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Richard Henry Dana Jr. rounds the Horn

By Richard Henry Dana Jr. / November 18, 1986



In 1836 Richard Henry Dana Jr. left Harvard and shipped to California as a common sailor. He became a lawyer and politician, but is best rememberd for ``Two Years Before the Mast'' (1840), which tells the story of his voyage. A true specimen of Cape Horn was coming upon us. A great cloud of a dark slate-colour was driving on us from the south-west; and we did our best to take in sail (for the light sails had been set during the first part of the day) before we were in the midst of it. We had got the light sails furled, the courses hauled up, and the topsail reef-tackles hauled out, and were just mounting the forerigging when the storm struck us. In an instant the sea, which had been comparatively quiet, was running higher and higher; and it became almost as dark as night.

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The hail and sleet were harder than I had yet felt them; seeming almost to pin us down to the rigging. We were longer taking in sail than ever before; for the sails were stiff and wet, the ropes and rigging covered with snow and sleet, and we ourselves cold and nearly blinded with the violence of the storm. By the time we had got down upon deck again, the little brig was plunging madly into a tremendous head sea, which at every dive rushed in through the bow-ports and over the bows, and buried all the forward part of the vessel.

At this instant the chief mate, who was standing on the top of the windlass, at the foot of the spencer-mast, called out, ``Lay out there and furl the jib!'' This was no agreeable or safe duty, yet it must be done. John, a Swede (the best sailor on board), who belonged on the forecastle, sprang out upon the bowsprit. Another one must go. It was a clear case of holding back. I was near the mate, but sprang past several, threw the downhaul over the windlass, and jumped between the knight-heads out upon the bowsprit. The crew stood abaft the windlass, and hauled the jib down, while John and I got out upon the weather side of the jib-boom, our feet on the foot-ropes, holding on by the spar, the great jib flying off to leeward and slatting so as almost to throw us off the boom.

For some time we could do nothing but hold on, and the vessel, diving into two huge seas, one after the other, plunged us twice into the water up to our chins. We hardly knew whether we were on or off; when, the boom lifting us up dripping from the water, we were raised high into the air and then plunged below again. John thought the boom would go every moment, and called out to the mate to keep the vessel off, and haul down the staysail; but the fury of the wind and the breaking of the seas against the bows defied every attempt to make ourselves heard, and we were obliged to do the best we could in our situation. Fortunately no other seas so heavy struck her, and we succeeded in furling the jib ``after a fashion''; and coming in over the staysail nettings, were not a little pleased to find that all was snug, and the watch gone below; for we were soaked through, and it was very cold. John admitted that it had been a post of danger, which good sailors seldom do when the thing is over.