Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana

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Two Years Before the Mast


I am unwilling to present this narrative to the public without a few words in explanation of my reasons for publishing it. Since Mr. Cooper’s Pilot and Red Rover, there have been so many stories of sea-life written, that I should really think it unjustifiable in me to add one to the number without being able to give reasons in some measure warranting me in so doing.

With the single exception, as I am quite confident, of Mr. Ames’s entertaining, but hasty and desultory work, called “Mariner’s Sketches," all the books professing to give life at sea have been written by persons who have gained their experience as naval officers, or passengers, and of these, there are very few which are intended to be taken as narratives of facts.

Now, in the first place, the whole course of life, and daily duties, the discipline, habits and customs of a man-of-war are very different from those of the merchant service; and in the next place, however entertaining and well written these books may be, and however accurately they may give sea-life as it appears to their authors, it must still be plain to every one that a naval officer, who goes to sea as a gentleman, “with his gloves on,” (as the phrase is,) and who associated only with his fellow-officers, and hardly speaks to a sailor except through a boatswain’s mate, must take a very different view of the whole matter from that which would be taken by a common sailor.

Besides the interest which every one must feel in exhibitions of life in those forms in which he himself has never experienced it; there has been, of late years, a great deal of attention directed toward common seamen, and a strong sympathy awakened in their behalf. Yet I believe that, with the single exception which I have mentioned, there has not been a book written, professing to give their life and experiences, by one who has been of them, and can know what their life really is. A voice from the forecastle has hardly yet been heard.

In the following pages I design to give an accurate and authentic narrative of a little more than two years spent as a common sailor, before the mast, in the American merchant service. It is written out from a journal which I kept at the time, and from notes which I made of most of the events as they happened; and in it I have adhered closely to fact in every particular, and endeavored to give each thing its true character. In so doing, I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene. My design is, and it is this which has induced me to publish the book, to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,–the light and the dark together.

There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through the imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge. Thousands read the escape of the American frigate through the British channel, and the chase and wreck of the Bristol trader in the Red Rover, and follow the minute nautical manoeuvres with breathless interest, who do not know the name of a rope in the ship; and perhaps with none the less admiration and enthusiasm for their want of acquaintance with the professional detail.

In preparing this narrative I have carefully avoided incorporating into it any impressions but those made upon me by the events as they occurred, leaving to my concluding chapter, to which I shall respectfully call the reader’s attention, those views which have been suggested to me by subsequent reflection.

These reasons, and the advice of a few friends, have led me to give this narrative to the press. If it shall interest the general reader, and call more attention to the welfare of seamen, or give any information as to their real condition, which may serve to raise them in the rank of beings, and to promote in any measure their religious and moral improvement, and diminish the hardships of their daily life, the end of its publication will be answered.

                                R.H.D., Jr.
                                Boston, July, 1840.


Introduction  •  California and her Missions  •  Two Years Before the Mast  •  Chapter I. Departure  •  Chapter II. First Impressions–"Sail Ho!”  •  Chapter III. Ship’s Duties–tropics  •  Chapter IV. A Rogue–trouble On Board–"Land Ho!"–Pompero–Cape Horn  •  Chapter V. Cape Horn–A Visit  •  Chapter VI. Loss of a Man–Superstition  •  Chapter VII. Juan Fernandez–The Pacific  •  Chapter VIII. “Tarring Down"–Daily Life–"Going Aft"–California  •  Chapter IX. California–A South-Easter  •  Chapter X. A South-Easter–Passage Up the Coast  •  Chapter XI. Passage Up the Coast–Monterey  •  Chapter XII. Life At Monterey  •  Chapter XIII. Trading–A British Sailor  •  Chapter XIV. Santa Barbara–Hide-Droghing–Harbor Duties–Discontent–San Pedro  •  Chapter XV. A Flogging–A Night On Shore–The State of Things On Board–San Diego  •  Chapter XVI. Liberty-Day On Shore  •  Chapter XVII. San Diego–A Desertion–San Pedro Again–Beating the Coast  •  Chapter XVIII. Easter Sunday–"Sail Ho!"–Whales–San Juan–Romance of Hide-Droghing–San Diego Again  •  Chapter XIX. The Sandwich Islanders–Hide-Curing–Wood-Cutting–Rattle-Snakes–New-Comers  •  Chapter XX. Leisure–News From Home–"Burning the Water”  •  Chapter XXI. California and Its Inhabitants  •  Chapter XXII. Life On Shore–The Alert  •  Chapter XXIII. New Ship and Shipmates–My Watchmate  •  Chapter XXIV. San Diego Again–A Descent–Hurried Departure–A New Shipmate  •  Chapter XXV. Rumors of War–A Spouter–Slipping For a South-Easter–A Gale  •  Chapter XXVI. San Francisco–Monterey  •  Chapter XXVII. The Sunday Wash-Up–On Shore–A Set-To–A Grandee–"Sail Ho!"–A Fandango  •  Chapter XXVIII. An Old Friend–A Victim–California Rangers–News From Home–Last Looks  •  Chapter XXIX. Loading For Home–A Surprise–Last of An Old Friend–The Last Hide–A Hard Case–Up Anchor, For Home!–Homeward Bound  •  Chapter XXX. Beginning the Long Return Voyage–A Scare  •  Chapter XXXI. Bad Prospects–First Touch of Cape Horn–Icebergs–Temperance Ships–Lying-Up–Ice–Difficulty On Board–Change of Course–Straits of Magellan  •  Chapter XXXII. Ice Again–A Beautiful Afternoon–Cape Horn–"Land Ho!"–Heading For Home  •  Chapter XXXIII. Cracking On–Progress Homeward–A Pleasant Sunday–A Fine Sight–By-Play  •  Chapter XXXIV. Narrow Escapes–The Equator–Tropical Squalls–A Thunder Storm  •  Chapter XXXV. A Double-Reef-Top-Sail Breeze–Scurvy–A Friend in Need–Preparing For Port–The Gulf Stream  •  Chapter XXXVI. Soundings–Sights From Home–Boston Harbor–Leaving the Ship  •  Concluding Chapter  •  Twenty-Four Years After

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Richard Henry Dana Jr.: Two Years Before the Mast and Other Voyages (Library of America)
By Richard Henry Dana Jr.
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