Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 1

The fourteenth of August1 was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the Western coast of North America. As she was to get under way early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with a plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.

The change from the tight frock-coat, silk cap, and kid gloves of an undergraduate at Harvard, to the loose duck trousers, checked shirt, and tarpaulin hat of a sailor, though somewhat of a transformation, was soon made; and I supposed that I should pass very well for a Jack tar. But it is impossible to deceive the practised eye in these matters; and while I thought myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt, known for a landsman by every one on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. The trousers, tight round the hips, and thence hanging long and loose round the feet, a superabundance of checked shirt, a low-crowned, well-varnished black hat, worn on the back of the head, with half a fathom of black ribbon hanging over the left eye, and a slip-tie to the black silk neckerchief, with sundry other minutiae, are signs, the want of which betrays the beginner at once. Besides the points in my dress which were out of the way, doubtless my complexion and hands were quite enough to distinguish me from the regular salt who, with a sunburnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwart-ships, half opened, as though just ready to grasp a rope.

“With all my imperfections on my head,” I joined the crew, and we hauled out into the stream, and came to anchor for the night. The next day we were employed in preparation for sea, reeving studding-sail gear, crossing royal yards, putting on chafing gear, and taking on board our powder. On the following night, I stood my first watch. I remained awake nearly all the first part of the night from fear that I might not hear when I was called; and when I went on deck, so great were my ideas of the importance of my trust, that I walked regularly fore and aft the whole length of the vessel, looking out over the bows and taffrail at each turn, and was not a little surprised at the coolness of the old seaman whom I called to take my place, in stowing himself snugly away under the long-boat for a nap. That was a sufficient lookout, he thought, for a fine night, at anchor in a safe harbor.

The next morning was Saturday, and, a breeze having sprung up from the southward, we took a pilot on board, hove up our anchor, and began beating down the bay. I took leave of those of my friends who came to see me off, and had barely opportunity for a last look at the city and well-known objects, as no time is allowed on board ship for sentiment. As we drew down into the lower harbor, we found the wind ahead in the bay, and were obliged to come to anchor in the roads. We remained there through the day and a part of the night. My watch began at eleven o’clock at night, and I received orders to call the captain if the wind came out from the westward. About midnight the wind became fair, and, having summoned the captain, I was ordered to call all hands. How I accomplished this, I do not know, but I am quite sure that I did not give the true hoarse boatswain call of “A-a-ll ha-a-a-nds! up anchor, a-ho-oy!” In a short time every one was in motion, the sails loosed, the yards braced, and we began to heave up the anchor, which was our last hold upon Yankee land. I could take but small part in these preparations. My little knowledge of a vessel was all at fault. Unintelligible orders were so rapidly given, and so immediately executed; there was such a hurrying about, and such an intermingling of strange cries and stranger actions, that I was completely bewildered. There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life. At length those peculiar, long-drawn sounds which denote that the crew are heaving at the windlass began, and in a few minutes we were under way. The noise of the water thrown from the bows was heard, the vessel leaned over from the damp night-breeze, and rolled with the heavy groundswell, and we had actually begun our long, long journey. This was literally bidding good night to my native land.

1 [In the year 1834.]

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53