Sailing the Icy Passage below South America’s Cape Horn

“Our sails spread beyond the ship, rising in a pyramid and burying the hull in canvas, like what the whalemen call a Cape Horn-er under a cloud of sail.”

That 1835 passage was written by Richard Henry Dana, who at nineteen quit Harvard to serve on a merchant ship and record his seafaring experience. At the time, books about sailing were written by officers. Dana’s goal: Write the view that was missing–the sailor’s.

From Boston Harbor he set out on the Pilgrim, and like other sailors Dana took orders and climbed the masts, furling and unfurling the sails. When not on deck he was below, eating or sleeping in the forecastle. The quarters were dark, cramped behind the bow, and “before the mast.” The phrase came to describe being a sailor versus being an officer.

Aren’t sailors idle at sea? That misconception Dana clears up. “You’ll never see a man on board standing idle on deck, sitting down, or leaning over the side. The discipline of the ship requires every man to be at work, except at night and on Sundays.”

Dana describes the constant work, “steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction.” He starts by detailing the four months sailing from Boston to California.

Getting there took so long because a ship couldn’t cut between the Americas (no canal through Panama). The only way to the Pacific: sail south over the equator, continue toward the Antarctic, then turn west into the icy passage below South America’s Cape Horn. There, sleet stiffened the sails and rigging, it glazed the masts and deck, and it froze the sailors’ faces and hands.

Despite the labor of sailing, Dana was awed by many sights. “There, floating in the ocean, was an iceberg of the largest size, an immense mountain-island, three miles in circumference and several hundred feet in height. The base rising and sinking in slow motion, the dashing of waves upon it, the thundering of the cracking mass, the breaking and tumbling of huge pieces, all this combined into true sublimity.”

Navigating the hazards paid off when the Pilgrim reached California’s coast. The ship floated into the Mexican bays of San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, where the agent sold the cargo of “everything from Chinese fireworks to English cart-wheels.”

Selling so much cargo at so many ports took more than a year. For sixteen months the sailors worked not only on the ship, but also on shore and in between. Upon entering each bay they dropped anchor, dropped boats, and rowed buyers back and forth. 

Separately, the sailors hauled what was received in exchange–animal hides that were large, heavy, and stiff as boards. From shore, each sailor carried one at a time on his head as he trudged through the surf to waiting boats. The sailors then rowed the filled boats back to the ship. By the time the entire cargo was sold, the sailors had carried and stowed fifteen thousand hides.

Two Years Before the Mast achieves Dana’s goal of giving the sailor’s view, highlighting the hard labor, strict discipline, dangerous work, and countering the romance. Dana writes of a fellow sailor who from high on a yard, fell into the sea and wasn’t recovered.

“At sea the man is near you, you hear his voice, and in an instant he’s gone, nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. There’s an empty berth in the forecastle, and a man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There’s one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard.”

Dana includes feelings in his journalism. The sections with nautical terms were sometimes difficult to get through, but the moments of images and emotions kept me reading. The return to Boston required the sailors to work just as hard, and Dana’s spirits rose as he neared the end of his merchant service.

“We were now to the northward of the line, and every day added to our latitude. The Magellan Clouds, the last sign of south latitude, had long been sunk, and the North Star, the Great Bear, and the familiar signs of northern latitudes, were rising in the heavens. Next to seeing land, there is no sight which makes one realize more that he is drawing near home, than to see the same heavens, under which he was born, shining at night over his head.”

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