the possibly of setting an inner jib also. The rudder was removed and replaced with a long steering-oar which was quite typical of the whaleboats of the era, giving them considerable manoeuvrability.

Technical maritime advice for the project and a safety boat were provided by Mahurangi Technical Institute , a local nautical school specialising in RYA courses.

For more about the wrecking of the whaleship Essex visit The BBC page