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

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  12,277 ratings  ·  686 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, 458 pages
Published March 29th 2005 by Adamant Media Corporation (first published 1840)
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Sep 11, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
“The utmost was required of every man in the way of his duty.”

“Two Years Before The Mast” was not always an enjoyable read for me, but overall it was a good one, and maybe even a necessary one. Published in 1840, this book is the account of Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard graduate, who spent two years as a regular sailor on a merchant ship in the mid-1830s.
This text is a slow read at times and often, especially early on, very repetitive. Thus it took me a while to really get into it. However, it
Rick Skwiot
Nov 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing

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
By my own reckoning, there are 2 books held within the sea tale by Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast, one being a delightful account of the landscapes & the people encountered ashore & the other a virtually baffling & rather overwhelming collection of nautical terminology, nomenclature & jargon that would have been most familiar to any seaman working on a mid-19th century merchant ship, such as the brigantine Pilgrim, (a two masted, square sailed ship), the one that a young Dana ship ...more
Jun 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-lit
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,
Apr 27, 2008 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
Daniel Villines
Aug 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Mr. Richard Dana Jr. or Dana as his shipmates called him, is a man I would like to know. Based on his autobiographical Two Years Before the Mast, a recounting of his 1834-1836, seagoing-adventures aboard the Pilgrim (outbound) and Alert (return), Mr. Dana was a popular, hard-working, man’s man able to tell a tale. While attending Harvard, he contracted measles weakening his eyesight, choosing to become an ordinary seaman on a two year voyage to California—then the farthest hinterlands—for his ‘ ...more
Jul 10, 2007 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
Aug 22, 2019 added it
Shelves: adventure, abandoned
This is supposedly a classic,a sailor's life at sea in the year 1834. A Harvard student enlists as a common sea man to improve his health.He stays onboard a ship for two years and keeps a diary.

But if I was expecting adventure,I was disappointed. I found it rather boring and monotonous with little action.The writing style didn't engage.

There is a lot of sailing terminology and technicalities which were of little interest to me.

May 10, 2010 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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nautical
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
Oct 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Paul Haspel
Feb 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: maritime, california
Two years from the life of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., did not go as anyone, including Dana himself, would have expected. For a young Boston gentleman of good family, a Harvard scholar, to sail “before the mast” as a common sailor on a merchant ship would have seemed unthinkable: it simply wasn’t done! But a persistent eye ailment that interfered with Dana’s studies got him thinking that a physically demanding regimen of out-of-doors hard work might restore his health; and Dana’s decision to go to ...more
Aug 22, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  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
Julie Mickens
Historically unique and surprisingly readable first-person account of life at sea on a merchant vessel 1834-36, sailing from Boston, around Cape Horn and up and down the undeveloped, cowhide-disgorging California coast. Most versions also include an equally interesting Afterward, in which the now-40something author returns to California in 1859, post-statehood and post-Gold Rush.

Having heard the book's title referenced for years, I'd always assumed it was a fictional adventure tale, but, no, it
Czarny Pies
Oct 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: American Parents
Recommended to Czarny by: My parents gave it to me as a Christmas present in December 1963
This in one greatest books to come out of the Transcendalist movement. After attending a private prep school run by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dana enrolled at Harvard in 1831 where he contracted measles from which Opthamalia developed. In order to do the most to restore his eyes to good health, Dana signed on for a two-year term on a Boston merchant ship bound for the Pacific.

The book which follows is a delightful adventure tale for youth which describes the harrowing dangers and incredible hardship
Nov 17, 2013 rated it did not like it
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.
Oct 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Some call this youth literature. If so, at age fifty-eight I must still have a very young heart (and mind?). I learned a lot about the gruesome existence of sailors in the mid-19th century. Found the philosophical observations of this young writer very astute.
Oct 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I need to re-read this novel.
As a teenager it was one of my favorites.
Just like Emily Dickinson said, "There is no frigate like a book," and surely it's never been more nearly literally true of any other book for me than this one. My understanding of early California history has been vastly expanded by this account, published in 1840, written by a Harvard student who sought to relieve eye strain brought about by measles by taking a berth as a common sailor ("before the mast" refers to where most of the crew sleeps). This was an unusual choice for a well-to-do, wel ...more
Jan 20, 2012 rated it it was ok
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"--
Sep 20, 2015 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.
Michael Perkins
Jul 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Dana could really write....

One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel;-and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it see
M.R. Dowsing
Aug 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
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,
Sep 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel
I have said before that if you book your travel online and use credit cards then the words “adventure” and “journey” hardly belong in our vocabulary. Two of my favorite books, Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor’s Life at Sea (1840) by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Around the World on a Bicycle (1887) by Thomas Stevens chronicle a kind of travel that seem to be at the very end of an era in which travel truly could be defined as adventure. I think that rounding Cape Horn on a square-sailed brig and ...more
Aug 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Richard Henry Dana tells the story of his trip, subtitled "A Sailor's Life at Sea", 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 discipl ...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
Apr 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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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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