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“First they saw bones—human bones—littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.” These sun-scorched, lost-at-sea cannibals, Massachusetts author and historian Nathaniel Philbrick tells us in his new true-story adventure yarn, In the Heart of the Sea, were, just a few weeks prior, fearless sailors on the mighty 240-ton whale ship Essex, which set sail from Nantucket in 1820. Their story is the stuff of nautical nightmares: Fifteen months after leaving port, the Essex was all but devoured by an 80-ton bull sperm whale. And while this freak occurrence—sharks, maybe; whales, never—would prove ample inspiration for Moby Dick, seafaring novelist Herman Melville never had the stomach to fictionalize the grisly aftermath. The Essex’s 20-man crew, forced to flee the wreckage in three cramped boats (and refusing to row toward a nearby island for fear of—irony alert—cannibals), headed for the coast of South America, a mere 3,000 miles away. Needless to say, not all of the sailors made it home. Ask Philbrick what makes one man eat another when he discusses and signs copies of his book at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 11, at the Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW. $13. For reservations call (202) 357-3030. (Sean Daly)