Mike's Book Reviews

Two Years Before the Mast:
And Twenty-Four Years After


Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Subtitle:   A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea

Click here. Classification: Nonfiction, autobiography.

Summary of what it's about:   Two Years Before the Mast  is the true autobiography of a 19-year-old Harvard student who contracted measles, leaving his eyesight too poor to continue his studies. He decided that travel might speed his improvement and signed on a ship as a common sailor in 1834. He maintained a daily log of events, and upon his eventual return wrote the story of all that happened to him during that trip. It became a best-seller then, and is still widely read today. 24 years later he retraces much of his path, as an older and successful man, and reflects on the changes he sees in himself and in the world.

Explanatory note:"Before the mast" refers to the portion of a sailing ship where the low-level crewmembers lived. They lived in the "forecastle," which is the part underneath the deck at the bow (very front) of the ship. The mid-level officers lived on the mid-deck area, and the captain (and paying passengers, if any) lived in the aft section of the ship. The officers were "gentlemen," and normally did not speak to the crewmembers directly. The ship's mate commanded the crew, and saw to the execution of the captain's orders.

My reaction to the book:   Totally believable, very gripping! I'm interested in sailing. His story pulls no punches in making the day-to-day life of a common sailor on a merchant sailing ship very real. The times were very different then, from acceptable living accommodations to safety gear (mainly the nearly complete lack of it), and so on.

To read his description of working aloft, in driving sleet, with the sails frozen solid, and only your numb grip on the lines keeping you from falling to a certain death took my breath away. The two years of his trip became completely "real" to the reader. Man, I was THERE!

I found the small details of shipboard life to be fascinating reading. How the men ate, and what (hardtack, tea).

For me, though, the most moving part of the book--and there are MANY moving parts--involved his revisiting the California coast 24 years later. When he was first there as a poor young sailor, the entire coast was desolate and sailing vessels were the only means of transport. On his return visit the empty brushy hills were replaced with bustling cities, San Francisco not only existed but was up to 100,000 in population, and steamships made moving upwind a trivial affair. Yes, technology moves fast now. It moved fast then, too.

The change was driven, then, by the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Suddenly California was a backwater no longer.

Dana is so struck by the changes that he begins wondering which of his two "lives" was the REAL "him"--the common sailor along the desolate coast, or the comfortably-retired, experienced adult who now viewed the bustling cities from a gleaming white steamship, at his ease. "Who am I?" he asks. And has no answer, but to note that his earlier "life" seemed more real to him than did his present existence.

The author does something at the end that I found VERY satisfying: He tidies up what "loose ends" he can. How his shipmates spent the rest of their lives, the fates of the ships he sailed on, and how other of the people he met fared as they grew old. Thank you, Mr. Dana, for sharing your life with us!

My overall evaluation of Two Years Before the Mast:   It was almost exhausting to read, so it took me a long time. I kept having to stop and go "recover" for a day or so before continuing. I was THERE as they sailed around Cape Horn, men were lost, and difficulties threatened to destroy the ship and crew. I learned a lot about sailing, and about early California. For either reason, I highly recommend reading this book.

To give you a better feel for its contents, here are the book's chapter titles:
If you're interested in what a sailor's life was REALLY like in "the days of sail,"
or if you want to see what life in early California was like,
or you just want an engrossing adventure to read, knowing it's all true,
I recommend that you read Two Years Before the Mast.

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Even Richard Dana was seasick when he first sailed. If seasickness afflicts you (it REALLY does me), you might be interested in my personal experiments with seasickness remedies. I believe I've tried them ALL. To learn what did and didn't work for me, click here.

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