“There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and in a sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchant men, than all the press gangs of Europe. I have known a young man with such a passion for the sea, that the very creaking of a block stirred up his imagination so that he could hardly keep his feet on dry ground …”

Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana ... about 8 years after his voyage on the Pilgrim

Richard Henry Dana ... about 8 years after his voyage on the Pilgrim

One of the great joys of being a free range blogger is the wide latitude in selecting topics. So if I get the urge to write about a book that was published over 170 years ago then, by God, nobody can stop me. But I wouldn’t review the book in the traditional sense. It would only be blog worthy if it sparked a particular memory, or struck a profound chord somewhere in the recesses of the heart. The memory was stirred and the chord was sounded when I re-read Richard Henry Dana’s classic “Two Years Before The Mast” last month.

I doubt that very many people read books like “Two Years Before the Mast” these days. There are just too many other options. If a reader is looking for seagoing adventure in the days of sail, Patrick O’Brian’s inconsistent but occasionally excellent Master and Commander series seems to be the most popular choice. But Dana’s book is a legitimate classic for several reasons. It is more than a superbly written narrative of life at sea in the first half of the 19th century … it’s also an absorbing piece of eyewitness history. That history includes a compelling account of life on America’s west coast in the days when San Francisco was nothing more than a dirty hamlet.

“Before the Mast” is a straightforward memoir from a well-bred, well-educated son of a prominent New England family who chose to abandon his comfortable home in response to the “witchery” of the sea. He signed on to a merchant vessel not as a passenger or an officer in training, but as an able seaman, or “jack” … to spend his time at sea “before the mast.” A sailing ship’s officers were quartered in the aft part of the vessel, but the deck seamen lived in a cramped hold forward, or “before the mast,” where the motion of the waves is more profoundly felt and the salt spray from the bow is a permanent part of their existence. Dana’s desire to live, albeit temporarily, the hard life of a sailor was fueled by the same impulse that has sent young people with restless spirits to the ends of the earth since the dawn of recorded history. He actually defines the attraction in reverse terms — in his not so complimentary description of an acquaintance …

“He is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose, who have never lived anywhere but in their own houses, and never walked in but one line from the cradle to their graves. We must come down from our heights and leave our straight paths, for the byways 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 upon our fellow creatures by accident, hardship or vice.”

20th Century replica of Dana's ship

20th Century replica of Dana's ship

But the price for gratifying Dana’s disproportionate case of wanderlust was a level of physical hardship far beyond anything in his previous experience. His reservations became real with the weighing of his little trading vessel’s anchor. The unpleasantness began — predictably — with the ship still within sight of Cape Cod.

“I laid out on the yards and held on with all my strength. I could not have been of much service, for I remember having been sick several times before I left the topsail yard, making wild vomits into the black night, to leeward … I had often read of the nautical experiences of others, but I felt as though there could be none worse than mine; for in addition to every other evil, I could not but remember that this was only the first night of a two year’s voyage.”

Dana eventually adjusted to the unpredictable motion of the sea, and by his own account, became a competent or even better than average sailor. By mid-voyage, he was immersed in the language of his trade, and spewed it prolifically throughout the narrative. He leaves the modern reader hopelessly lost in his wake in passages like the following:

“As soon as each sail was hauled up and the bunt made, the jigger was bent on the slack of the buntlines, and the bunt triced up, on deck. The mate then took his place between the knightheads to “twig” the fore, on the windlass to twig the main, and at the foot of the mainmast, for the mizzen; and if anything was wrong, — too much bunt on one side, clews too taught or too slack, or any sail abaft the yard — the whole must be dropped again. When all was right, the bunts were triced well up, the yard-arm gaskets passed, so as not to leave a wrinkle forward of the yard — short gaskets with turns close together.”

The romance of the lifestyle and the glories of sea, sky and stars notwithstanding, Dana punctuates his memoir with brutal reminiscences of a confined existence with an omnipotent master … and the consequences of crossing an authoritarian who is deficient in both judgment and humanity. He recalls a slow-witted but hard working sailor who his Captain had taken a set against, and could do nothing right in the eyes of the powerful man who expected perfection. The sailor was shifting stores in the hold and had painfully injured his hand. The Captain inquired about the work stoppage, and the sailor, whose injured hand exacerbated his permanent speech impediment, did not respond with the alacrity expected. Minutes later …

“Sam by this time was seized up, as it is called, that is, placed against the shrouds, with his wrists made fast to the shrouds, his jacket off, and his back exposed. The Captain stood on the break of the deck, a few feet from him, and a little raised, so as to have a good swing at him, and held in his hand the bight of a thick, strong rope. The officers stood round, and the crew grouped together in the waist. All these preparations made me feel sick and almost faint, angry and excited as I was. A man — a human being made in God’s likeness — fastened up and flogged like a beast. A man too, whom I had lived with and eaten with for months, and knew almost as well as a brother. The first and almost uncontrollable impulse was resistance. But what was to be done? The time for it had gone by.”

