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Two Years Before the Mast

3.96  ·  Rating Details ·  10,127 Ratings  ·  510 Reviews
Two Years Before the Mast is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr. written after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834.

While at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles, which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana, rather than going on a Grand Tour as most of his fellow classmates traditionally did (and unable to afford it a
Paperback, 544 pages
Published October 9th 2001 by Modern Library (first published 1840)
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Rick Skwiot
Nov 20, 2012 Rick Skwiot rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Apr 27, 2008 brendan rated it really liked it  ·  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
Two Years before the Mast is a captivating account of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s service as a common sailor on a voyage from Boston to the California coast in the early 1830s. The long expositions on the technical aspects of navigation under canvas may not be of interest to those without familiarity with maritime life, but his personal narrative of daily life aboard a sailing vessel and the work of the cowhide trade in early California make the book worthwhile. Two Years before the Mast is an exc ...more
Jul 10, 2007 Andrew rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Jun 09, 2014 Alan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. (By the way, sailor's usage for "going wrong," say gambling "blown hard to Lee.")
I recall how Dana records the loss of their first crewman off South America; this,
Aug 22, 2007 Cat rated it liked it
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
Oct 18, 2009 Abrahamus rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
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
May 10, 2010 Lobstergirl rated it it was ok  ·  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
Joshua Rigsby
Sep 16, 2015 Joshua Rigsby rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nautical, history
For anyone interested in sea stories, the early victorian era, or the history of California, this book is required reading.

Dana does a great job conveying the specificity and nuances of his work at sea without ever coming off as self-important or boring. His observations of Mexican California are fascinating, and one gets the sense of Dana's genuine curiosity about the languages and customs of this land so far removed from what he had known in Boston. He even picks up a little Spanish along wit
Sep 20, 2015 Nooilforpacifists rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: naval-history
Two years into Harvard, in 1834, Dana is advised that further studying by candlelight will blind him. So he quits to work in the world outside of Cambridge--the world of real men.

The book is astonishing in so many ways: that it's literate; that he survives sailing around the Great Horn; that he survives the near empty, but still dangerous, American West coast killing cows for their hides; that he advances from the lower deck (a common sailor) to an officer.

Dana returns to Massachusetts two year
Sherwood Smith
Rereading this book is a real pleasure. Dana was an extraordinarily good writer, his images so clear that it is easy to follow the complicated life aboard ship. It is of especial interest, I think, to California residents, as he spent most of his time sailing up and back along the coast, and thus describes what well-known cities were like during his time of visitation. One of his frequent stops was just a few miles from me--and the house still exists, now protected.
Nov 17, 2013 Carmen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: No one
Dana leaves Harvard to spend two years as a sailor, learning the hard life of the uneducated. A rather boring book. Written in the 1830s. This is called an American classic, and it is soothing, in a way. Lots of descriptions of ships, storms and sailor customs. Almost no dialogue. Life on a ship is monotonous – and so is this book.
Daniel Villines
Aug 12, 2009 Daniel Villines rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
M.R. Dowsing
Aug 18, 2012 M.R. Dowsing rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Jenny Karraker
Nov 18, 2013 Jenny Karraker rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very interesting book about life aboard the old sailing ships of the 1800's. Reading it reminded me of movie scenes from the Horatio Hornblower series as well as Master and Commander. Being written so long ago, it was interesting to hear him describe things without trying to be politically correct. He definitely didn't like the dirtiness of the whaler ships or the Russian ones. California was not a part of the United States during his travels, so it was a little weird to hear him desc ...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
Aug 31, 2009 Ben rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 11, 2008 Stephen rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 04, 2010 Mike is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Got this free for the Kindle. I'm hoping this will get me all salty, like Patrick O'Brian did. Yarrrr.
Laurel Hicks
An old favorite.
Mar 24, 2017 Connor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great, felt like a precursor to Melville in a lot of ways. Redburn felt like a more fable interpretation of this story, which has a lot of the same elements (young sailor on his first voyage, the brutality of sailing life, the cruelty of the captain and first/second mates).
his writing was v pleasing to read, there was one section where he describes awful weather and then just writes "The same" for the next 3 days, as well as the somewhat terrifying ice storm sections.
Jan 20, 2012 Jessaka rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adventure-true
I believe this was one of the books that my 8th grade teacher, Mr. Bailey, recommended to me back in the 50s. For some reason I remembered the names of the books he recommended but never read any until I was in my 70s.

I can still remember taking them off the book shelf at the Paso Robles Library and placing them back on the shelf. I remember the exact shelf. You walked into the library, made a right turn into another room, and it was on the first end shelf along with "Kon-Tiki" and "The Raft"--
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
Will DiModica
Dec 19, 2016 Will DiModica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am currently reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. This book is an autobiography and a dairy that is about Dana’s journey on to ship from Boston, Massachusetts to California and back during the mid-1800s. Before the book starts, he was a student at Harvard University, but got Measles and partially lost his vision. He decides to join the crew of a ship for a few years until his vision returns to normal. Dana quickly adapts to the life of a sailor and starts to fit in with his ...more
Feb 18, 2017 Alicia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: usa-california
Amazing. Serious ship porn, if you're into that sort of thing, but I LOVED the descriptions of California in the 1830s, made especially poignant by his return visit 20 years later. Dana is funny and pays attention to the details, down to women's clothing, making food, building construction, and the style of dancing.
Mar 21, 2010 Tobinsfavorite rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Althea Ann
Jun 09, 2010 Althea Ann rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a really excellent book. It's a true story, written by a young man who took time off his studies at Harvard to ship as a common seaman on a merchant marine in 1834.

Upon his return, he wrote the book to, in part, counter the popular, romanticized ideas of life at sea. Dana said that most sea literature of the time was written from the perspective of an officer or captain, and wanted to point out that the view from the forecastle was quite different. He set out to show the reality of the
Aug 21, 2014 Rebecca rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, travel
A really engrossing true account (once you take the plunge into the sailing terminology and just let it wash over you) of a highly-educated young man's remarkable and bracing cure for vision weakened by too much late-night study by candlelight. And I did have to just let go of the compulsion to look-up every part and parcel of the ship and its rigging that Dana mentioned in the telling in order to really soak-up the flavor of the adventure and get fully caught-up in the story.

While studying law
My favorite quotes so far (a random bunch):

His description of the Spanish dialect spoken in California: "They have a good day of the Creole drawl, but it is varied with an occasional extreme rapidity of utterance, in which they seem to skip from consonant to consonant, until, lighting upon a board, open vowel, they rest upon that to restore the balance of sound." p.77

The Easter holiday is three days for Catholics..."So much for being Protestants. There's no danger of Catholicism's spreading to N
Jul 04, 2010 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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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
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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.” 5 likes
“His is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose who have never lived anywhere but in their own homes, and never walked but in one line from their cradles to their graves. We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths for the by-ways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought among our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.” 4 likes
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