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Whaleship ESSEX Documentary

CineNova, a documentary production company located in Toronto, requested an engineering analysis and supporting computer animation for their Discovery Channel production investigating the Whaleship ESSEX incident. The story of the ESSEX involves the sinking of the whaleship in 1820 by a seemingly enraged giant sperm whale. A famous detailed narrative of the alleged incident was written by the ship’s first-mate Owen Chase. The incident was also the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. CineNova asked JMS to examine from a technical viewpoint, the feasibility of a whale of the size reported by Chase, swimming at the reported velocity to sink a vessel of the ESSEX’s design. Chase estimated the whale to be 85 feet long and weigh 80 tons. The ESSEX itself was only 87 feet long.

JMS concluded that the ESSEX most likely would have resisted and survived the impact from the whale if at the time, the vessel were newly constructed or at least of relatively young age. The hull of the 238-ton ESSEX had been heavily worked in her 20 plus years at sea. Therefore its bottom structure could very likely have failed when rammed by the whale. The method of construction of the ESSEX typical of wooden vessels of her type was planks attached by pegs (trunnels or “tree nails”) to internal frames made up of wooden pieces also pegged together. The structural failure probably resulted because pieces of the built-up frame construction had worked loose over time and sheared apart under the whale’s impact. JMS developed animations consisting of a series of wireframe visuals depicting the vessel and whale, their relative sizes and trajectories, and realistic, animated, exploded diagrams showing the inner details of how the vessel was constructed. The documentary, Moby Dick: The True Story, aired internationally this past January on the Discovery Channel.