Jul 22

Two years on a boat

Tag: musingsjonny5waldman @ 6:28 am

[From my Outside blog]

In 1834, Richard Henry Dana, a classmate of Henry David Thoreau, dropped out of Harvard because his eyesight was failing. He couldn’t study — couldn’t read — like he used to. So he joined merchant marine, to sail from Boston to California and collect hides. The voyage, which began with 14 other men on the 86-foot Pilgrim and took him around Cape Horn twice, lasted more than two years. When he returned, he went back to school, got a law degree, and got married. Then he wrote a book about it, called “Two years before the mast.” It, like he, made waves.

Edward Tyrell Channing, a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard, reviewed the book in the North American Review. He wrote that it was “a successful attempt to describe a class of men, and a course of life, which, though familiarly spoken of by most people, and considered as within the limits of civilization, will appear to them now almost as just discovered.”

Indeed, it still reads that way. There are discoveries on every page.

The New York Review agreed, and published a review that said the book “will serve to dissipate all the illusions about the sea, which most young men are wont to cherish; they will learn from it, that the forecastle of a ship is the most undesirable of asylums, to any one who has had even a moderate share of comforts at home; and be convinced, that no reasonable man will choose it for his dwelling place.”

Richard Henry Dana destroyed illusions alright, but he also wrote about boredom, fortitude, discipline, and perspective. He wrote adventure and tragedy, history and legend. The book, which is on most current lists of best-adventure books, still floats.

He showed up with a chest of stuff, and spent his first three days at sea puking. Recalling that first night, he wrote: “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.” He goes on: “There is not so helpless and pitiless an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.” Weeks later, a different kind of misery: “However much I was affected by the beauty of the sea, the bright stars, and the clouds driven swiftly over them, I could not but remember that I was separating myself from all the social and intellectual enjoyments of life.”

But he was getting the hang of it, learning about the boat and how to sail it. He wrote of “the routine of sea-life which is only broken by a storm, a sail, or the sight of land.”

“The discipline of the ship,” he wrote, “requires every man to be at work upon something when he is on deck… You will never see a man, on board a well-ordered vessel, standing idle on deck, sitting down, or leaning over the side. It is the officers’ duty to 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.”

He spent two hours each morning washing down the decks, then filling up the fresh water bucket, then coiling up the rigging. There was no end to the work. “When I first left port,” he wrote, “and found that we were kept regularly employed for a week or two, I supposed that we were getting the vessel into sea trim, and that it would soon be over, and we should have nothing to do but to sail the ship; but I found that it continued for two years, and at the end of the two years there was as much to be done as ever.”

The work then wasn’t so different from what is required today: “If we add to this all the tarring, greasing, oiling, varnishing, painting, scraping, and scrubbing which is required in the course of a long voyage, and also remember this is all to be done in addition to watching at night, steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction, one will hardly ask, ‘what can a sailor find to do at sea?'”

Sailing south soon became monotonous. He wrote of the “unvarying repetition of these duties,” and spelled out the predicament: “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 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.”

He thought of home: “Everyone away from home thinks that some great thing must have happened, while to those at home there seems to be a continued monotony and lack of incident.”

The monotony worsened on the return trip: “The sole object was to make the time pass on. Any chance was sought for, which would break the monotony of the time; and even the two hours’ trick at the wheel, which came round to each of us, in turn, once in every other watch, was looked upon as a relief. Even the never-failing resource of long yarns, which eke out many a watch, seemed to have failed us now; for we had been so long together that we had heard each other’s stories told over and over again, till we had them by heart; each one knew the whole history of each of the others, and we were fairly and literally talked out. Singing and joking, we were in no humor for, and, in fact, any sound of mirth or laughter would have struck strangely upon our ears, and would not have been tolerated, any more than whistling, or a wind instrument. The last resort, that of speculating upon the future, seemed now to fail us, for our discouraging situation, and the danger we were really in, (as we expected every day to find ourselves drifted back among the ice) “clapped a stopper” upon all that. From saying—“when we get home”—we began insensibly to alter it to—“if we get home”—and at last the subject was dropped by a tacit consent.”

“I commenced a deliberate system of time-killing, which united some profit with a cheering up of the heavy hours. As soon as I came on deck, and took my place and regular walk, I began with repeating over to myself a string of matters which I had in my memory, in regular order. First, the multiplication table and the tables of weights and measures; then the states of the union, with their capitals; the counties of England, with their shire towns; the kings of England in their order; and a large part of the peerage, which I committed from an almanac that we had on board; and then the Kanaka numerals. This carried me through my facts, and, being repeated deliberately, with long intervals, often eked out the two first bells. Then came the ten commandments; the thirty-ninth chapter of Job, and a few other passages from Scripture. The next in the order, that I never varied from, came Cowper’s Castaway, which was a great favorite with me; the solemn measure and gloomy character of which, as well as the incident that it was founded upon, made it well suited to a lonely watch at sea. Then his lines to Mary, his address to the jackdaw, and a short extract from Table Talk; (I abounded in Cowper, for I happened to have a volume of his poems in my chest;) “Ille et nefasto” from Horace, and Gœthe’s Erl King. After I had got through these, I allowed myself a more general range among everything that I could remember, both in prose and verse. In this way, with an occasional break by relieving the wheel, heaving the log, and going to the scuttle-butt for a drink of water, the longest watch was passed away; and I was so regular in my silent recitations, that if there was no interruption by ship’s duty, I could tell very nearly the number of bells by my progress.”

