Cannibalism and other survival tips


I have been pondering such matters recently since reading a fascinating book – In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, – a gruesome account of suffering and depravity on the high seas; no not another Evohe adventure but the final voyage of the Essex, a whaling ship from Nantucket that sank in 1820 out in the middle of nowhere. It is the true story that inspired the epic novel Moby Dick, only instead of ending with a sperm whale ramming and sinking the ship, the Essex story begins at that point.


It was a pleasant spring morning- November 20th, 1820 and the crew of the Essex were merrily torturing a couple of harpooned whales from their sleek whale boats when the boatsteerer casually glanced over his shoulder to the disturbing view of their mother ship falling over. ‘Look, look,’ he cried, ‘what ails the ship? She is upsetting!’ Little did they know that while they had been harpooning young calves and mother sperm whales, two miles away a large bull had been beating his head against the Essex, seemingly in revenge.


Cut to the next scene 93 days later as the sailing ship Dauphin, patrolling the Pacific for whales, detours off course to inspect a drifting whale boat spied in the distance. As they loomed overhead, still under full sail, they peered down into a boat littered with bones – human bones, and at opposite ends of the boat cowered two sore- infested creatures, beards caked with salt and blood, sucking the marrow from the cracked bones of their dead shipmates. After the ship came about, instead of greeting their rescuers the two delirious survivors seemed frightened and jealously guarded their bones. They even had finger bones stuffed in their pockets for light snacks!


A few days before, unbeknown to them, another ship had rescued three other equally distraught castaways from the second whale boat to have survived the sinking of the Essex. One of the sailors was in an especially frenzied state as he had been due to be executed in a matter of hours, having drawn the short straw. And in a bizarre twist the rescued Captain eventually had to explain to his sister how, having promised to look after her son, he ended up eating him – his own nephew! Now that’s keeping it in the family.


Apparently cannibalism was fairly standard practice in the sailing ship days and there was quite an etiquette surrounding it. The old short straw routine was the recommended ion method, but at the same time it didn’t pay to be too plump or unpopular as this was a sure way of moving up the menu.


In the Heart of the Sea is a thought provoking book with an extremely good account of the whaling days, including whale biology and cannibalism – a recommended read. There are also plenty of tips on how to prepare flesh with several dos and donts. I reckon it should be included in the Dive New Zealand mail order list under Dive Training.


Curiously enough the copy of the book I was reading was owned by Sir Peter Blake and at the time, October last year, I was fortunate enough to be aboard Seamaster on the shake-down cruise of Blakexpeditions – the start of Sir Peter’s five year odyssey of exploration and environmental awareness around the globe. As part of the preparations we had a discussion on safe boating practices, because where Seamaster is going, there will seldom be anyone around to rescue them – if you stuff it up that’s it.


With the prospect of cannibalism in mind, I decided to share a few of my experiences and ways of avoiding problems – usually learnt the hard way. I figured that surely there must be some lessons from the Essex episode – if just one life can be saved then all that suffering and deprivation would have been worthwhile.




Survival tips for small boats in remote places


  1. Don’t stick harpoons into sperm whales – they are protected, very big and strong, and it really pisses them off.

  2. In remote places assume there is no rescue available and plan your operations accordingly.

  3. Read Ted Chappell’s excellent boating column in Dive New Zealand.

  4. Always carry oars or paddles– usually pretty useless for windy conditions in inflatable boats but potentially useful for dispatching your next dinner. In reality I was once extremely grateful for some paddles – we were in about 40 knots offshore wind at Port Pegasus, Stewart Island, with the entire crew in a small inflatable when the outboard motor cut out. Within minutes we would have been in very rough seas heading toward Essex territory but through some extremely desperate paddling we just made it to the shelter of shore.

  5. Carry an anchor – usually just a nuisance but even if you are running around in enclosed waters it can save a lot of embarrassment, if not your life.

  6. If you do get caught out throw a sea anchor together and get it over the side – anything will do – dive bags full of gear, tanks with buoyancy compensators, anything to slow you down. Just tie them to your anchor and get them overboard – another good reason to have an anchor.

  7. Carry spares – a spark plug and basic tool kit including plug spanner.

  8. Carry flares and don’t be afraid to use them. If you have a problem it’s better to let people know while you can rather than fart around trying to fix it only to find that you have drifted out of sight. There is no shame in being rescued and even if it may be embarrassing I would rather be rescued than eaten any day.

