Richard Henry Dana, Jr 1868 [republished 2007]. Two Years Before The Mast. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 311 pp.
A compelling narrative, by an writer of great humility and humanity, lucid natural and sympathetic writing. Nowadays a 20 year old student at Harvard with eyesight problems would visit an opthalmologist. In 1835 Richard Henry Dana took leave of his studies signed up for a 2 year sailing voyage round Cape Horn. Time and again his understated narrative displays his willingness for adventure and unwillingness to shirk a duty, lest someone else should have to do it. A progressive thinker before his time, Dana’s eyesight never fails to recognise the plight of those around him who are wronged.
Time travel to pre-gold rush California where hides are wealth and currency, where a few frontier settlements of a handful of dwellings traded hides (at cost of immense physical labour) to visiting merchant ships. In in a postscript to the 1869 edition Dana revisits these frontier trading sites in California, where for example, San Francisco has been transformed in 24 years from a virtual 2 house settlement to a city of 10,000 people.
Above all the chapters describing what it took to round Cape Horn in winter on a square-rigged sailing vessel surely describe the limits of human endurance. To climb frozen rigging in the long night in hail and snow, furl frozen sails with frozen ropes with bare, numb hands, 60 or 90 feet up a mast in the face of a gale. To fall is not only death but many such accidents would also condemn the ship, so close is the entire crew to their limits. Somehow avoiding icebergs through long vigilance of the entire crew. And to man such watches for weeks on end seeking a scant opportunity between the winter storms to make way.
A unique, unmatched classic, acutely and pragmatically observed, written with humility, beauty and simplicity, memorable to read.