I’m safe from all temptation here in Minnesota


On this day 172 years ago, Richard Dana set sail. About 35 years ago, I discovered Two Years Before the Mast in my local library, and it turned me into a sea story junkie. I read Forester and Sabatini and Melville (of course!)—fortunately, Melville got me more interested in the biology of those creatures that lived in the sea, so I didn’t stow away in the next brigantine that docked in the Seattle harbor.

Two Years Before the Mast is still a great read, but the romance of the sea is sure buried deep beneath the appalling misery and social injustice—the tales of flogging and sudden accidental death are grim—but still…

Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are very few who have ever seen a ship, literally, under all her sail. A ship coming in or going out of port, with her ordinary sails, and perhaps two of three studding-sails, is commonly said to be under full sail; but a ship never has all her sail upon her, except when she has a light, steady breeze, very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted, and is likely to last for some time. Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding-sails, on each side, alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world. Such a sight, very few, even some who have been at sea a great deal, have ever beheld; for from the deck of your own vessel you cannot see her, as you would a separate object.

One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel;-and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high;-the two lower studding-sails stretching, on each side, far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails, like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail-so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight, that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said, (for he, too, rough old man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show,) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails-“How quietly they do their work!”


  1. quork says

    Melville got me more interested in the biology of those creatures that lived in the sea,

    You seem to have progressed since then, as I recall the biology in Melville is not all that accurate.

  2. strait woman says

    I loved Dana, too. Have you read Patrick O’Niell’s Master and Commander? The story is sometimes referred to as the Maturin/Aubrey series. My favorite books (20) of all time. Aubrey is the perfect captain, Maturin, the man whose vaulting, insatiable thirst for knowledge of natural history drives him to sea with Aubrey.

  3. j-dog says

    IMO – The Alan Lewrie series, by Dewey Lambdin is the best – by far – navel series. Lewrie is an irreverent and fun Captain.

  4. Lya Kahlo says

    I second the O’Niell rec.

    Am I the only one who finds Forester’s Horatio Hornblower eternally boring?

  5. says

    even when i found myself seduced by the undeniable majesty and beauty of the sea and ships under sail there was always the nagging reminder that is also “very much like jail, with a chance of drowning” (conrad)

  6. Diego says

    Strait woman, it’s Patrick “O’Brian”, but you’re right, they’re a fabulous series of books.

    And Dana’s autobiographical tale is great too. I find it just as interesting for the depiction of California in two historical periods.

  7. Bloviator says

    Highest recomendation for the Patrick O’Brian books.

    O’Brian’s series is an extraordinary achievement in historical literature, but beware, can be very habit-forming. I worked near a library that had two complete sets – hardcover and paperback andI inhaled all 20-something volumes in a row. I just couldn’t stop until I ran out, then I was sorry I read them so fast.

  8. oldhippie says

    I would highly recommend Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty.
    She brings this famous tale to life with a historical perspective and shows Bligh it a whole new light.

  9. mss says

    The recommendations above are all great, especially to read O’Brien, who is vastly better than Forrester. Let me add a few more:

    1. Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea”: A whale attacking a whaler, a desperate escape in small whale-boats, and cannibalism in the early 19th century. This is the story that inspired Moby Dick. Even better than his Sea of Glory, I think.

    2. Farley Mowat’s “The Grey Seas Under”. The romantic history of a salvage tug (!) in the North Atlantic, between the wars and during WWII. For a laugh, also see his “The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float”.

    3. Robert K. Massie’s “Dreadnought” and “Castles of Steel”, tracing the development and deployment of the steel-hulled battleship before and during WWI.

  10. David Margolies says

    For those (like me) interested in California Botany, there is a nice bit with Prof Nuttall showing up in San Diego and buying passage on Dana’s Ship. (Nuttall taught at Harvard, and was the image of an absent minded professor. Dana had taken classes from him. Nuttall came to CA — that time — on a self financed trip and was returning. Dana says they could not talk in the normal way, as Dana was a rating and Nuttal a gentleman passenger, but when Dana had night watch as helmsman, Nuttall would come on deck and chat with his old student. Nuttall did much important fieldwork in the west and is remembered in Western Flowering Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) and some birds and mammals.)

    Great book.

  11. craig says

    I’m a sea stories junkie of a sort.
    I like arctic (and antarctic) stranded ship real-life account type stories.

    In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov, about a 1914 doomed hunting/fishing ship.

    Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer

    The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

    Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition

    Fatal Passage: The True Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

    Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

    The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909

    and any accounts of the Scott expidition.
    I love this stuff.
    People trapped on icebound ships, driven insane by malnutrition and contaminated foods, conspiring against each other, treachery, and death. Can it get any better than that?

  12. Apikoros says

    I loves me some sea stories too, especially Conrad and Melville.

    Since we’ve gone off into the solid-phase oceans, I highly recommend “The Noose of Laurels”, about Commodore Peary.

    Finally, I understand that there’s a replica of Dana’s ship out there in California.
    Sometimes they dress it up as the Beagle and teach the kiddies some science!

  13. dichosa says

    I read “Two Years Before the Mast, and twenty-four Years after”, because it was sent out everywhere as the free trial to buy the Harvard Classics. A nice set of books that also led me to read Plato, Epictitus and others in my pre-teens and teens. I too enjoyed Melville and used an essay that referenced Moby Dick to get into grad school, but my favorite sea tale teller still has to be Joseph Conrad. English was his third or fourth language but his command of English was supreme and he spent 20 or so years at sea, so there’s no lack of authenticity to his tales.

