A Sounding Lead on a Distant Reef, Captain Pollard’s Lessons Learned

One of the more ironic and emotionally charged artifacts to be discovered at a shipwreck site is a sounding lead, a navigational tool that is lowered on a line over the side of the ship to establish the depth of the water. Imagine the panic ensuing on a vessel that winds up in the shallow waters of a distant coral reef at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, the shipwreck site of the Nantucket whaleship Two Brothers. The site is a scrambled mess of tools of the whaling trade scattered among standard shipboard features like anchors and rigging. Long gone are the wooden hull, the sails, and fathoms of line that took the ship to such a faraway shoal. Resting near harpoon tips, ceramic sherds, and an intact ginger jar is a sounding lead, sturdily concreted into the reef.

Thomas Nickerson’s sketch of the Essex
MS106K4.

The master of the Two Brothers, George Pollard Jr., in his first trial as a whaling captain, had survived the wreck of the Essex, stove by a whale in the South Pacific. Five survivors were rescued off the coast of South America after a harrowing open-boat voyage of three thousand miles in ninety-four days. It was the Two Brothers that brought the men back to Nantucket, and it was only shortly after returning to Nantucket that Pollard was given command of it. Imagine the horror he must have felt upon realizing that a second voyage was going to end in disaster.

He had possessed the necessary skills to sail the route from New England to whaling grounds in the Pacific. Had he been more aware of the challenges that lay ahead, he may have attempted to acquire more diverse navigational skills. When the Essex was stove by a whale in 1820, she was by all accounts being navigated by observations with sextants and quadrants. According to Captain Pollard, once stove, the crew was able to escape with meager rations, two sextants, a quadrant, and three compasses, which were divided among the three small boats. However, toward the end of the small-boat voyage, the men were virtually sailing blind, without glass or log-line; there was no way for them to estimate longitude. Pollard was unable to take a lunar observation (reading the angle between the moon and another celestial body), and with nothing to sight from, dead reckoning did little to aid their attempts at navigation. It was not necessarily unusual for a captain to be unable to take a lunar, but under the circumstances, Pollard must have wished he possessed that challenging navigational skill.

Pollard and five others made it back to Nantucket alive, and the Essex episode remains as perhaps the most dramatic tale of a disaster the island has ever known. How any man could survive such a tragedy at sea and wish to ever sail again is a mystery, but Pollard waited barely a month before taking command of the Two Brothers, the same vessel that had given him safe passage back to Nantucket. One of the more fascinating details of Pollard’s next attempt at sailing to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean is that along with him were two men who had survived the Essex tragedy as well: Thomas Nickerson and Charles Ramsdell. Their optimism and resilience cannot be overlooked either. It seems that Pollard’s reputation as a fine seaman was not tarnished by his first epic disaster. The stove ship reflected tragic misfortune, rather than any fault of Pollard’s or his lack of skill as a mariner.

Having made his way back to Nantucket on the whaleship Two Brothers, it seems that Pollard may have gained more than just renewed optimism on his journey home. The captain of the Two Brothers, George Worth, entrusted the ship to Pollard’s command, and he learned new skills as a navigator during the two-and-half-month voyage from Valparaiso to Nantucket, including the ability to take a lunar reading, a skill he tragically lacked on his previous voyage in the Pacific.

Pollard set off in command of the whaleship Two Brothers on November 12, 1821, and met up with another Nantucket whaleship, the Martha, off the coast of Peru. They sailed together for the Japan Whaling Grounds, just beyond the farthest reaches of the Hawaiian Island Archipelago. In February of 1823, the ship under Captain Pollard’s command would become a total loss. Once again, Captain Pollard faced the ordeal of an open-boat voyage, but this time he and his men were rescued by the companion Nantucket whaler Martha. Though his career as a whaling captain was over, all lives on board were saved and Pollard himself was fortunate enough to make a new life for himself on the island of Nantucket as the town’s night watchman.

