A smashed whaleboat was not uncommon but more unbelievable were incidents of whaleships themselves being attacked by whales. Sailors often told stories of what they called "fighting whales" and sometimes give them nicknames like "Timor Jack" or "New Zealand Tom." Herman Melville's novel, Moby Dick, is based on these stories, the most famous of which is that of the whaleship Essex. On November 20, 1820, this ship from Nantucket came upon a pod of sperm whales. The hunt had begun when the first mate, Owen Chase, saw a huge bull whale heading straight for the ship. He wrote later, "He came down on us with full speed and struck the ship with his head... he gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces." The whale went on to strike the ship again, finally damaging her so badly she sank and the men were forced to abandon ship. Twenty crewmen managed to clamber onto three whaleboats only to find themselves 1,200 miles from land with very little food and water. Only eight of these men survived and those lucky enough to live had to resort to eating other crewmembers when their meager supply of biscuits ran out.
New Bedford Whaling Museum