Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Seaby Richard Henry Dana
Two Years Before The Mast is a wonderful, elegantly written adventure classic that is still enjoyable more than one hundred years after its original publication. This 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/i>… See more details below
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Two Years Before The Mast is a wonderful, elegantly written adventure classic that is still enjoyable more than one hundred years after its original publication. This 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 an engrossing, 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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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!
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