Few firsthand accounts of the Two Brothers shipwreck exist, but Eben Gardner’s and Thomas Nickerson’s accounts provide perhaps the most colorful descriptions of the wreck, as do the secondhand accounts of Pollard’s personal reflections during his voyage home on the American brig Pearl, where he spoke to the missionaries Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet. At the time of the wreck, no one on the Two Brothers was certain of their location when they went aground, and their accounts of the wreck reflect their confusion. Their navigation was faulty, and once again we wonder whether Pollard was simply terribly unlucky, or not a very good mariner.

In his account, Eben Gardner describes wrecking in squally weather at latitude 24° 4 N by longitude 168º W. His calculation of where the wreck occurred is slightly off. There is no shallow reef or remains of a shipwreck at the point he identifies. French Frigate Shoals lies directly to the east at 23º 45 N/166º 15 W, which is the only spot in that part of the Pacific fitting his description. The survivors describe a “50 foot rock,” which they took to be a ship in the middle of the night. This is an important clue; the only “50 foot rock” in that area is La Perouse Pinnacle at French Frigate Shoals. Several decades after the Two Brothers wreck, in a letter to Leon Lewis, Thomas Nickerson reflected on where the disaster took place: “As Regards Pollards Reef, or Shoal, I have just been talking with Captain Thomas Derrick, who was Chief Mate of the Ship Martha, which was in Trouble with us at the time, and which ship saved us and took us to the Sandwich Islands. He agrees with my Opinion as regards to the Reef. He as well as myself, believes that this was French Frigate Shoal, notwithstanding our two Captains believed and Reported that this was a new discovery. The Lattitudes were very much the same and owing to thick weather we had had no Lunar Observation for ten or twelve days, hence the Mistake. . . .” [Thomas Nickerson in a letter to Leon Lewis, 1876]. Despite Pollard’s ability to take a lunar observation on this voyage, it did him little good in the rough, stormy weather. Regardless of all he’d learned and prepared for, Mother Nature had other plans.

The debate lingered as to whether or not the shipwreck resulted in the discovery of a new reef. Nickerson reflects: “We have not seen a vestige of our ill-fated ship nor haven’t heard what a vestige of her has ever been seen since. I believe this reef has been claimed as a new discovery, but although our reckoning places its position one degree of Latitude to the northward and three degrees to the westward, still I believe with Captain Derrick that it is no other than the French Frigate Shoals and that our navigations were mistaken the more so as I remember that owing to thick weather we had been several days without observation.”

For years “Two Brothers Reef” was marked on charts in a deep part of the Hawaiian Island Archipelago, which reflected the coordinates Eben Gardner reported. Pollard himself thought that, despite his misfortune, he had made a new discovery. For many years, maps reflected this but the location was off. “Two Brothers Reef” appears on nautical charts beginning in 1867 but was taken off after the Robert King report of 1931, which determined the location to be a mistake, since the water was too deep.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG MCFALL/NOAA, 2011.

When the Two Brothers wreck was discovered by NOAA maritime archaeologists in 2008, the ship’s final resting place was finally confirmed. Scattered on the seafloor among the tools of the whaling trade and the rigging of an early-nineteenth-century sailing ship are artifacts that remind us of what an immense challenge navigation was for the brave sailors who ventured into the Pacific. Lured by the wealth promised by the pursuit of whales, they ventured into poorly charted waters, often playing the role of explorers as well as hunters. Pollard’s legacy will never be his luck or skill as a navigator; however, he serves as a poignant reminder of how dangerous his trade was, and how even competent navigators needed luck and fortune on their side. Despite all of his efforts, Mother Nature proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for Pollard’s attempt to safely navigate the Pacific. An artifact as simple as a sounding lead resting on the seafloor brings to the surface this story, and Pollard’s attempts to navigate these waters.

From the Fall 2014 issue of Historic Nantucket


Kelly Gleason, PhD, is the Maritime Heritage Coordinator of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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