Two Years Before the Mast

College Bound Reading List

Two Years Before the Mast

By Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

In 1834, 19-year-old Richard Henry Dana, Jr. went from being a Harvard student to a common sailor. This book is a detailed autobiographical account of his two-year trip, sailing from Boston to California around Cape Horn and back again. Dana didn’t go on this voyage because he was passionate for life on the sea, but as a result of doctor’s orders since prolonged study at Harvard had damaged his eyes.

However, this was no pleasure cruise and Dana had no idea what hardships lie ahead of him. Nevertheless, he was able to successfully adapt from studious landlubber to able-bodied seaman. Also to his credit, despite his education and class – which in most cases would have put him far over the master of the ship – Dana never considered himself above his mates or his duty. He later became a lawyer and spent the rest of his career defending seamen pro-bono in court, and was instrumental in getting the first laws passed giving sailors legal rights and protections.

This book has two distinct appeals – number one, it is a compelling account of life aboard a 19th-century sailing ship. It was the first lengthy account of a sea voyage ever published by a sailor, making it a classic in maritime history – one that even influenced Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. If you like books and movies such as Treasure Island, The Sea Wolf, The Old Man And The Sea, Horatio Hornblower, and Master and Commander, you will like Two Years Before the Mast.

The author uses a lot of nautical terminology: furling, reefing, climbing riggings, standing on yardarms, and all the duties a sailor had. Some editions of the book include a diagram of a sailing ship with all of the rigging described. If you’re not familiar with sailing jargon, this will be an important feature, as the names of the various parts of a ship are constantly referred to in the text. But regardless of how much you know about sailing, the image of clinging to life ropes 100 feet above deck during a blizzard at Cape Horn is hard to beat for an exciting story!

Secondly, this book is a fascinating historical account of 19th-century California before it became a state, when the entire West was Spanish. In fact, it’s the only account of Mexican California written by an American. Thus, much of American history can be learned from this book, including a lot about the social and economic conditions in the U.S., in Mexico, and on the high seas at that time, including a detailed description of the little-known cow hide trade in the days of the California missions.

The author’s stops along the coast at early San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco provide remarkable insight into the settlements and inhabitants of early California. Many of the landmarks that Dana described still exist, although their surroundings are quite different. For example, when he first visited San Francisco, it had one building. After the Gold Rush, when Dana returned to San Francisco in 1856, it was a city of over 100,000!

A replica of Dana’s first ship, “The Pilgrim,” is harbored at Dana Point, well worth visiting. The city was named after the headland of Dana Point, which in turn was named for Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast, in which he wrote about the area. At that time it was known as Capistrano Bay, and Dana called it “the most romantic spot on the California coast.” Dana Point is approximately one-half way between Los Angeles and San Diego, bordered by the cities of Laguna Niguel and Laguna Beach to the north, San Juan Capistrano to the east, and San Clemente to the south.

Since Dana wrote his journal in the 1830’s, it is refreshingly politically incorrect without being racist. This book was listed by National Geographic as one of the “100 best adventure books” ever written. It’s a vivid account of the relationship between man and sea, a timeless portrayal of human endurance, and an informative historical work all in one. Recommended for teens and adults ages 13 and up.

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