Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana


"Two Years Before The Mast" is only partly a sailing book. It's also a history of California before the Gold Rush.
When it came out in the 1840s, there were -- I assume -- plenty of sailing books. But there were no books about California. (Or at least not many in English.) Because almost no one had been there.
So when college boy Richard Dana signed up for a sailing voyage and ends up stuck in California, it was the perfect opportunity for him to look around and write down his impressions of the place.
When he penned his book he couldn't have known how interested people would eventually be in California.
Because when he was there it was mostly empty, with just a few Mexican missions and towns. These places weren't much but they have familiar names: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco. Dana was there when cow hides were about the only thing they had to offer.

A dozen or so years later, when gold was discovered in California, the cow hides were almost forgotten, the villages became major cities and Dana's book was a must-read.

I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles,-- the largest town in California,-- and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.


Dana is relentlessly curious so whenever he manages to get off the boat and off cowhide duty, he heads to the villages -- not to get drunk like many of his shipmates -- but to meet people and soak up everything he can.


The Indians, who always have a holiday on Sunday, were engaged at playing a kind of running game of ball, on a level piece of ground, near the houses. The old ones sat down in a ring, looking on, while the young ones-- men, boys, and girls-- were chasing the ball, and throwing it with all their might. Some of the girls ran like greyhounds. At every accident, or remarkable feat, the old people set up a deafening screaming and clapping of hands.

Unfortunately for him -- and sometimes for the reader -- he does get stuck on the boat quite a bit. And he recounts in detail seemingly every single time he furled the mizzensail or set the jib boom or whatever.
There are times when the shipboard drama is pretty exciting, though, when he's way up in the masts during storms or fuming about the captain's inhumanity to the crew. There are lots of near death experiences and, as Dana says, a real sailor must laugh them off or lose face with the rest of the crew.
He starts the book as a seasick scholar and turns into a real honest to goodness tough-as-a-marlin-spike sailor.

"Two Years Before the Mast" can seem almost as much of a slog as hauling cowhides around, but it is a rewarding experience -- especially at the end when Dana returns to California after the gold rush and marvels at how emptiness has turned into, well, the California we know and love.


back to main page

1 comment:

Capt. Dan said...

I'm still slogging through "Two Years ..." but finding the sailing parts quite interesting if sometimes indecipherable. Understand, I'm a sailor and the gear and the vocabulary he uses have mostly gone out of use. Yet the life a 19th Century seaman - the danger, the lack of status, the unbelievably hard, unending work, the miserable living conditions makes the modern navy - or any sort of sailing in the 21st Century seem like a walk in the park.

Once you get his rhythm, it's easy to skim the numerous sections of reefing, furling, swabbing and holystoning without missing his central points.