Nautical Book Review: Two Years Before the Mast

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.


(Review by CB commenter Gary Snodgrass, whose blog is here)

In 1834 a young Harvard undergrad from the upper class of Boston left school to become a common merchant sailor. Sailing around Cape Horn to California aboard a Yankee Clipper, “Two Years before the Mast” is the memoir of that trip.

While a student at Harvard, Richard Dana contracted measles and was in danger of losing his sight. Hoping to improve his condition he signed on to the Merchant Vessel “Pilgrim” for a two year trip. I think it was more for the adventure, and chance to prove himself than for the stated “Health” reasons.

Dana describes in detail the day to day duties of the common sailor and what they went through. In the opening pages he captures the fact that he is an outsider hoping to measure up.

“… and while I supposed myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt known for a landsman by everyone on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. … doubtless my complexion and hands were enough to distinguished me from the regular salt, who, with a sunburnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwart-ships, half open, as though just ready to grasp a rope.”

His adventure quickly becomes a hard life as he loses a shipmate and friend overboard and two other sailors are viciously flogged for minor offenses. Yet still, he is able to take pride in his new life.

“… But if you live in the forecastle, you are “As independent as a wood-sawyers clerk, and are a sailor. You hear sailors’ talk, learn their ways, their peculiarities of feeling as well as speaking and acting. … No man can be a sailor, or know what sailors are, unless he has lived in the forecastle with them – turned in and out with them, eaten of their dish and drank of their cup. After I had been a week there, nothing would tempt me to go back to my old berth”

It was the comradeship he felt and the atrocities he had witnessed that later led the attorney Richard Dana to become a champion of the Common Sailor and a leading abolitionist later in life.


His descriptions of Spanish California, the geography, business, social aspects, all became required reading and would be devoured by the miners and traders that descend upon California after the discovery of gold. Dana Point in Southern California is named for the beach where he carried hides  down to the ship’s boat for transfer.

While Dana easily captures the romance, and majestic power of the sea and enough nautical details to make the reader feel the pitch and roll of each wave. It is the flogging scene that truly stands out. A splash of reality that grabs the reader and reminds them that this is the truth, what it is really like.

“… Swinging the rope over his head and bending his body so as to give it full force, the captain brought it down upon the poor fellow’s back. Once, Twice, — Six times. “Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?”  ….

The man writhed under the pain, until he could endure it no longer, when he called out with an exclamation more common among foreigners than us. ___”Oh Jesus Christ? Oh Jesus Christ!’

Don’t call on Jesus Christ,” shouted the captain: “He can’t help you. Call on Captain T____________ He’s the man! He can help you! Jesus Christ can’t help you now!”

At these words which I never shall forget my blood ran cold. I could look on no longer. Disgusted, sick, and horror-struck, I turned away and leaned over the rail….”

It is not long after this that Dana is discharged from the vessel and put ashore in San Diego to help gather hides. It is here that he learns Spanish, becomes a part of the community and describes in detail the population, harbor, and economy of this little back water village.

When an opportunity arises he signs onto another Merchant vessel destined for home and joins the crew of the Alert bound for Boston. It is on this return trip where he captures the full fury of an Antarctic winter off Cape Horn and the truly herculean task of beating against constant raging storms. Herman Melville wrote – “But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast”

Richard Dana wrote a book for the ages, a classic that should be read by every Annapolis mishipman and anyone interested in knowing what it was like to be a sailor sailing before the mast.

It was a small comment in an otherwise unremarkable paragraph about arriving off California that caught my attention the most. “… At length we began to heave-to after dark, for fear of making the land at night on a coast where there are no light-houses and but indifferent charts.”

As a man who has sailed those waters, I can promise you it is not that way today. You can see Los Angeles fifty miles out at sea by the glow of its lights. There is almost no point on the coast from San Diego to San Francisco that is dark.

The book is full of such moments. Points that make you step back and realize how much has truly changed. Yet it is Dana’s keen observations about the pride, hard work, and comradeship of the men around him that shows how much some things haven’t.

9 thoughts on “Nautical Book Review: <em>Two Years Before the Mast</em>”

  1. Grew up in So Cal. Swam nearly every beach from Santa Monica to San Diego. Walked on breakwater protecting Port of Los Angeles Long Beach. While in college swam out to all those “oil islands” inside breakwater. Heard stories from my dad about surf before breakwater. Guys would catch waves half mile to mile off shore and ride in. Would not even get up from laying on beach if waves not taller than life guard shack. Rather stay and talk to the gals. Guys body surfed without big wooden boards which the surf simply broke into splinters. Often wondered about how people made shore before breakwater. Dana’s book answered that.

    Also supplied many word pictures that allows one to visualize the changes along that coast. Piloting a private plane from LA to San Diego enabled me to see the changes brought in a three decades, as houses crept out from roads at the bottom of valleys, the roads became four or 10 lane freeways, the houses growing up and over the hills. Dana’s book lets one visualize the same changes along the ocean edge since the 1830’s.

    Reading Dana’s astonishment in the “Twenty Years After” appendix Mike mentioned, I wondered what Dana would have thought if he had stood with me atop Mt Tam N of San Fran, or if he had been with me flying into San Jose and then south over silicon valley.

    Dana’s ship sailed Calif coast, collecting cow hides from San Fran south, packing the ship tight, and taking the hides to San Diego for tanning. Eventually there would be enough gathered hides to completely stuff a ship returning to Boston. His book captured aspects of Calif history I had never heard in school.

    And it is salty. The reader learns the repetitious life of a sailor on a wind-powered wooden ship, where every awake moment gets spent in keeping the vessel from destruction which can come as readily from neglect of small details as by big waves. Kon Tiki might have the ocean as a closer, personal acquaintance than does Mast. But Mast better shows how that same acquaintance will patiently destroy those not constantly industrious in their resistance.

  2. Another one of the books on my shelves I need to read, purchased hardbound for $1 at a used book store.

  3. This is one of my all-time favorite books.

    I especially enjoyed his cultural and economic observations of the Californios. He enjoyed their company, cooking, and fandangos but was critical of their work ethic and their industry. His business was gathering sun-dried cow hides (“California Dollars”) to take back to New England to be made into shoes that the Yankees sold to the Californios. Were they too lazy to learn to make their own shoes?

    He also visited his cousin at the Dana Adobe in Nipomo which is still standing. The Dana descendents still live on the land grant there.

    It’s also the story of a little rich kid of the New England aristocracy having to make it on his own in the rough man’s world of a sailing ship.

  4. A scene that sticks in my mind from the book is the sailors eating raw onions, obtained, IIRC, from another ship, in order to avoid scurvy.

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