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Two Years Before the Mast



“A Clipper at Sunset,” Edward Moran, 1829-1901.

Whenever I have one of my fits of despair that writers can’t write anymore, I look for a classic to read. This led me to Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

My main interest in this book was Dana’s account of sailing around the Horn from Boston to California and back. I had been looking at my globe and marveling at what a long and treacherous trip that had to be. That made me think of Dana’s book, so I got a copy for my Kindle. I confess that I skipped most of the parts about coastal California, having been there and done that. But Dana’s time at sea is thrilling. I’d suggest keeping a schematic of a sailing ship handy when reading this book, because Dana uses a sailor’s language in discussing the parts of the ship and how it was sailed.

Many have noted that Dana was, at heart, a poet. His California travelogues are descriptive and more journalistic. But sometimes he sings:

Every rope-yarn seemed stretched to the utmost, and every thread of canvas; and with this sail added to her, the ship sprang through the water like a thing possessed. The sail being nearly all forward, it lifted her out of the water, and she seemed actually to jump from sea to sea. From the time her keel was laid, she had never been so driven; and had it been life or death with every one of us, she could not have borne another stitch of canvas.

Finding that she would bear the sail, the hands were sent below, and our watch remained on deck. Two men at the wheel had as much as they could do to keep her within three points of her course, for she steered as wild as a young colt. The mate walked the deck, looking at the sails, and then over the side to see the foam fly by her,— slapping his hands upon his thighs and talking to the ship,— “Hurrah, you jade, you’ve got the scent!— you know where you’re going!” And when she leaped over the seas, and almost out of the water, and trembled to her very keel, the spars and masts snapping and creaking,— “There she goes!— There she goes,— handsomely?— As long as she cracks she holds!”— while we stood with the rigging laid down fair for letting go, and ready to take in sail and clear away, if anything went. At four bells we hove the log, and she was going eleven knots fairly; and had it not been for the sea from aft which sent the chip home, and threw her continually off her course, the log would have shown her to have been going somewhat faster. I went to the wheel with a young fellow from the Kennebec, Jack Stewart, who was a good helmsman, and for two hours we had our hands full. A few minutes showed us that our monkey-jackets must come off; and, cold as it was, we stood in our shirt-sleeves in a perspiration, and were glad enough to have it eight bells, and the wheel relieved. We turned-in and slept as well as we could, though the sea made a constant roar under her bows, and washed over the forecastle like a small cataract.

Dana’s ship, the Pilgrim, sank off the North Carolina coast after a fire at sea in 1856. A replica of the Pilgrim, built in 1925, was berthed in California for many years and was maintained by the Ocean Institute. I was saddened to learn that this replica of the Pilgrim keeled over and sank in its berth just a few months ago — March 2020. The ship could not be salvaged.

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