Two Years Before The Mast

ISBN: 1466200219

I picked up this book after reading Quintus’s review. It’s about a Harvard man named Richard Henry Dana who takes a break from his studies to become a sailor for a two-year stint, with the hope that it will help his failing eyesight. The journey started off rough for him…

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 years’ voyage.


There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.

This is a story that makes you feel like a weak man, ashamed for living a comfortable life where most of your time is spent sitting in front of a glowing screen on a comfortable chair to read pleasant articles at your leisure. The entirely of your soft existence will not come close to the difficulty that sailors faced in the 19th century, and I don’t know if that’s a compliment to mankind’s progress or an insult to how we have chosen to lead our modern lives.

It is the officers’ duty to keep every one at work, even if there is nothing to be done but to scrape the rust from the chain cables. In no state prison are the convicts more regularly set to work, and more closely watched. No conversation is allowed among the crew at their duty, and though they frequently do talk when aloft, or when near one another, yet they always stop when an officer is nigh.


The [pirate] vessel continued in pursuit, changing her course as we changed ours, to keep before the wind. The captain, who watched her with his glass, said that she was armed, and full of men, and showed no colors.


Our clothes were all wet through, and the only change was from wet to more wet. It was in vain to thin of reading or working below, for we were too tired, the hatchways were closed down, and everything was wet and uncomfortable, black and dirty, heaving and pitching. We had only to come below when the watch was out, wring our wet clothes, hand them up, and turn in and sleep as soundly as we could, until the watch was called again.


We had long ago run through all our dry clothes, and as sailors have no other way of drying them than by the sun, we had nothing to do but to put on those which were the least wet.

As difficult as it sounded, this book offered a romantic view of manual labor, that through hard work comes a sense of masculine purity and goodness. The phrase to “earn your salt” had real meaning among these American sailors, where intellectual or service labor by comparison seems much less fitting for reward. We’re not craftsmen or sailors now but internet marketers, computer programmers, office clerks, and the like. Less pride and fulfillment come from these professions, which is why modern man has to create random goals like riding across South America in a motorcycle or climbing an African mountain in order to fill his spirit.

By chronicling the voyage across Cape Horn and to California, Dana unwittingly becomes a Californian historian, offering great detail about life on the coast while it was in Mexican hands…

Yet the least drop of Spanish blood, if it be only a quadroon or octoroon, is sufficient to raise them from the rank of slaves, and entitles them to a suit of clothes—boots, hat, cloak, spurs, long knife, and all complete, though coarse and dirty as may be,—and to call themselves Espanolos, and to hold property, if they can get any.


The men in Monterey appeared to me to be always on horseback. Horses are as abundant here as dogs and chickens were in Juan Fernandez. There are not stables to keep the in, but they are allowed to run wild and graze wherever they please, being branded, and having long leather ropes, called “lassos,” attached to their necks and dragging along behind them, but which they can be easily taken. The men usually catch one in the morning ,throw a saddle and bridle upon him, and use him for the day, and let him go at night, catching another the next day. When they go on long journeys, they ride one horse down, and catch another, throw the saddle and bridle upon him, and after riding him down, take a third, and so on to the end of the journey.


The women have but little virtue but then the jealousy of their husbands is extreme, and their revenge deadly and almost certain. A few inches of cold steel has been the punishment of many an unwary man, who has been guilty, perhaps, of nothing more than indiscretion of manner.

His own journey takes a negative turn when he’s told he may have to sail for four years instead of two…

Still worse was [the news] for me, who did not mean to be a sailor for life; having intended only to be gone eighteen months or two years. Three or four years would make me a sailor in every respect, mind and habits, as well as body—nolens volens; and would put all my companions so far ahead of me that college and a profession would be in vain to think of; and I made up my mind that, feel as I might, a sailor I must be, and to be master of a vessel, must be the height of my ambition.

It was interesting to note the cold management style of the captain, who minimized his interaction with the crew and left most of the commanding to the first mate, though he did not hesitate to regain order when he felt the crew became loose with their labor and attitude.

“Can’t a man ask a question here without being flogged?”

“No,” shouted the captain; “nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself;” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope,—If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it!—because I like to do it!—It suits me! That’s what I do it for!”


I thought of our situation, living under a tyranny; of the character of the country we were in; of the length of the voyage, and of the uncertainty attending our return to America; and then, if we should return, of the prospect of obtaining justice and satisfaction for these poor men; and vowed that if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that poor class of beings, of whom I then was one.

While a sailor could bring charges against a captain on shore, he has no means of redress while in a voyage, for he is considered property of the shipping company, and any attempt to escape or fight the captain would put him in jail. He is not allowed to quit. Dana notes that some captains, who may be gentlemen on land, go somewhat mad with power while on their ship.