  14. Frank Mathias says

    “True North” by Bruce Henderson is an excellent sea/endurance story. I could not stop reading it: ’twas the first thing I’d pick up in the morning. Do you think Peary was the first man to the North Pole? Think again; and marvel at the parallel’s between Peary’s public relations misinformation machine and the modern Republican party.

  15. Graculus says

    2. Farley Mowat’s “The Grey Seas Under”.

    And the ‘sequel’, The Serpent’s Coil, which I liked better. The Grey Seas Under follows a large part of the career of the “Foundation Franklin” (a lot for one book), whereas The Serpent’s Coil tells the story a single salvage operation of the “Foundation Josephine”, the weathership “Leicester” (the salvage) .. and three hurricanes.

  16. SteveC says

    I thought Two Years Before the Mast was great, but the one Patrick O’Brien book I read was disappointing. Maybe I just picked a bad one. It was too long ago for me to remember specifically what I didn’t like, but I can kind of remember whipping through the pages rather quickly because I was exasperated with the writing.

  17. Rex says

    Hey PZ,

    I recommend “Count Luckner: The Sea Devil” if you like sea stories. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read. It’s about Felix Graf von Luckner’s exploits during WW1 as a pirate in a camouflaged Norwegian sailing ship.

  18. says


    Not knowing which book you read:

    IMO, Master and Commander (the first of the O’Brien books) is weaker than the rest because he spends so much time teaching the reader the name of every sail on the ship. If you’ve already read a fair amount of sea-faring literature, then you already know all that. The pace picks up from book two onward.

    Also, the books tend not to be stand-alones, so I wouldn’t recommend reading them out of sequence.

    And, finally, the writing style is very stylized. If it’s the stylization that bugged you, chances are that you won’t like any of the books.

  19. says

    I read Two Years Before the Mast years ago and loved it. I can’t wait to look up some of the above suggestions. Check out John Masefields’ “Bird of Dawning”. There is a scene near the end with two sailing ships racing down the English channel that will make your heart race. Just wonderful. I really like Melville too. Billy Budd is one of my favorites.

  20. Steff Z says

    PZ, you might have had to wait a long time to ship out on a brigantine from here (even with all those wooden boat nuts running around Puget Sound). IIRC, your initial career planning had to be a year or two after the steam engine really took over from sail.

    I love Dana, and Conrad, and Grey Seas Under, and those (mis)adventure stories from trying to find a Northwest Passage or other such trips to Ultima Thule. And I liked the Hornblower books. But I read maybe 2 of the O’Brians, in order, and hated them. The style was not my fave,* but my main problem was that Aubrey is such an ass. Maturin I like a lot. Duh. A lot of curious naturalists around here can identify with him. But Jack? Yeah: I’m guessing about his middle name, and I already wrote it, a few sentences back.

    *and I can tolerate a lot of writing styles, as long as they’re good: Steven Brust writing as “Paarfi of Roundwood,” e.g., cracks me up.

  21. Eisnel says

    Tomorrow I’m going to make a reading list from the info on this thread, because I’m desperate for some seafaring novels now that I’ve finished the Aubrey-Maturin series. I’ve heard about Alexander Kent’s Bolitho series, does anyone know anything about that?

    I’d like to add my voice to those who recommend Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, I absolutely loved it! The books’ style is meant to seem like it was written in the early 1800s, and at first that’s a little daunting, but soon you get used to it, then you start to feel a bit snotty for reading the books, then you start to talk like the main characters. The first book (“Master and Commander”) certainly does immerse you in sailing terminology, but you’re not meant to entirely understand it. You just get used to it by long exposure, and it’s really never the author’s intention that you learn to sail a frigate in order to understand the story (the vocabulary becomes second nature after a few books). That book offers a good deal of naval action to keep you interested. The second book is what I worry that some of the commenters here may have stumbled upon first. If anyone were to read “Post Captain” first, they’d likely die of boredom. That’s because the series really isn’t about “high adventure on the high seas”, it’s about life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, so there’s much more than just broadsides and boardings. The second book is, in my opinion, an initiation to the rest of the series, because it tests whether you can handle following the characters while they’re landed during peacetime. The characters are fantastic and extremely well realized, and it’s definitely worth the time to get to know them. People who frequent this blog will probably identify more with Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon who becomes not only an eminent naturalist (in the exciting years just before Darwin’s theory), but also a cunning diplomat and secret agent. So, treat the first two books as a long introduction, and don’t be intimidated by “the weather gauge” and “starboard studding sail booms” (Maturin is bewildered by those things along with you), or bored by Aubrey’s miserable time spent on shore. After that, some wonderful gems await you, especially “HMS Surprise”, “Desolation Island”, “Fortune of War”… well, they’re all good.

  22. TychoC says

    Great nautical fiction? – Nicholas Monsarrat’s ‘The Master Mariner’, is immensely readable. It’s a Wandering Jew type narrative, with the hero cursed to roam the oceans for an act of cowardice committed during the firing of the Spanish Armada. Various episodes ensue from this plot device – seeking the north-west passage with Hudson, fishing off the Grand Banks, with Henry Morgan in the Carribean, Pepys at the Admiralty, and finally with Nelson at Trafalgar. Unfortunately Monsarrat died before bringing the cycle to a close in the present day, but what’s there more than stands on its own merits. Plus of course his WWII sea stories – The Cruel Sea, The Ship that Died of Shame, etc.

  23. G. Tingey says

    You’ve all missed one great FACTUAl writer and explorer.
    Sir Ernest Shackelton.
    “South” is definitely worth reading.
    And the account of the loss of his ship “Endurance” (Crushed by the ice) and the epic trek-and-voyage to S. Georgia to get rescue is amazing.
    Even more amazing was that everyone survived…….