Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1160
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 of a fine animal is very low.
When business begins to fall off, the Pilgrim returns to Santa Barbara to collect more cattle hides from shore. At that time, trouble begins to brew aboard ship. The captain, mates, and crew are at odds. One day, when the captain begins to flog a sailor unjustly, another of the crew remonstrates, whereupon the captain flogs him, too. The sailors are angry, but they have no higher power to which they can appeal, for the captain’s word is law. Her hold laden with hides, the Pilgrim sails for San Diego.
In San Diego, Dana gets his first shore leave. After drinking for a time with the rest of the crew, he and a friend hire horses and ride to a nearby mission, where they are able to get a good Mexican meal, a welcome change from the salt beef served aboard ship.
The undressed hides are unloaded from the Pilgrim and placed in a large shed on the beach, where they are to be dressed and stored until a later time. Just when the ship finishes unloading and is ready to set sail, a man deserts ship. After an unsuccessful search, the brig puts to sea without him.
The Pilgrim takes on more hides at San Pedro and then continues on to Santa Barbara. It is the Lenten season, and Dana sees the celebrations ashore. The ship gathers more hides at several places and returns to San Diego. After the hides are unloaded, the captain sends Dana and another man ashore to assist with the dressing of the hides. Then the ship sails north on another coastal voyage.
Dana becomes acquainted with several Sandwich Islanders who live on the beach and work with him; he finds them to be generous men and true friends. Some of his spare time he spends reading books and studying navigation. Each day, he has to take care of a certain number of hides, which have to be cleaned, soaked in brine, scraped, dried, beaten, and stored away.
When the ship Alert arrives at San Diego, Dana, anxious to be at sea again, exchanges places with a boy aboard the ship. The Alert belongs to the same company as the Pilgrim and is to take on the accumulated hides and carry them to Boston. The Pilgrim is not scheduled to return to Boston until later. The two vessels exchange captains, and Dana is under the same master as before, but because the first mate of the Alert is a good officer, Dana finds conditions much more pleasant in his new berth.
Loading hides, the Alert moves up and down the coast for several months. In mid-November, 1835, the ship leaves Santa Barbara with some passengers bound for Monterey. When a terrific gale comes up, however, the ship is unable to put in at Monterey and goes on up the coast to San Francisco. The ship continues working up and down the coast until there are enough hides at San Diego to make a full cargo. In May, the Alert heads south for Cape Horn.
Rounding the Horn on the return journey is even worse than on the way out. Just when he is needed most on deck, Dana is laid low with a toothache. For days everyone has to work extra hours because of the danger from icebergs. Finally, the Alert gets clear of the ice and runs before a strong wind around Cape Horn.
Once the ship enters the Atlantic tropics, the weather is fair except for occasional violent storms. Some of the men begin to come down with the scurvy, but they are cured after the crew obtains fresh vegetables from a passing ship. On September 21, 1836, the Alert anchors in Boston Harbor. Hurriedly the crew performs its last duties in bringing the ship to the wharf. Within five minutes after the last rope is made fast, not one of the crew is left aboard.
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