Two Years Before the Mast Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In August, 1834, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., ships aboard the brig Pilgrim out of Boston for a voyage to California as an ordinary seaman. He hopes that the journey will relieve his eye trouble, and upon his return he plans to reenter Harvard College. Since Dana is a greenhorn, he is forced to bunk in the steerage instead of in the forecastle with the other sailors. At first his duties are confusing, doubly so during the first two days, for he is violently seasick. He soon finds his sea legs, however, and quickly learns shipboard routine: During the day, all of the sailors are kept busy cleaning and repairing the ship, and during the night they take turns standing watch.

The voyage is uneventful until October, when the Pilgrim passes near the mouth of the River Plate. Here Dana encounters his first real storm at sea. After that, the weather begins to get cold, and the crew prepares to round Cape Horn. The seas there are high, and the crew battles snow and hail. Everyone’s clothing is perpetually wet. By mid-November, the ship rounds the Horn and heads north.

The first mishap of the voyage occurs soon after, when a young sailor is swept overboard. A boat lowered to search for him finds no trace of the lost man. In accordance with custom, the captain auctions off the dead man’s clothing. Near the end of November the brig makes the island of Juan Fernandez and drops anchor for the first time since departing from Boston. Dana is glad to see land and manages to get on shore for a short time. As soon as the ship takes on fresh water, however, it weighs anchor and heads on for California.

Shortly after Christmas, Dana is acknowledged to be experienced enough to move into the forecastle with the other crew members. Now he is a real seaman. By the middle of January, the Pilgrim makes her first California port at Santa Barbara. Dana learns that his work for the next year will be to load cattle hides into the ship. The sailors carry the stiff, undressed hides out through the surf on their heads and deposit them in a boat, whose crew takes the hides to the ship and stows them away.

Once the hides are on board, the Pilgrim takes on some passengers and sails northward to Monterey. There, Mexican customs officers inspect the cargo, after which the company agent aboard the ship sets up a store to trade with the townspeople. The crew is kept busy on a shuttle service between ship and shore. Because he has some knowledge of languages, Dana becomes the interpreter for the Pilgrim and is sent ashore on errands that require a knowledge of Spanish. In this way, he becomes acquainted with the town and its people. He finds the Spaniards to be pleasant but lazy; most of the trade is carried out by foreigners. Everyone owns horses, and they are so plentiful that the price...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)