Thank god we’ll have books, and plenty of ’em, with us, on board Syzygy. Richard Henry Dana was so overjoyed to discover six-month-old newspapers that he pored over them, again and again, for a week, “until I was sure there cold be nothing in them that had escaped my attention, and was ashamed to keep them any longer.” I’m bringing the complete works of Shakespeare.

At sea, he saw pirates. He learned some new sea shanties. He saw “”one of those singular things called catamarans.” He sailed across the equator. He experienced a gale, and learned how to reef quickly, without “sogering.” He experienced man-killing weather for 20 days straight — weather that ripped apart sails, weather that blew “like scissors and thumb-screws.” He experienced the glory of sailing 1300 miles in seven days, and the glory of sealing a wooden boat so well that even smoke couldn’t find a way out.

He wrote a thrilling chapter on rounding Cape Horn; it features snow, hail, fog, and sleet; violent wind; seas breaking over the bow, burying half the ship up to their chins. “We hardly knew whether we were on or off,” he wrote. He spent ten consecutive days reefed, and a few hove to. “Our clothes were all wet through, and the only change was from wet to more wet.” On the misery the wet entailed: “snow is blinding, and very bad when coming upon a coast, but for genuine discomfort, give me rain with freezing weather.”

By and by, his experiences turned to hardened wisdom: “No time is allowed on board ship for sentiment.” And:
“Whatever your feelings may be, you must make a joke of everything at sea; and if you were to fall from aloft and be caught in the belly of a sail, and thus saved from instant death, it would not do to look at all disturbed, or to make serious matter of it.”

When he arrived in San Francisco, there was no bridge, no city;  just the Spanish mission (still here), and one other boat in the whole bay. There was also constant rain, cold, fog, and strong currents. But he recognized the splendor of this area. “If california ever becomes a prosperous country,” he wrote, “this bay will be the centre of its prosperity.” He called the bay “fit for a place of great importance.”

Later, he was amazed that a letter made it from California to Boston, via an overland route from Mazatlan to Veracruz, in 75 days — “the shortest communication ever yet made across the country.” Now there’s history.

After far too much time sailing up and down the California coast, he packed up, and headed home, loaded down with 40,000 hides, 30,000 horns, several barrels of otter and beaver skins, spare spars, a dozen pigs,  a dozen sheep, 40 chickens, as well as stores — food and water — for five month of sailing.

One of the crew was lost, and Richard Henry Dana captured the devastation. “Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and “the mourners go about the streets;” but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object, and a real evidence; but at sea, the man is near you—at your side—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.”

“All these things make such a death peculiarly solemn, and the effect of it remains upon the crew for some time. There is more kindness shown by the officers to the crew, and by the crew to one another. There is more quietness and seriousness. The oath and the loud laugh are gone. The officers are more watchful, and the crew go more carefully aloft. The lost man is seldom mentioned, or is dismissed with a sailor’s rude eulogy—“Well, poor George is gone! His cruise is up soon! He knew his work, and did his duty, and was a good shipmate.” Then usually follows some allusion to another world, for sailors are almost all believers; but their notions and opinions are unfixed and at loose ends. They says—“God won’t be hard upon the poor fellow,” and seldom get beyond the common phrase which seems to imply that their sufferings and hard treatment here will excuse them hereafter,—’To work hard, live hard, die hard, and go to hell after all, would be hard indeed!’ …Yet a sailor’s life is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.”

Take that, Shakespeare.

He gets used to the sailor’s life. He learns that “an overstrained sense of manliness is the characteristic of seafaring 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 show 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 or attention, forward or aft. A man, too, can have nothing peculiar or sacred on board ship; for all the nicer feelings they take pride in disregarding, both in themselves and others. A thin-skinned man could not live an hour on ship-board. One would be torn raw unless he had the hide of an ox. A moment of natural feeling for home and friends, and then the frigid routine of sea-life returned.”

Even though life before the mast, life in the forecastle, is at times miserable, he knows it well.  “To be sick in a forecastle is miserable indeed. It is the worst part of a dog’s life; especially in bad weather. The forecastle, shut up tight to keep out the water and cold air;—the watch either on deck, or asleep in their berths;—no one to speak to;—the pale light of the single lamp, swinging to and fro from the beam, so dim that one can scarcely see, much less read by it;—the water dropping from the beams and carlines, and running down the sides; and the forecastle so wet, and dark, and cheerless, and so lumbered up with chests and wet clothes, that sitting up is worse than lying in the berth! … A sailor is always presumed to be well, and if he’s sick, he’s a poor dog. One has to stand his wheel, and another his lookout, and the sooner he gets on deck again, the better.” Nevertheless, he starts to prefer it. It offers him a better perspective on life.

“We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.”

He discovers, approaching Cape Horn, that “a ship, unlike people on shore, puts on her best suit in bad weather.” He discovers that “no one knows what he can do until he is called upon.” He discovers a penchant for good, solid, practical boats: “There was no foolish gilding and gingerbread work, to take the eye of landsmen and passengers, but everything was ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion.’ There was no rust, no dirt, no rigging hanging slack, no fag ends of ropes, and ‘Irish pendants’ aloft, and the yards were squared to a ‘t’ by lifts and braces.” He discovers that he’s become a sailor: “Give me a big ship. There is more room, more hands, better outfit, better regulation, more life, and more company.”

Yeah, and more money.

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