Two Years Before the Mast is a classic tale of the sea.
First published nearly 170 years ago, it tells the true story of a young man from Boston named Richard Henry Dana, Jr. In 1834, Dana was a 19 year old undergraduate at Harvard College - and he was going blind. His doctors came up with a number of treatments, but one suggested that going to sea might be the only way for Dana to save his sight. And so, in August 1834, Dana set sail from Boston as an ordinary sailor aboard the merchant ship Pilgrim, which was going - by way of Cape Horn - to the then very remote coast of California.
After a five month voyage, in January 1835, the Pilgrim arrived at San Diego, which was at the time a small Mexican village. Dana spent the next 17 months going up and down the California coast, spending time at San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. For most of this time, Dana was gathering and curing cattle hides - preparing them for the long voyage back to Boston. In the 1830s, cattle hides were California's main export to the rest of the world - how different things would be only a decade and a half later.
In May 1836, Dana set sail on another merchant ship, the Alert, for his return to Boston. After a difficult four month voyage around Cape Horn - the Alert reached Cape Horn in July at depths of the Southern winter - Dana returned to Boston in September 1836. Dana's eyesight was saved.
Dana went on to a distinguished literary and legal career. He was the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts in the 1860s - appointed to the post by President Abraham Lincoln. Dana died of pneumonia in Rome in 1882.
in Two Years Before the Mast, Dana showed himself to be a sensitive observer with an engaging writing style. Dana was not as profound a thinker as his contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, but he sensitively and observantly discusses his shipmates as well as other people and places that he encountered during his during two-year voyage. Dana engages somewhat to excess in what was then the high-tech jargon of the day - there is much discussion of mizzen masts, lee shores, and cross-jacks. Nevertheless, there is much of historical interest - particularly about California in the years before it became part of the United States. This observer found the book quite worthwhile.