Monday, December 07, 2015

Two Years Before the Mast

I love books about sailing and finally got around to reading Richard Henry Dana Jr's Two Years Before the Mast.  It has been rumbling around in my subconscious for ages and it did not disappoint. Richard Henry Dana Jr was born in 1815.  (He makes a brief appearance in The Education of Henry Adams, as a friend of Henry Adams' father.)  As a student at Harvard in the 1830's, he contracted the measles, and with it, an inflammation of the eyes.  As an attempt to restore his health, he signed on to serve as a common sailor on the merchant ship Pilgrim, bound for California by way of Cape Horn.

Hello there, sailor


The ship departed in August, 1834, and Dana's memoir of the voyage is a fascinating account of life aboard ship.  This was no soft version of sailing for a privileged boy.  Dana was truly a member of the crew and shared in all their hardships, which were considerable.  The mind boggles at how any human could survive the life he describes. No sailer ever got more than four hours of sleep at a time and was frequently roused from sleep when an "all hands on deck" situation arose, which was frequent.  The food was monotonous and unwholesome.  If a sudden movement of the ship caused you to drop your entire dinner, you just had to wait until the next meal was served.  The work was exceedingly dangerous and disagreeable, particularly in the region of Cape Horn when the sails and rigging were coated with ice and yet still needed to be manned with bare hands.  Worst of all, the captain of the Pilgrim was a monster.  There's a terrible chapter in which two sailors are mercilessly flogged for no particular reason other than the captain's pleasure.  (According to the Wikipedia article about Dana, he devoted his later law career to standing up for the working man, particularly sailors.)

At length, the Pilgrim arrives at Santa Barbara.  Dana and the crew spent many months sailing up and down the coast of California (to San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco) collecting an enormous cargo of animals hides. Dana and the rest of the crew were responsible for curing the hides before loading, which is described as a tedious and difficult process.  It was interesting to see this glimpse of early California.  I had no idea that San Diego existed as a destination as long ago as 1834.

After what seems an endless time curing and loading the hides, Dana is finally bound for home.  The passage around the horn, in winter, was particularly bad.  The heavily-loaded ship lacked buoyancy, and they were under constant threat of tearing up the hull on icebergs.   Back home in Boston, Dana, his health restored, returned to Harvard and later became a lawyer and US senator.  His simple writing style and superior descriptive skills make Two Years Before the Mast an engaging book.  Recommended for anyone who is interested in American history or sailing or memoirs.

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