A sailor’s [day off] is but for a day; yet while it lasts it is perfect. He is under no one’s eye, and can do whatever, and go wherever, he pleases. This day, for the first time, I may truly say, in my whole life, I felt the meaning of a term which I had often heard—the sweets of liberty.

Their journey had them engaged in the cattle hide trade, where they would sail up and down the California coast to collect hides from missionaries or Indian traders brought from the interior to store them in the company depot. They could not leave the coast until the depot was full of hides. Other ships off the coast were also engaged in this trade and usually manned by men from the Sandwich Islands (the former name of Hawaii). The Islanders would work on sailing rigs for the short-term to earn just enough money to drink, smoke, and live, never getting attached to any one place.

…no one who has not been on a long, dull voyage, shut up in one ship, can conceive of the effect of monotony upon one’s thoughts and wishes. The prospect of a change is like a green spot in a desert, and the remotest probability of great events and exciting scenes gives a feeling of delight, and sets life in motion, so as to give a pleasure, which any one not in the same state would be entirely unable to account for.


Our forecastle, as usual after a liberty-day, was a scene of tumult all night long, from the drunken ones. They had just got to sleep towards morning, when they were turned up with the rest, and kept at work all day in the water, carrying hides, their heads aching so that they could hardly stand. This is sailor’s pleasure.


We accordingly made up a packet of letters, almost every one writing, and dating them “January 1st, 1836.” The governor was true to his promise, and they all reached Boston before the middle of March, the shortest communication ever yet made across the country.

Masculinity is assumed among sailors, and nothing is worthy of praise…

A sailor knows too well that his life hangs upon a thread, to wish to be always reminded of it; so, if a man has a [lucky break from death], he keeps it to himself, or makes a joke of it. I have often known a man’s life to be saved by an instant of time, or by the merest chance,—the swinging of a rope,—and no notice taken of it.


An overstrained sense of manliness is the characteristic of searfaring men, or, rather, of life on board ship. This often gives an appearance of want of feeling, and even of cruelty. From this, if a man comes within an ace of breaking his neck and escapes, it is made a joke of; and no notice must be taken of a bruise or cut; and any expression of pity, or any shot of attention, would look sisterly, and unbecoming a man who has to face the rough and tumble of such a life. From this, too, the sick are neglected at sea, and whatever sailors may be ashore, a sick man finds little sympathy and attention, forward or aft. A man, too, can having nothing peculiar or sacred on board ship; for all the nicer feelings they take pride in disregarding, both in themselves and others. A think-skinned man could not live an hour on ship-board. One would be torn raw unless he had the hide of an ox.

Even with such a culture, you still notice that the dominant male cream rises to the top. One story had the first mate standing up to encroachment of the captain. There was no passive aggressive grumbling or vague Facebook updates, but a man-to-man confrontation where the strongest won. The weak are not supported by anyone, and if you are unable to fulfill your duties, whether through laziness or sickness, you are not considered worthy to be on ship.

Finally the journey comes to an end after Dana was able to switch ships (partly thanks to his family connections back home) on one that had a shorter length of duty…

A year before, while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelvemonth we should see Boston, made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling, I did not find, and in their places was a state of very nearly entire apathy.


There is probably so much of excitement in prolonged expectation, that the quiet realizing of it produces a momentary stagnation of feeling as well as of effort.

I’m sure those who traveled for long away from their home can relate to the anti-climatic return home.

Twenty-five years after his journey, he revisited California, now in American hands. He was disappointed at the change and rapid growth.

The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellent. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, the California, the Rosa, with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite, the poor, dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and hopelessness; the boats passing to and for; the cries of the sailors at the captain or falls; the peopled beach; the large hide-houses with their gangs of men; and the Kanakas [Indians] interspersed everywhere. All, all were gone! not a vestige to mark where one hide-house stood. The oven, too, was gone. I searched for its site, and found, where I thought it should be, a few broken bricks and bits of mortar. I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here! What changes to me! Where were they all? Why should I care for them,—poor Kanakas and sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beach-combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Double 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.

One downside of this book is that he goes into technical detail of sailing and operating a ship, most of which you have no choice but to glaze over, but I recommend this book to give you perspective and show you how our modern civilization has made us into mush. Very few of us could right now perform the labor or endure the hardships that those men have faced, and while we’re lucky that we don’t have to endure it, I wonder how much this benefit damages our development as men.

Read More: “Two Years Before The Mast” on Amazon

24 thoughts on “Two Years Before The Mast”

  1. We should not enter the modern era of smartphones and computers without learning at least some of the ‘traditional skills’ such as hunting, fishing, building things etc.. This not only keeps us in touch with our masculine core in a technological world, but we may need such skills at some point again in our futures.

