Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea
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Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea

3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  6,341 ratings  ·  324 reviews
Tracing an awe-inspiring oceanic route from Boston, around Cape Horn, to the California coast, Two Years Before the Mast is both a riveting story of adventure & the most eloquent, insightful account we have of life at sea in the early 19th century.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. is only nineteen when he abandons the patrician world of Boston & Harvard for an arduous voyage...more
Paperback, 458 pages
Published March 29th 2005 by Adamant Media Corporation (first published 1840)
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May 07, 2008 brendan rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: sailors and wannabe o'brien fans
Recommended to brendan by: sailors
this book is absolutely essential for anyone who has any desire of stepping off the quarterdeck of his historical fiction (O'Brien novels) and heading down to the focs'l to hear about sailing traditional ships from the men who were actually sweating lines, heave-yo-ho-ing, and climbing the rigging to furl the royals before a gale.

dana passes the equator four times over the two years that he is a merchant mariner sailing to, the then mexican owned california, to load his ship with hides bound...more
Rick Skwiot

In a way, the best thing for a writer is misfortune. In that regard, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. got lucky.

A young Harvard man, he signed on as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim, bound for California from Boston, to help improve his health. Had it been smooth sailing over benign seas under a wise and beneficent captain, with good food and a leisurely stay on California beaches, we likely would never have heard of Dana.

But, thanks to the treacherous and icy waters of Cape Horn, a power hungry c...more
Jul 10, 2007 Andrew rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: mates, office types
Shelves: dunredalready
This book made me cry multiple times, but not for the direct subject matter. I think there were just a few too many references to the California coast described in enough detail that the effect was to pry out long-lingering ghosts haunting the coastline of my own isle of denial. his descriptions are never quite up to the par of his literary contemporaries, but the detail leaves any California-lover desperately lamenting the irretrievable passage of those first rough-and-tumble times that "modern...more
Aug 23, 2007 Cat rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Kerouac fans
I read this book after reading about it in Kevin Starr's excellent history of California: California and the American Dream as well as reading about it in the foreword to Herman Melville's "White Jacket".
White Jacket was, of course, at least partially inspired by this book, and after reading "Two Years" I can certainly see the influence reflected in Dana's work.

This book has, essentially, two scenes that are varied throughout the book. The first scene is "life on board the 19th century clipper s...more
Abe Goolsby
This book is, I suppose, something of a family favorite. It was a favorite of my father's and became one of mine as well. R. H. Dana was a student at Harvard in the 1830s who, following an illness which compromised his eyesight and forced an extended leave from study, signed on as a rank-and-file seaman aboard a merchant vessel bound to California via the arduous passage around Cape Horn. The book is delightful both as a portrait of life at sea in the days of sail and as a sketch of California a...more
I read part of this in Jr HS, then all of it after I graduated from college; my Shakespeare teacher (38 plays in the full year course) asked me, as he read it, why so much reference to the "lee scuppers." For a beginning sailor like me, an easy answer: those are the drains that fill because of the heel of the boat away from windward.
I recall how Dana records the loss of their first crewman off South America; this, from a small crew, perhaps 15? I should re-read. Then I recall the great joy of t...more
Jun 23, 2010 Lobstergirl rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Patti Blagojevich
Shelves: memoir
This book didn't give me the thrill I was hoping for; it's not exactly The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. Just as much time is spent on land as at sea, engaged in the hides trade, visiting with Spanish and Indian locals, riding horses, attending wedding fandangoes. Dana's writing is missing some vital spark. There is also so much sailing and ship-equipment terminology that entire paragraphs would go by where I had to guess what was going on, since the language didn't really...more
Daniel Villines
Second Reading: April 11, 2014

Two Years Before the Mast is somewhat unique in that my enjoyment of this book is mostly related to the fact that this book exists. I say this as a native Californian with roots that reach back into Mexico. Two Years provides a snapshot of one point along my ancestral past.

It's truly fortunate that Dana, a member of the educated professional class of the early 1800s, decided to remedy his eye fatigue by taking one of the lowest working class positions of the time: a...more
M.R. Dowsing
Published in 1840, this is the well-educated Dana's account of his two year voyage as an ordinary seaman, sailing from Boston around Cape Horn to California and back. The purpose is mainly to collect hides, of which some 40, 000 are shipped back (yes, that's a lot of dead animals - and that's only one ship!).

