Thursday, September 20, 2012

Two Years Before The Mast

The Hawaiian Chieftain and the Lady Washington at days' end.

I’ve always had this thing for nautical books and movies.  I grew up around the water, fishing boats, and listening to my Father spin tales of his time in the Navy.  I had my own catamaran with my own adventures and water craziness.  So “this thing” is really a romantic obsession. But my romance is tied, if you pardon me, hook, line, and sinker, to the loveliness of the old ships, the great wooden vessels with creaking decks and billowing sails.  Over the years I’ve added a list of ships and boats I’ve been aboard; once I even had the pleasure to sail three days and nights aboard the lovely ship, the Hawaiian Chieftain. 
So it came as a surprise to me, when I realized that I had never read Two Years Before The Mast.  I mean, it doesn’t get more nautical than that.  How I’ve managed to skip this book is a mystery.  But I’ve read it now and am on my second reading - what a superb read! 
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a true account of Richard Henry Dana who sailed on the brig Pilgrim from Boston harbor to San Francisco in the early 1800’s – before California was part of the United States.  Mr. Dana’s description of life as a common “Jack” stood in opposition to his previous life as an undergraduate at Cambridge.  He made the leap from academia to nautical adventure much like any of us would – with a great deal more enthusiasm than knowledge.  But Mr. Dana not only writes a great narrative description of life aboard ship, he also does a remarkable job of telling his tale with a fresh eye and an open mind – an academian dissecting his subject with both child-like pleasure and objectivity.  And though I was so engrossed in his colorful descriptions that I could smell the salt air and feel the roll of the deck, I became particularly interested in Mr. Dana’s descriptions in the last chapter, Twenty-Four Years Later, where he, on re-visiting San Francisco, compares with a nostalgic eye the changes of the bay area.  I felt his sense of loss, especially since none of us have ever known what it was like to see nothing but rolling hills from shore to horizon.  I have always been saddened by the sight when driving to San Francisco to see nothing but freeways and a sea of rooftops as far as the eye can see.  Reminiscing with Dana made me sigh with longing.

Two Years Before The Mast is a terrific read on all accounts.  Though, if you’re not up on your sailor jargon you might have a difficult time getting making heads or tails of it.  Nautical speak is a language of its own – larboard and starboard, reefing sails, hawse, leeward, lay out, all hands, eight bells – and a whole dictionary of terms that would take half a lifetime to learn properly.  But if you read the book, you’ll be itching to get on the water afterwards for sure – even if it’s in a dingy.  This is one of the best historical books I’ve read in a very long time and it will certainly be a book I will read time and again.

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