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Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea
     

Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea

3.8 34
by Richard Henry Dana
 

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Two Years Before the Mast is a remarkable book, part travelogue and part seafaring adventure. A great look at what life was really like on the merchant sailing ships of the first half of the 19th century, Two Years Before the Mast is also part suspense yarn, with the hero's return to his native land in serious doubt due to events beyond his control. Seen through the

Overview

Two Years Before the Mast is a remarkable book, part travelogue and part seafaring adventure. A great look at what life was really like on the merchant sailing ships of the first half of the 19th century, Two Years Before the Mast is also part suspense yarn, with the hero's return to his native land in serious doubt due to events beyond his control. Seen through the eyes of young man in his late teens who looks for both a cure for his measles and some real thrills, Richard Henry Dana treats us to his view of the west coast and the Californians as compared to his native, very urban and developed Yankee city of Boston. He finds them very different - but when he first visits San Francisco, the city is a single shack! This book was the guide for the many Americans who headed west for gold 15 years after its publication, too. As such it helped shape their settlement and exploration of the land. Dana's time aboard ship differs hugely from his comfortable home life in Boston. That he was willing to accept this, even embrace it, moves the book from a dry history to a real-life human interest story. His description of the sailing ships of the day involves many terms which few now will understand. Beyond that, the excitement of Two Years Before the Mast makes it a must-read for anyone in search of a young man's quest for real-life thrills at sea and in a new country.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Possesses...the romantic charm of Robinson Crusoe." ---Ralph Waldo Emerson

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781492224297
Publisher:
CreateSpace Publishing
Publication date:
08/22/2013
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

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!

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Possesses...the romantic charm of Robinson Crusoe." —-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Meet the Author

Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882) was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, a descendant of an eminent colonial family who gained renown as the author of the American classic, the memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Both as a writer and as a lawyer, he was a champion of the downtrodden, from seamen to fugitive slaves. Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815 into a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne Bradstreet among its ancestors. In July 1831, Dana enrolled at Harvard College, where in his freshman year his support of a student protest cost him a six month suspension. In his junior year, he contracted measles, which in his case led to ophthalmia. Fatefully, the worsening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage. But rather than going on a fashionable Grand Tour of Europe, he decided to enlist as a merchant seaman, despite his high-class birth. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for Alta California, at that time still a part of Mexico. This voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed that he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman. After graduating from law school, he went on to specialize in maritime law, writing The Seaman's Friend in 1841 - which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors - and defending many common seamen in court. He had kept a diary during his voyages, and in 1840 he published a memoir, Two Years Before the Mast. The term, "before the mast" refers to sailors' quarters, which were located in the forecastle (the ship's bow), officers' quarters being near the stern. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed. With the California Gold Rush later in the decade, Two Years Before the Mast would become highly sought after as one of the few sources of information on California.

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Two Years Before the Mast 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldnt put it down. The writing is descriptive and colorful. I thought I'd just skim through this book but in the end I didn't want to miss a word . Written in layman's terms for the most part you do not have to understand nautical terms to read this book. I had no trouble reading this on my Nook as someone earlier stated. They must be doing something wrong! If you enjoy history and want a true acvount of what life was like on a merchant ship or in California in the mid1800's you will love this book!
andrew98 More than 1 year ago
This copy only fills top third to top half of the screen. This makes it annoying to read given that you have to turn the page so much more often.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A revealing tale of the life of a sailor and the California coast in the 1800's.
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psychmd More than 1 year ago
Appearing on many top 100 must read lists, this book deserves the acclaim. You smell the salt air and feel the cramped quarters of the narrator, a Harvard educated young man who takes on the adventure of a lifetime as a common sailor in the 1830's. A poignant portrayal of nautical life and California's early days as a part of Mexico. A unique personal history that stands the test of time.
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I went on the pilgrim for the book
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