I had heard that this book was an exposé of the harsh conditions that sailors faced at the time, and that it was partly responsible for helping to improve those conditions. For this reason,...more
3.5* As one who enjoys sea-stories, especially those of the tall ships - this book gave me a more realistic account of a sailor's life. Pretty much the next best thing to being in jail. I mean that in the sense that the routines were so strictly regimented and the work unending and restrictive (they weren't even allowed to talk to each other on deck). Everything depended on the kind of captain you had. Everything! And to think that 12 year old boys were sent off to sea! (Must have been a differe...more
Feb 20, 2013 Mike marked it as to-read
Got this free for the Kindle. I'm hoping this will get me all salty, like Patrick O'Brian did. Yarrrr.
California before the Gold Rush. Life at sea during the great age of sail. An autobiographical coming of age story for the son of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, aristocracy. (His grandfather Francis Dana was a secretary to John Adams, signer of the Articles of the Confederation, third chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, etc. A few streets in Cambridge are named for family members.) Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s intent was to bring some dignity to the person of the sailorman in his contemp...more
Mar 21, 2010 Tobinsfavorite rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Tobinsfavorite by: used-bookstore shelf
I consider my experience of having read this book to be my secret treasure. I can't explain to you what was so wonderful about it, nor can I expect that you will have a similar experience. I know of many people who have found this book stultifyingly dull and may more who have not been able to finish it. I am giving this otherwise 4-star book 5 stars based on its being unlike any other book I have encountered.

I read this a few years ago and was just reminded of it by a sailing metaphor in the boo...more
One of the earliest travel diaries, this was a huge hit back in the 1830s. Melville stole liberally from Dana in his creation of Moby Dick. Dana, sick from life at law school at Harvard, takes to the seas on a boat sailing from Boston.

They head around the Cape and spend a few years trading along the California coast. Probably the best written account of Pre-Gold rush California, it's fascinating to read his descriptions of singing whales along side their boats, old Monterrey, San Fransisco, his...more
I picked up Two Years Before the Mast because it was free for my Nook and sounded vaguely interesting. I'm not generally a fan of nonfiction, and I know nothing about boats or sailing, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Richard Henry Dana's narrative of the two years he spent as a common sailor.

Dana was a well-educated student; he temporarily took up a sailor's life due to trouble with his eyes, hoping that two years of rest from reading and writing would help them recuperate. The story d...more
This is the firsthand account of an educated young man who, in 1836, signed up as a sailor on a merchant ship. He traveled around Cape Horn to the California coast, worked to cure and collect hides, and then made the return trip to Boston.

The nautical details might seem dense to those of us who aren't sailing experts, but I still preferred the sections about shipboard life to the ones on California. Some of the California details were interesting enough, especially Dana's time living with a grou...more
Somehow I missed this classic growing up. I think I confused it with Conrad & Melville's fiction. After reading a review in an online group I got a copy for myself. The author was a Harvard student from Boston. In 1834 he signed on as a common seaman in hopes that a break from his studies would cure vision problems. The ship went from Boston round Cape Horn to California where they traded goods for hides. The descriptions are vivid & compelling, & the information about ship life chil...more
Richard Henry Dana tells the story of his trip in the brig Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834. Only 19 years old, the Harvard student signed on as a deck hand. For the next two years he experienced a sailor's rugged life, traveling around Cape Horn, visiting Mexico's California territory a full 15 years before it became a U.S. state, and returning home in 1836. The Pilgrim was 'a swearing ship', in which the brutal and choleric Captain Thompson imposed his discipline by bad language, and the Sabbath,...more
I can't recommend this book enough. My only complaint with this book is that I wanted more: more details, and more follow up. I thought the particular moment and place in history that Dana describes is so interesting and he tells it from an interesting and seldom seen perpsective as well. This isn't a romanticized tale of the sea. This is what it was really like for one man at one time. Though it isn't romanticized, Dana writes well and sometimes describes beautiful and stirring scenes and feeli...more
Terry Earley
A classic which I should have read years and years ago. In fact, I should have read it as a schoolboy in San Diego. It was never recommended by any teacher, though I have heard of the title, and noticed Dana's name on many landmarks.

Dana was a contemporary and neighbor to Emerson and was a great influence on Melville. This was one of the first books to chronicle the life of a sailor on board a 19th century merchant ship. There is much about the operational details of a sailing ship, totally inco...more
Henri Moreaux
An amazing glimpse into 1800s, this is the autobiographical account of two years in the life of Richard Henry Dana from 1834 to 1836.

