October 7, 1797|
|Died||March 8, 1869
Owen Chase (October 7, 1797 – March 7, 1869) was First Mate of the whale ship Essex, that was struck and sunk by a sperm whale on November 20, 1820. Chase wrote about the incident in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. This book, published in 1821, would inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.
Sinking of the Essex
As first mate of the Essex, 21 year old Owen Chase left Nantucket on August 12, 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year whaling voyage. On the morning of November 20, 1820, the Essex was twice rammed by a Sperm Whale (alleged to be around 85 feet (26 m)) and sank 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America. The closest known islands, the Marquesas, were more than 1,200 miles (1,900 km) to the west and the captain of the Essex, George Pollard, intended to make for them but the crew, led by Chase, feared the islands may be inhabited by cannibals and voted to make for South America. Unable to sail against the Trade winds, the boats had to sail south for 1,000 mi (1,600 km) before they could use the Westerlies to turn towards South America, which would still lie another 3,000 mi (4,800 km) to the east.
Of the 21 men in three whale boats who began the journey, eight survived: three who chose to remain on a barely habitable island and five in two boats who attempted to reach South America and who were forced to resort to cannibalism to remain alive.
Return to Nantucket
Along with three other survivors of the Essex, Chase was returned to Nantucket on the Eagle on June 11, 1821 to find he had a 14-month-old daughter he had never seen named Phebe. An account of the homecoming was later published in a magazine. A large crowd had gathered at the docks to see the survivors arrive and as they disembarked, had parted without a sound. The survivors walked alone to their homes without a word being spoken. 
Within four months and with the help of a ghostwriter, he completed an account of the disaster, the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex; this was used by Herman Melville as one of the inspirations for his novel Moby-Dick.
Return to the sea
In December 1821 Chase signed on as first mate on the whaler Florida which sailed on December 20 from New Bedford, Massachusetts, the crew list contains the only extant physical description of Chase; 24 years old, five feet 10 inches, dark complexioned and brown haired. After whaling in the same area where the Essex sank, the vessel returned to New Bedford on November 26, 1823. Chase was again greeted by a daughter he had never seen, 18-month-old Lydia. On September 14, 1824 a son William was born and Chase's wife Peggy died two weeks later. Nine months later Chase married Nancy Joy, the widow of Matthew Joy who was the first of the Essex survivors to die. Two months later Chase sailed again, as captain of the Winslow. The Winslow fished the Japan grounds before continuing east to dock briefly in San Francisco before sailing for the Pacific ground and finally returning to New Bedford on June 20, 1827. In mid August the Winslow set sail for the Brazil Banks but was badly damaged in a severe storm south of the Canary Islands which also sank two other whaling ships and damaged three more. The ship was forced to return to New Bedford where it took nine months to repair. The ship sailed for the Pacific grounds in mid July 1828, returning early July 1830.
Relatively wealthy from his successful whaling voyages, Chase now stayed in Nantucket for two years to supervise the construction at the Brant Point shipyards of his own whaler, the Charles Carrol which sailed on October 10, 1832 for a three and a half year voyage. Nine months into the voyage, Chase's wife gave birth to a daughter named Adeline, Nancy Chase died several weeks later. Chase's brother Joseph, captain of the Catherine, was told of the tragedy several months later and passed the news on to Chase when they met in the Pacific ground in August 1834.
The Charles Carrol returned to Nantucket in March 1836 and on April 5 Chase married Eunice Chadwick. In August, Chase departed on another three and a half year whaling voyage. Sixteen months later Eunice gave birth to Charles. Herman Melville wrote of the news in his copy of Chase's narrative:
"For, while I was in the Acushnet we heard from some whaleship that we spoke, that the captain of the "Charles Carrol" - that is Owen Chace - had recently received letters from home, informing him of the certain infidelity of his wife, the mother of several children, one of them being the lad of sixteen, whom I alluded to as giving me a copy of his father's narrative to read. We also heard that this receipt of this news had told most heavily upon Chace, & and that he was of the deepest gloom."
We know from the ship's log that the Charles Carrol met the whaler Hero in the grounds, the captain of which was Reuben Joy, brother of Matthew Joy from the Essex and that the two vessels remained together for the unusually long time of two months. It is speculated that it was Joy who passed on the news to Chase. The Charles Carrol docked at Holmes Hole on February 15, 1840 where Chase left the ship and travelled to Nantucket where he filed for divorce on February 18. The divorce was granted on July 7.
Two months after the divorce was finalized, Chase married for the fourth and final time. He never sailed again. Memories of the harrowing ordeal haunted Chase. He suffered terrible headaches and nightmares. Later in his life, Chase began hiding food in the attic of his Nantucket house on Orange Street and was eventually institutionalized.
- Ann Alexander, a ship sunk by a whale on August 20, 1851
- In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, a National Book Award-winning work of maritime history by Nathaniel Philbrick telling the Essex story from the point of view of both Nickerson and Chase.
- In the Heart of the Sea (film), the above book being adapted into a feature film by director Ron Howard, starring Chris Hemsworth, Ben Whishaw, and Cillian Murphy.
- Edward Leslie & Sterling Seagrave Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1998 pg 251 - 253 ISBN 978-0-395-91150-1
- Thomas Farel Heffernan Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex Wesleyan University Press 1990 Pg 120 - 134 ISBN 978-0-8195-6244-9
- Philbrick 2001, p. 244.
- In the Heart of the Sea at the Internet Movie Database.
- Chase, Owen (1821). Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. New York: W. B. Gilley. OCLC 12217894. Also in Heffernan, Thomas Farel, Stove by a whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, Middletown, Conn. : Wesleyan University Press ; [New York] : distributed by Columbia University Press, 1981.
- Chase, Owen (1999). Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. New York: Lyons Press. ISBN 1-55821-878-5. OCLC 12217894.
- Philbrick, Nathaniel (2001). In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100182-8. OCLC 46949818.