Two Years before the Mast


Two Years Before The Mast is Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s account of his life as a common seaman aboard the brig the Pilgrim which set out from Boston on August 14, 1835 destined for California by way of the treacherous Cape Horn.

Dana gives a detailed account of the workings of the ship, the day-to-day routines of the deck hands, and the brutal shortcomings of inept, tyrannical officers. This "author's edition" includes a chapter written by Dana twenty-four years after his initial...

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Two Years Before the Mast

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Two Years Before The Mast is Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s account of his life as a common seaman aboard the brig the Pilgrim which set out from Boston on August 14, 1835 destined for California by way of the treacherous Cape Horn.

Dana gives a detailed account of the workings of the ship, the day-to-day routines of the deck hands, and the brutal shortcomings of inept, tyrannical officers. This "author's edition" includes a chapter written by Dana twenty-four years after his initial voyage where he revisits some of the people, places and vessels that he had encountered on his original journey.

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The lure of the sea is reflected in our never-ending fascination with the lives of sailors, and there is no more authentic "voice from the forecastle" than Richard H. Dana's in Two Years Before the Mast. While attending Harvard in the early 1800's, he became ill, and upon recuperating he decided to sail a bit before continuing his education. He joined the Pilgrim as a common sailor and his book provides a detailed description of the Pilgrim's 1834 journey from Boston around Cape Horn and along the western coast of North America. Dana brings alive for us the daily existence of life at sea in the golden age of sail:

"For a few minutes, all was uproar and apparent confusion: men flying about like monkeys in the rigging; ropes and blocks flying; orders given and answered, and the confused noises of men singing out at the ropes. The top-sails came to the mast-heads with 'Cheerily, men!' and, in a few minutes, every sail was set; for the wind was light. The head sails were backed, the windlass came round 'slip - slap' to the cry of the sailors; - 'Hove short, sir,' said the mate; - 'Up with him!' - 'Aye, aye, sir.' - A few hearty and long heaves, and the anchor showed its head. 'Hook cat!' - The fall was stretched along the decks; all hands laid hold; - 'Hurrah, for the last time,' said the mate; and the anchor came to the cat-head to the tune of 'Time for us to go,' with a loud chorus. Everything was done quick, as though it were for the last time. The head yards were filled away, and our ship began to move through the water..."

And what do sailors do for fun? Here is Dana's account of shore leave outside San Francisco:

"After this repast, we had a fine run, scouring the whole country on our fleet horses, and came into town soon after sundown. Here we found our companions who had refused to go to ride with us, thinking that a sailor has no more business with a horse than a fish has with a balloon. They were moored, stem and stern, in a grog-shop, making a great noise, with a crowd of Indians and hungry half-breeds about them, and with a fair prospect of being stripped and dirked, or left to pass the night in the calabozo. With a great deal of trouble, we managed to get them down to the boats, though not without many angry looks and interferences from the Spaniards, who had marked them out for their prey...Our forecastle, as usual after a liberty-day, was a scene of tumult all night long from the drunken ones. They had just got to sleep toward morning, when they were turned up with the rest, and kept at work all day in the water, carrying hides, their heads aching so that they could hardly stand. This is sailor's pleasure."

And here is a playful race between two ships:

"The [ship] California was to windward of us, and had every advantage; yet, while the breeze was stiff, we held our own. As soon as it began to slacken, she ranged a little ahead, and the order was given to loose the royals. In an instant the gaskets were off and the bunt dropped. 'Sheet home the fore royal! - Weather sheet's home!' - 'Hoist away, sir!' is bawled from aloft. 'Overhaul your clew-lines!' shouts the mate. 'Aye, aye, sir, all clear!' - 'Taught leech! belay! Well the lee brace; haul taught to windward' - and the royals are set. These brought us up again; but the wind continuing light, the California set hers, and it was soon evident that she was walking away from us. Our captain then hailed, and said that he should keep off to his course; adding - 'She isn't the Alert now. If I had her in your trim, she would have been out of sight by this time.' This was good-naturedly answered from the California, and she braced sharp up, and stood close upon the wind up the coast; while we squared away our yards, and stood before the wind to the south-south-west. The California's crew manned her weather rigging, waved their hats in the air, and gave up three hearty cheers, which we answered as heartily, and the customary single cheer came back to us from over the water."