Leaving America he sails on the Pilgrim and its voyage heads from Boston to South America and around Cape Horn to California where he spends a season in San Diego preparing hides. He then boards the Alert for the return journey as the Pilgrim was not due to return for another 12 months.

The book is written in the language of the day at at times can be quite formal c...more
As a long-time Patrick O'Brian fan, I felt that "Two Years Before the Mast" was a must-read. However, I ended up with decidedly mixed feelings about it. Dana is certainly a skilled prose craftsman and as a Californian, I liked the pre-gold rush descriptions of the West Coast, especially when juxtaposed against post-rush 1859 scene. I also enjoyed the beautiful Hans Mueller woodcut illustrations in the Heritage Press edition that I read. However, the people in Dana's narrative either didn't play...more
Kilian Metcalf
When young Harvard student Richard Henry Dana is advised to take time off from studies to preserve his eyesight, he signs on as a seaman aboard a merchant ship bound for California. The journey there and back again takes two years. At the end of the voyage, Dana has experienced hardships and pleasures, visited the coast of California, and written a book which became a bestseller. Dana Point is named after him, and there is a museum and a replica of his ship. I was born and raised in California,...more
Wow! Not an easy read with the nautical terms but well worth it. (Thankfully, there is a dictionary in the back. I know a bit about sailing, and used it extensively.) I haven't had a book inspire so many emotions in me for some time. You truly feel like you are on the voyage with R.H. Dana (after whom the city of Dana Point, CA is named) as he experienced it. It is a perfect snapshot of the life of a Cape Horner merchantman of the early 1800's sailing from Boston to work the coast of California...more
Outstanding adventure story. Dana's voyage to pre-civil war California is quite the reminder of how much our country has changed in such a short time. His adventures adventures rounding Cape Horn because it was the only reliable way to get people and cargo from one coast to the other underscores the difficulties of traveling through the interior of our country at one point. I really liked that this edition had his reflections from a voyage made 24 years after his original journeys. The amount of...more
I first read this account of Richard Dana's 1834-1836 voyage from Boston to California aboard a merchant brig in the early 1950s as a required text for a high school English class. At the time, I felt it was the most boring book I had ever read. The voyage around Cape Horn in a sailing ship with a tyrannical master was interminable and when they got to Mexican-owned California, there was nothing there. San Francisco was a mere hamlet and all they ever did was haul hides out to the ship.
In 201...more
As a sailor and a native San Diegan, this narrative is doubly interesting to me. Not only does it provide a rich description of period life on the open seas, it provides a vivid depiction of Southern California before large scale settlement. R. H. Dana did a fantastic job.
Carly Richards
Ok so this book was given to me as a teenager by my grandad & it has sat gathering dust for about 15 years. I came across it during a house move & decided to give it a go. It is generally considered THE authoritative account of American merchant shipping at the time & of the flora, fauna & peoples of California before it became part of the Union & was under Mexican control. While it serves well as a historical account & the tone flourishes so it reads like an adventure no...more
Perhaps I am biased, but rarely has a book struck such a personal chord with me. When I was 21 I joined a tall ship crew and lived the life of a 18th century sailor for six months. I didn't eat hard tack, and there was a shower on board (though we hardly ever had time to use it), but I was surprised to find out how similar I had lived to the way Dana did, especially since the bulk of the book he was sailing the coast of California, as I have done since childhood.

People who have no sailing exper...more
Rex Libris
In 1835 the author took a break after his sophomore year at Harvard and signed up as sailor for a two year voyage to California in a trading vessel. Being so well an educated individual, Dana's work is one of the best expositions of what a seaman's life was like.

Also of interest is Dana's descriptions of California at the time. which was a whole lot of nothing. San Francisco was solely a fort, a mission, and single wooden shack. The next year the shack was replaced with an adobe house. In an ess...more
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Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815, into a family that first settled in colonial America in 1640. As a boy, Dana studied in Cambridgeport under a strict schoolmaster named Samuel Barrett, alongside fellow Cambridge native and future writer James Russell Lowell. Barrett was infamous as a disciplinarian, punishing his students for any infraction by flogging. He also often pu...more
More about Richard Henry Dana Jr....
Two Years Before the Mast and Twenty-Four Years After (Harvard Classics, #23) Two Years Before the Mast and Other Voyages To Cuba And Back The Seaman's Friend: A Treatise on Practical Seamanship Two Years Before the Mast

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“There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe.” 3 likes
“Let him then have powers commensurate with his utmost possible need, only let him be held strictly responsible for the exercise of them. Any other course would be injustice as well as bad policy” 1 likes
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