San Francisco a few years after the Pilgrim's visit

San Francisco a few years after the Pilgrim's visit

Dana’s voyage ultimately delivered him to the unsettled and sparsely populated west coast, where his ship anchored in a small bay near an empty and desolate stretch of coast that is now San Diego. Eventually the ship moved further north toward San Francisco Bay. The potential of the topography and the quality of the anchorage there were obvious even to a youth of less than 25 years of age. The seismic dangers would, of course, have been unknowable …

“If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate … its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Dana’s journey served his purpose many times over. He did indeed learn his truths by strong contrasts, and recorded the experience in an extraordinary book that has withstood the test of time.

It’s my belief that, as people advance in age, their thoughts and memories gravitate with increasing frequency to the most profound experiences in their lives. I’ve spent weeks and months in the bush and on the incomparable African plain photographing nature in its unsurpassed glory. But in my mind, those days have yet to supersede the time I spent at sea as a young man. The beauty of it is difficult to capture in words, but certain experiences have earned a spot on the nearest and most accessible shelves in the archives of the memory …

  • Steel gray, horizonless dawns when sea and sky are merged to perfection … a slate colored world with no allowances for time and depth
  • A wide turn in a heavy sea, when the ship drifts into the trough and rolls like a drunken goose before plowing straight into the waves … the nose lifting out of the water before pounding down, salt spray splattering the pilothouse windows and the entire vessel shivering like a drenched dog on a cold morning
  • A crimson sunset on a rocky shoreline … in my mind … the ruggedly elegant Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia with the boulders on the north shore glowing soft and scarlet in the last rays of a summer day
  • The brief spasms of terror … a gargantuan container ship emerging from  the gloom just a few thousand yards out, and the quick and decisive reactions needed to avert disaster
  • The distant hills, mountains and lighthouses from unvisited but mysterious and romantically named shores … the Faroes, the Crimean peninsula, Navassa Island, and thousands more

Shipboard life has changed dramatically since Dana’s two year stint aboard the Pilgrim. In my years afloat I never witnessed a flogging, I didn’t go aloft to furl a frozen sail in the Straits of Magellan and I never had the pleasure of blowing the contents of my stomach into a powerful breeze in the dark of night. But there are parallels. One of the most notable is the occasional despair at being so far from home and family, the breathless hope of a letter or package and the curiosity about the simple day to day routine of those left behind who are leading “normal” lives. From Dana …

“No one who has ever been on distant voyages, and after a long absence received a newspaper from home, who cannot understand the delight that they give one. I read every part of them — the houses to let; things lost or stolen; auction sales and all. Nothing carries you so entirely to a place, and makes you feel so perfectly at home, as a newspaper. The very name of “Boston Daily Advertiser” sounded hospitably upon the ear.”

Another constant is the spirit of the sailor. During the course of many hours as officer of the deck during the wee hours of the night, a young signalman would sneak unobserved into the pilothouse and smear bearing grease on the receiver of my internal telephone set. Then he’d give me a call … I’d answer the phone and get an earful of bearing grease. You’d think I’d have learned after the first couple of events … but no. It was reassuring to read Dana’s account of a small boat ride from beach to ship, with several Spanish settlers as passengers. My signalman would have been a worthy member of that boat crew.

“We went ashore in the gig to bring them off with their baggage, and found them waiting on the beach, and a little afraid about going off, as the surf was running very high. This was nuts to us; for we liked to have a Spaniard wet with salt water; and then the agent was very much disliked by the crew, one and all; and we hoped, as there was no officer in the boat, to have a chance to duck them; for as we knew that they were such “marines” that they would not know whether it was our fault or not. Accordingly, we kept the boat so far from shore as to oblige them to wet their feet in getting into her; and then waited for a good high comber, and letting the head slue a little round, sent the whole force of the sea into the stern-sheets, drenching them from head to feet.”

Ah, it’s the little things …

Life at sea is the ultimate illustration of the love-hate concept … and this has not changed across the decades. Sailors count the days until they part company from their ships, and then miss them almost as much as family after a month or so on terra firma. Life ashore can be drudgery, a boring and mundane existence compared to the sights, smells and warm brotherhood found within the confines of an oceangoing vessel. And the memories are profound and permanent. Many years after sailing on the Pilgrim, a by then famous Dana returned to the California coast to try to recover the feel of his days as a jack,

“I wished only to be alone, so I let the other passengers go up to the town, and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat, and left to myself. The recollections and the emotions were all sad, and only sad. The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellant … where were they all? Why should I care for them — poor sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beach combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever-climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck —

When for a moment, like a drop of rain,

He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,

Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.”

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