Friday, July 28, 2006

Two Years Before The Mast

"...the great seas were rolling in in regular lines, growing larger and larger as they approached the shore, and hanging over the beach upon which they were to break, when their tops would curl over and turn white with foam, and, beginning at one extreme of the line, break rapidly to the other, as a child's long card house falls when a card is knocked down at one end."

R.H. Dana Jnr., 'Two Years Before The Mast'

An excerpt (describing the surf on Santa Barbara beach) from one of the finest books about the California coast, and a book I'm amazed more Californians aren't familiar with. For those who haven't read it, Dana was a Boston fancylad at Harvard who's eyes began to give out on him. In 1834 to effect a cure he signed on before the mast as an ordinary seaman on a brig involved in the hide trade with California. He survives shipboard life, rounding the Horn in winter and spends a year sailing the coast (then part of Mexico) between San Diego and San Francisco gathering hides. He's an intelligent, literate writer and documents the then VERY different life in California beautifully, as well as giving a very human look at life as sailor in that time. San Francisco is little more than a Presidio and a shack, Los Angeles was even then a town of drunks and lawlessness, and the old Monterey Dana saw is still faintly visible in it's current form, albeit covered with a few other Monterey's (the fishing boom, Steinbeck, the yuppie boom). I took this book on our recent drive up the west coast, and even the 11 year old found herself drawn into the fascination with how different things were 170 years ago. A pretty essential tome I think.

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