  2. Actually, you can approximate the level of effort described by this man if you solo-sail the oceans now. However, it’s still not the same. For one, back then you were working with a team of men, and men are at their best when they team up in survival situations. Also, the materials that boats are made of now do not require the kind of constant maintenance they did back then. Back in that day you needed an entire crew working together just to survive. Sailing ships back then, if not maintained properly on a voyage across the Atlantic in the 1600s or 1700s, would literally just rust out and fall apart in the time it took to cross. These days, with modern stainless steel and GRP, you can sometimes avoid major maintenance for a year or more and not permanently damage the boat.
    I appreciate this article, but being someone who sails regularly, I’m biased.

  3. Keen, thoughtful, and reflective review…I learned new things myself here. Literature really needs to be discussed, pondered, and digested.
    Also laughed at the contrast between men of 1840 and those of today, in that in those days, if you had a problem with someone, you didn’t hide behind a “passive aggressive or Facebook update”. Malingerers either straightened up and got with the program, or were flogged. Many people in our society today (both men and women) deserve this choice: un-fuck yourself, or be whipped.

  4. I was looking for this picture, and wanted to share. Yes, that’s a picture of four men, clinging to the boom/gaff (not actually sure what the proper term is for square-rigger booms). They’re probably 40-60 feet above the deck of the ship, and further to the water below. The long-duration white caps on the water are indicative of tropical-storm level winds, any significant rise in wind velocity and the sea will turn completely white with foam. These men were probably up there to tie down the canvas to make sure it doesn’t come loose and doom the boat.
    Of course, it shouldn’t need to be said that if they slip, they die. Yeah, working on the top of the Empire State Building was crazy, imagine doing that in gale force winds on a mast that rocks back and forth in the waves. Now imagine if you don’t do that, your entire vessel might break apart and sink.
    The term was…
    “Wooden ships and iron men.”

    1. Boom=yard(arm)
      Canvas=sail or sheet (nitpickish)
      Boat=ship (submariners or PT crews would accept though)
      But then again I would have enjoyed more the minutiae of operating and sailing a sq-rigger than the hard-boiled sadism and back-stabbing of crew life…
      But agree on the photo subject, men of steely cohones and justifiably proud professionals.

  5. Dana’s description of the life and folkways of the Californios was especially interesting to me. He wondered why his New Englanders sailed around the Horn to pick up raw hides, return them back around the Horn to be made into shoes in the shops in Boston, only to sail the shoes back to California. Couldn’t the Californios make their own damn shoes? He was not impressed with their business skills although he enjoyed their fandangos.
    I’ve meet some of his relatives in Nipomo in Central California who still own the Dana Adobe. I was just staying in Dana Point in SoCal last month.
    After his voyage and he completed his education, Dana became an influential lawyer and strong advocate for seamen’s rights.

  6. This is one of the first books I’m going to read aloud to my newborn. I read TYBtM four years ago this August 15th and knew that I’d read it to my children. I’ve had it so so easy. And I’m eternally thankful for that fact.

  7. I spent a summer on a 300 foot, three masted barque sailing the Caribbean. Climbing the 200 foot masts to set and douse sails is anexperience I will remember forever. If you read nautical literature, and all men should, as it teaches a love for adventure, get a diagram of a ship that shows all the parts and memorize important terms yo increase your understanding and enjoyment.

  8. Man, I’m stoked. The men of those days and before were real sailormen. They literally boarded ships and risked death. I kind of had that experience but it was no where near the challenge of two years on that. hell, my five year stint “before the mast” might seem like a week to those tough SOBs.
    As short as men were back then, those men had the spines of giants. And the stamina to match, as far as the port ladies were concerned.
    Work was hard, and non stop, you may not have seen land for months on months. Everything was done by hand. When your ship sunk, you were just dead. No one had GPS to come find you.
    In battle, better to be the sniper on the crows nest then a swashbuckler swingin from the mizzen mast.
    Cannon fire, Blue Monday whippins, sword fighting, drunkenness at sea and loose women OH MY! No cowardly lion am I but damn, I got a hard on….in a non gay sense of course.
    Where do I sign?

  9. I read that book too and it was very good. It is interesting what he had to say about the difference between the Spanish and the Mexicans.

  10. “but I recommend this book to give you perspective and show you how our modern civilization has made us into mush. Very few of us could right now perform the labor or endure the hardships that those men have faced, and while we’re lucky that we don’t have to endure it, I wonder how much this benefit damages our development as men.”
    Roosh nails it. Having to deal with extreme conditions is one thing, but the struggles in life is what makes us who we are, gives us our backbone and puts hair on our chest. Usually it is wars that filter out the cheese dicks and brings back the hard cocks, and what I mean is brings back real men, and rids the men who couldn’t cut it. I would wager that many “alphas” one sees doing their schtick in the nightclubs and being intimidating to other men while impressing women would not last 5 minutes under the situation Richard Henry Dana had endured. Forty years ago, guys like Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were heroes and rightfully so, and even back then women also knew this, as opposed to today where some dope dealing DJ has more status.

