In 1821, a whaling ship came upon a small boat off the coast of Chile containing two deranged men surrounded by human bones that they alternately chewed and clutched to their shriveled bodies. The two were survivors of one of the most well-known marine disasters of the 19th century: the sinking of a 240-ton Nantucket whaleship by an 80-ton sperm whale. A maritime historian, Philbrick recounts the hellish wreck of the Essex (which inspired Melville's Moby-Dick) and its sailors' struggle to make their way to South America, 2,000 miles away. Of the 20 men aboard the two boats, only eight would remain alive through the ravages of thirst, hunger and desperation that beset the voyage. With a gracefulness of language that rarely falters, Philbrick spins a ghastly, irresistible tale that draws upon archival material (including a cabin boy's journal discovered in 1960). Philbrick shows how the Quaker establishment of Nantucket ran a hugely profitable whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries and provides a detailed account of shipboard life. A champion sailboat racer himself, Philbrick has a particular affinity for his subject. His fastidious, extensive notes and bibliography will please historians, but it's his measured prose that superbly re-creates a cornerstone of the early American frontier ethos.