  9. Carry a signal mirror, commonly known as a heliograph. There is no better way of notifying your whereabouts to searching aircraft. Just last year in the North West Passage some friends were rescued from a large ice floe that had come adrift. Although they could see the searching helicopter it had no idea where they were until Dougie gave them a flash from his mirror. And during the war my Uncle Arnold was rescued from his sinking plane in the Med, in a similar fashion.

  10. Have a boat box with all these things: – spares, flares, inflatable pump, bailer, straws including one shortened, signaling mirror, sun block, first aid, snacks and water. Whenever a boat is put in the water the boat box goes in too.

  11. The driver should always check the fuel when they get in the boat. Running out of fuel is one of the commonest mistakes and it often happens on short trips just running around the harbour. Normally this would just be inconvenient but if you are at the Auckland Islands it could be fatal.

  12. If there is a group of you aboard make sure you leave a note of your intentions and estimated time of return in an obvious place. Once at Stewart Island I was in the situation where the only person who knew our whereabouts went off for a long hike ashore without telling anyone where we were. Meanwhile we had fuel problems (a lack of it) and ended up waiting three hours for a search party.

  13. Never untie the boat until you have the motor running – you will look really stupid drifting away in the only small boat while everyone watches your frantic efforts to start the thing.

  14. Check the bung, or duck bills. There’s nothing worse than coming back to a boat after a dive to find it full of water! This happened to some friends many years ago at Cape Rodney. Down at the boat ramp the lads discovered they were lacking a bung so they stuck a pohutukawa stick in the hole and proceeded undaunted. But after the dive all they could see on surfacing was a prop sticking in the air. One of the other divers had tried to climb aboard to retrieve the situation and the whole boat just rolled over on top of him.

  15. Unless you are wearing a dive suit, wear a life jacket.

  16. If you are anywhere exposed carry an EPIRB. They are not expensive compared with the total cost of a dive trip, they last for years and they save many lives. Ideally there should be one in every boat box.

  17. Keep watching the weather. Don’t just take weather forecasts for granted. The best weather predictors are your eyes.

  18. Always carry a torch in your dive bag – a nice powerful, waterproof one. Many years ago veteran diver Gary Tee and his friends were in the Bay of Plenty when their motor failed and radio malfunctioned. It got very dark and rough and they were being blown offshore but Gary managed to attract someone’s attention several kilometres away on land. The person realised something was amiss and alerted a rescue team which managed to locate the boat, thanks to Gary’s torch.

  19. This may seem pretty obvious but hang on to the boat. One unnamed Leigh local (not Chris Riley) found himself floating in the sea while his speedboat disappeared over the horizon. A while later some fishermen out at Great Barrier Island couldn’t believe their eyes as an unmanned boat sped past them headed for South America, never to be seen again.

  20. Finally, carry a bit of wire to get the marrow out of those really awkward corners in longer bones. And don’t forget those straws.


Essentially, leave nothing to chance because otherwise, eventually, it will come back to bite you on the bum. Mistakes in the Waitemata Harbour are inconvenient but the same mistake off the back of the Barrier could end in tragedy.


And what happened to the survivors of the Essex? Captain Pollard went on to sink another whaling ship and then retired to Nantucket to become a night-watchman obsessed with storing food in all manner of places. The mate Chase became a successful captain while various other crew members returned to sea with one lost in a hurricane and one dying of fever in Timor.


But the irony of the whole episode is that despite being such splendid seamen, familiar with many of the world’s oceans, the sailors were largely ignorant of world affairs, most coming from just one small island – the closed Quaker community of Nantucket. This was to be their downfall when just after the sinking of the Essex, the captain and mates had a conference to decide where best to aim for in their tiny boats. Only a week’s sail down wind with the SE trade winds were the Marquesas and Tuamotu Islands and just beyond that the Society Islands, but these they feared because of rumours of cannibalism and ritualised homosexual activity. Little did they know that the savages of these islands were by and large a friendly lot and indeed there had been a thriving English mission at Tahiti for the past 23 years.


So instead of this relatively quick option for rescue, the Essex crew chose to beat south and east against the prevailing winds and currents, back towards South America and into the annals of great cannibalistic feats. There must be a moral in that somewhere.

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