    1. I’ve been on a 1960s-1970s space program watching spree recently and have to agree on Neil and Buzz (and others). Maybe “beta” to the core by today’s entitled standards, but in their day encompassed the best of manly traits in being the extreme top in their work and leadership qualities *plus* the tingling manly aspects vis-a-vis the (desirable) women of those days.
      (Sorry, not related to p*ssy in any way: An interesting aside that Buzz in fact paved rather single-handedly the way to the moon (not possible without space-walks) and today’s EVAs by developing the space-walking method as an accomplished diver and making the first successful work-related space-walks on the last Gemini mission. He may have been the “second one” but an indispensable cog in making the landing possible on time. Oh, and he had a doctorate on space trajectories…)

  11. Your best review yet. Reading this lifted the fog from my eyes. It’s easy to become anxious or depressed in modern life. Reading of the deprivations of men of the past is a surer elixir for the blues than any psychotropic.
    By the way, since this is a public domain book, anybody who has a Kindle, Nook, or tablet can pick it up for free.

  12. Sailing is still a good job and very hard work. Merchant Mariners make a ton of money sailing on us flagged ships. Definitely a career more young men should look into

    1. I so wanted to sail away in the Merchant Marine back in the early 70’s. Yes, you made lots of money…IF you could catch a berth. Our US-flagged fleet is not getting any bigger. Another downside is time is port is way down as turnaround is a big economic drag.
      The kid next door got on a ship but spent a year in Saigon harbor as the ship next to his had been bombed by the VC.
      Still, if you can make it happen, I envy you!

      1. Not quite true, Whitehall- our fleet is exploding in size, but the size of the vessels is shrinking. I was holding out for a master’s slot on the tanker I worked on for 13 years, but the company went under the same week that the Old Man finally had the good grace to die. Smaller vessels in the oil development and production trade are everywhere, and distance towing on tugboats is still necessary. I haven’t worked on a large ship in 5 years, but I still get in at least 2 circumnavs and 40,000 sea miles a year. The 3rd world is still the 3rd world, and adventure is still unavoidable… even so, this time next month, we’ll have a pre-sailing party on our last night in one of our regular stops, which means I have to hire at least 20 whores and someone to roast a pig, or the girls won’t be such reliable tour guides the next time we visit.

        1. Thanks for the update – I’m behind the times, again! Times do change and the maritime business changes with underlying global economics and Congressional politics.
          Sounds like you’ve made a good life at sea. I envy you.
          One question – isn’t a single circumnavigation 25,000+ miles so that 2 round-the-world trips must be over 50,000 miles?

  13. If you’re getting into the sailing genre, you might enjoy Sailing Three Oceans by Herbert Smith, Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, the story of Shakleton (Antarctic explorer), or a very good study of men: The Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy.
    The first book recounts the mutiny; the second, Men Against the Sea, is the true story of the captain and certain members of the crew who were set adrift and their return to civilization; the third, Pitcairn’s Island, described what happened to the mutineers as they found themselves facing a lifetime on an island where some of them had women and some did not.
    Also, I hear Moby Dick is good.

    1. I have to second the recommendation for the Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy. I read them as a ‘tween but out of order, “Men Against the Sea” first – I strongly suggest the original order.
      Never could make it through “Moby Dick” though although parts were darn good.

  14. About the only comparable modern experience I can think of to something like this, would be joining the French Foreign Legion. There are probably others, but I think that stacks up pretty well.

  15. In the mid 70s I was just out of high school, but not ready to go to college. I wanted to do something challenging and outside the mainstream for awhile, before going back in. I went to sea as a sea urchin diver. We had diesel engines and radios which sailors of Dana’s time didn’t have, but if we were hurt or nearly killed it was just part of the job. One of my skippers was a real tyrant, and the other divers around the harbor wondered how I was able to stay on his boat for so long. (Answer: we made good money. But twice on his boat I nearly died.) I have never done work that was so tiring or so dangerous. Nowadays after a nine hour day in front of a screen when I’m a little hungry or disappointed I just remember the days of diving. I think was about 10 years before I found and read Ten Years Before the Mast.

  16. An outstanding book, I may be wrong but I think it has never been out of print since its debut. Technical descriptions notwithstanding (even they are interesting to read, more for just the way they sound than for any information you may retain), Dana’s voice is very fresh and readable to modern ears, moreso than most of this book’s contemporaries.
    I was aware of this book for my entire adult life but never got around to reading it. Once I had done so I experienced real regret that I had waited so long to do so.
    I lose patience with young men who spend all their time smoking weed and playing Xbox or whatever, complaining about how boring life is and no jobs. Yet those days are far from over! There are opportunities, maritime or other, that involve travel, work, strong companionship, teamwork. You just have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

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