Two Years Before the Mast

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Author: Richard H. Dana
Published: 1840
Language: English
Wordcount: 168,921 / 456 pg
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease: 65.1
LoC Categories: PS, G
Downloads: 7,539 1996

Sailing to California from Boston around Cape Horn, Two Years Before the Mast is both an adventure and an eloquent account of life at sea in the early nineteenth century. Richard Henry Dana is only nineteen when he escapes the patrician world of Boston and Harvard for the arduous voyage. The result is an astonishing book, filled with vivid descriptions of storms, whales, and the ship's mad captain, terrible hardship and magical beauty, and fascinating historical detail.

Show Excerpt

he detailed one slight case where he thought my father was at fault,---a detail so slight that I now forget what it is. In reading the Log kept by the discharged mate, Amerzeen, on the return trip in the Alert, I find that every incident there recorded, from running aground at the start at San Diego Harbor, through the perilous icebergs round the Horn, the St. Elmo's fire, the scurvy of the crew and the small matters like the painting of the vessel, to the final sail up Boston Harbor, confirms my father's record. His former shipmate, the late B. G. Stimson, a distinguished citizen of Detroit, said the account of the flogging was far from an exaggeration, and Captain Faucon of the Alert also during his lifetime frequently confirmed all that came under his observation. Such truth in the author demands truth in illustration, and I have cooperated with the publishers in securing a painting of the Alert under full sail and other illustrations, both colored and in pen and ink, faithful to the text in every detail.


Average Rating of 4.3 from 4 reviews: *****
Henry L. Ratliff

(1840) Non Fiction (Diary/Memoirs) / Nautical (Sailing ship) / Historical (1830's) / Travel (California/Pacific Islands/Ocean)

R: * * * *

Plot bullets

  • The voyages of the old sailing ships was measured in years, not days.

  • A sailor who was not an officer or passenger, but only an 'ordinary seaman' was quartered in the forecastle, which were the living quarters situated before the mast. This part of the ship got the worst movement in bad weather as it was the part of the ship that rose and plunged most in heavy seas..

  • Dana (the author) signed-on with a merchant ship as an ordinary seaman for a two year voyage to the California coast and islands of the Pacific. He was an educated man, but thought the voyage might help his eyesight.

  • He kept a written record of his voyage with no intention to make it sensational or exaggerated.

  • The book, while interesting from a travel and historical sense, should not be thought of in the same sense of a novel like 'The Sea-Wolf'.

  • The work and the sea were masters cruel enough for any man who would spend 'Two Years Before the Mast'.

Wiley Umstead

I first read this book 15 years ago. Since then I have spent many wonderful weekends/weeks sailing. This book is a TRUE story of sailing the seas and life on board a ship. From sewing their own cloths, sails, working the hemp rope. A must for sailors, those that might wish to try sailing and even those that are land bound.


I am reading this book now and I am always on my toes.

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