This classic is rich with relationships between officers and crew, maintenance of discipline including horrific floggings, types of work, excursions onto land, contact with other ships, sailor's life stories, and encounters with people on shore. And really, we all have a bit of the old salt in us, and reading Dana one can re-live all those childhood shipwreck games. But this book is irresistible for the lingo alone. Haul to!

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Table of Contents

Chapter I.
First Impressions
Ship's Duties
Chapter II.
First Impressions
Ship's Duties
Chapter III.
Ship's Duties
Chapter IV.
Sundays At Sea
Trouble on Board
Land Ho
A Pampero
Cape Horn
Chapter V.
Cape Horn
A Visit
Chapter VI.
Loss Of a Man
Chapter VII.
Juan Fernandez
Putting the Vessel In Order
Chapter VIII.
Daily Life
Point Conception
Chapter IX.
Santa Barbara
A Southeaster
Chapter X.
A Southeaster
Passage Up the Coast
Chapter XI.
Passage Up the Coast
Chapter XII.
Chapter XIII.
A British Sailor
Santa Barbara
Chapter XIV.
Hide Droghing
San Pedro
Chapter XV.
Night On Shore
State of Things On Board
San Diego
Chapter XVI.
Liberty-Day On Shore
Chapter XVII.
San Diego
San Pedro Again
Easter Sunday
Chapter XVIII.
Easter Sunday
Italian Sailors
San Juan
San Diego Again
Life on Shore
Chapter XIX.
Chapter XX.
New Comers
People at the Hide-Houses
Pilgrim News from Home
Pilgrim Occupations on the Beach
California and its Inhabitants
Chapter XXI.
California and its Inhabitants
Chapter XXII.
Life on the Beach
The Alert
Chapter XXIII.
New Ship and Shipmates
A Race
My Watchmate, Tom Harris
San Diego Again
Chapter XXIV.
A Descent
A Hurried Departure
A New Shipmate
Chapter XXV.
Rumors of War
A Spouter
Sudden Slipping for a Southeaster
To Windward
A Dry Gale
Chapter XXVI.
San Francisco
Monterey Revisited
Chapter XVII.
Monterey Revisited
A Set-to
A Decayed Gentleman
A Contrabandista
A Fandango
Chapter XVIII.
A Victim
California Rangers-Beach-Combers
News From Home
Last Looks
Chapter XXIX.
Loading for Home
A Surprise
Last of an Old Friend
The Last Hide
A Hard Case
An Anchor, for Home!
The Alert and California
Homeward Bound
Chapter XXX.
Homeward Bound
Our Passenger, Professor Nuttall
Homeward Bound
Chapter XXXI.
Bad Prospects
First Touch of Cape Horn
Temperance Ships
Difficulty on Board
Change of Course
Straits of Magellan
Chapter XXXII.
Ice Again
Cape Horn
Land Ho!
Chapter XXXIII.
Cracking On
Progress Homeward
A Fine Sight
Fitting Ship
Chapter XXXIV.
An Escape
Tropical Squalls
Tropical Thunder-Storm
Chapter XXXV.
A Reef-Topsail Breeze
A Friend in Need
Preparing for Port
Gulf Stream
Chapter XXXVI.
Sights About Home
Boston Harbo
Leaving the Ship
Twenty Four Years After 432
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Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss Dana's motives for the voyage. What do you feel was the predominating factor in his decision to undertake such a journey? What were the risks involved, and how serious do you feel they were? What is your view of Dana's momentous choice?

2. What do you make of Dana's attitude toward religion, and religious instruction? Do you agree or not? Why? Is his a perspective that is anachronistic, or not?

3. How does social class play a role in the book? Discuss the implications of Dana's background. How did it affect his experience on the ship? Did you find it important, or inconsequential?

4. What is your opinion of the book's stark realism? Does Dana have an agenda in writing the book? If so, what is it? Do you think the experience was a positive one for Dana, or not?

5. What is the role of nature and the outdoors for Dana? How does he view the American West? How does his voyage attest to his view of the outdoors? Does this view change throughout his experience on the ship? If so, how?

6. Discuss the contrasts between Captain Thompson and Captain Faucon. How do their leadership skills differ? Who is more effective, and why? Discuss Dana's book on a political level. What do his portrayals of each captain reveal?

7. Discuss the considerable shift in Dana's perspective as evidenced in 'Twenty-Four Years After.' How do you account for this change? Do you agree or disagree with the author's decision to replace the original final chapter with this later account? Why or why not?

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