Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana

The year is 1834. Harvard College student, Richard Henry Dana, is recovering from a debilitating bout of measles which leaves his eyesight too poor for books and study. His decision to seek a cure on the high seas as a common sailor — before the mast — has given the world a vivid and detailed masterpiece of life on board the old sailing ships of that era.

He stepped aboard the brig “Pilgrim” on August 14, 1834, under the distinct impression that he looked the part of a “jack tar” and a “regular salt.” But clothes don’t make the man, as he was to shortly discover at the first cry of “All hands! Up anchor, ahoy!”

“In a short time,” writes Dana, ” everyone was in motion, the sails loosed, the yards braced, and we began to heave up the anchor. Unintelligible orders were so rapidly given and so immediately executed; there was such a hurrying about, and such an intermingling of strange cries and stranger actions, that I was completely bewildered.”

Bewildered, “helpless and pitiable”, Dana’s life on the sea begins with the “long-drawn sounds of the crew heaving at the windlass” and the “noise of water thrown from the bows,” as the vessel “leaned over from the damp night breeze, and rolled with the heavy ground swell”. Thus began a two-year voyage from Boston to the “remote and unknown” coast of old California.

Dana’s narrative, based upon his journal and notes, is a view from the bottom as opposed to the usual view from the top.“It must be plain to everyone,” writes Dana in his preface, ” that a naval officer, who goes to sea as a gentleman . . . and who associates only with his fellow officers, and hardly speaks to a sailor except through a boatswain’s mate, must take a very different view of the whole matter from that which would be taken by a common sailor.”

Yet, though he shared their berths, their watches, their hardships, and the frequent dangers without complaint, Dana was, in reality, no common sailor. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815, his father was a distinguished man of letters, and his grandfather was the first American minister to Russia, and Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Well on his way to a brilliant education himself, Dana would have been several notches above the “regular salt” on the social scale of the ship. In fact, his social and family connections alone saved him from some of the worst of the cruelties and injustices on the high seas.

Beginning with day one, Dana chronicles not only the happenings aboard the brig, but the sound and the feel of a full-rigged sailing ship in motion; and he also chronicles the daily life of the ordinary seaman, whom he is to champion before the bar in later years.

Left to himself as he keeps the first watch at sea, Dana pauses for reflection. “I felt for the first time the perfect silence of the sea. The officer was walking the quarter deck, where I had no right to go, one or two men were talking on the forecastle, whom I had little inclination to join, so that I was left open to the full impression of everything about me.”

His impressions were soon to hit full force as dark clouds rolled in and the ship prepared for bad weather. “In a few minutes” wrote Dana, “eight bells were struck, the watch called, and we went below. I now began to feel the first discomforts of a sailor’s life. The steerage in which I lived was filled with coils of rigging, spare sails, old junk and ship stores which had not been stowed away. Moreover, there were no berths built for us to sleep in, and we were not allowed to drive nails to hang our clothes upon. The sea, too, had risen, the vessel was rolling heavily, and everything was pitched about in grand confusion.”

Dana’s description of the sea in its fury fills the book and the senses of his readers, and he captures to full effect the battle of sailors against the elements, through tropic heat and slashing rain, to arctic storms and icy rigging.

Of his first stormy encounter, Dana writes: ” The little brig was close hauled upon the wind, and lying over . . . nearly upon her beam ends. The heavy head sea was beating against her bows with the noise and force of a sledge hammer . . . The great sails were filling out and backing against the masts with a noise like thunder . . . and . . . The wind was whistling through the rigging.  In addition to all this, I had not got my ‘sea legs on’, was dreadfully sick, with hardly any strength to hold onto anything, and it was pitch dark. This was my state when I was ordered aloft, for the first time, to reef topsails.”

But, eventually, Dana does get his ‘sea legs on’ and crawls the rigging with the best of his mates in the foulest of weather. They round the Horn and make the coast of California where, Dana writes, they begin to “heave-to after dark for fear of making the land at night on a coast where there are no lighthouses and but indifferent charts . . . after a voyage of one hundred and fifty days from Boston.”

Dana’s eye for detail paints a vivid picture of a primitive California that would not exist when he returned twenty-four years later. Peopled by colorful Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians), proud Spaniards, retired British ship’s captains, and even sailors who had jumped ship, the California coast opens up a whole new world to the young Harvard man.

Dana is struck by the hauteur and grandeur of even the poorest and most common of the Spanish people. Simply the sound of their language made it appear as though “every common ruffian-looking fellow” was “speaking elegant Spanish . . . A common bullock-driver . . . delivering a message, seemed to speak like an ambassador,” and it was as if the people themselves were “stripped of everything but their pride, their manners, and their voices.”

Richard Henry Dana experiences more in two years than most people do in a lifetime. The youth who traded his “dress coat, silk cap, and kid gloves,” for “duck trowsers, checked shirt, and tarpaulin hat,” sees both the beauty and the degradations of life at sea and upon a primitive coast, and writes equally of it all. It not only colors the weave of his personal life, but also his long and distinguished law career.

I can’t pack enough words in one review, or select enough incidents, to fully help someone envision the scope of Two Years Before the Mast. It is truly a masterpiece of detail and observation. You can feel the spray, and the roll of the sea, and hear the odd singing of the sailors as they heave and grapple among the rigging. It’s as good as being a stowaway.

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