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Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815–1882). Two Years before the Mast.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Life on Shore—The Alert

Chapter XXII

SATURDAY, JULY 18TH. This day, sailed the Mexican hermaphrodite brig, Fazio, for San Blas and Mazatlan. This was the brig which was driven ashore at San Pedro in a southeaster, and had been lying at San Diego to repair and take in her cargo. The owner of her had had a good deal of difficulty with the government about the duties, etc., and her sailing had been delayed for several weeks; but everything having been arranged, she got under weigh with a light breeze, and was floating out of the harbor, when two horsemen came dashing down to the beach, at full speed, and tried to find a boat to put off after her; but there being none on the beach, they offered a handful of silver to any Kanaka who would swim off and take a letter on board. One of the Kanakas, a fine, active, well-made young fellow, instantly threw off everything but his duck trowsers, and putting the letter into his hat, swam off, after the vessel. Fortunately, the wind was very light and the vessel was going slowly, so that, although she was nearly a mile off when he started, he gained on her rapidly. He went through the water leaving a wake like a small steamboat. I certainly never saw such swimming before. They saw him coming from the deck, but did not heave-to suspecting the nature of his errand; yet, the wind continuing light, he swam alongside and got on board, and delivered his letter. The captain read the letter, told the Kanaka there was no answer, and giving him a glass of brandy, left him to jump overboard and find the best of his way to the shore. The Kanaka swam in for the nearest point of land, and, in about an hour, made his appearance at the hide-house. He did not seem at all fatigued, had made three or four dollars, got a glass of brandy, and was in fine spirits. The brig kept on her course, and the government officers, who had come down to forbid her sailing, went back, each with something like a flea in his ear, having depended upon extorting a little more money from the owner.

It was now nearly three months since the Alert arrived at Santa Barbara, and we began to expect her daily. About a half a mile behind the hide-house, was a high hill; and every afternoon, as soon as we had done our work, some one of us walked up to see if there were any sail in sight, coming down before the regular trades, which blow every afternoon. Each day, after the latter part of July, we went up the hill, and came back disappointed. I was anxious for her arrival, for I had been told by letter that the owners in Boston, at the request of my friends, had written to Captain T—— to take me on board the Alert, in case she returned to the United States before the Pilgrim; and I, of course, wished to know whether the order had been received, and what was the destination of the ship. One year more or less might be of small consequence to others, but it was everything to me. It was now just a year since we sailed from Boston, and at the shortest, no vessel could expect to get away under eight or nine months, which would make our absence two years in all. This would be pretty long, but would not be fatal. It would not necessarily be decisive of my future life. But one year more would settle the matter. I should be a sailor for life; and although I had made up my mind to it before I had my letters from home, and was, as I thought, quite satisfied; yet, as soon as an opportunity was held out to me of returning, and the prospect of another kind of life was opened to me, my anxiety to return, and, at least, to have the chance of deciding upon my course for myself, was beyond measure. Beside that, I wished to be “equal to either fortune,” and to qualify myself for an officer’s berth, and a hide-house was no place to learn seamanship in. I had become experienced in hide-curing, and everything went on smoothly, and I had many opportunities of becoming acquainted with the people, and much leisure for reading and studying navigation; yet practical seamanship could only be got on board ship; therefore, I determined to ask to be taken on board the ship when she arrived. By the first of August, we finished curing all our hides, stored them away, cleaned out our vats, (in which latter work we spent two days, up to our knees in mud and the sediments of six months’ hide-curing, in a stench which would drive a donkey from his breakfast,) and got in readiness for the arrival of the ship, and had another leisure interval of three or four weeks; which I spent, as usual, in reading, writing, studying, making and mending my clothes, and getting my wardrobe in complete readiness, in case I should go on board the ship; and in fishing, ranging the woods with the dogs, and in occasional visits to the presidio and mission. A good deal of my time was spent in taking care of a little puppy, which I had selected from thirty-six, that were born within three days of one another, at our house. He was a fine, promising pup, with four white paws, and all the rest of his body of a dark brown. I built a little kennel for him, and kept him fastened there, away from the other dogs, feeding and disciplining him myself. In a few weeks, I got him in complete subjection, and he grew finely, was very much attached to me, and bid fair to be one of the leading dogs on the beach. I called him Bravo, and the only thing I regretted at the thought of leaving the beach, was parting with him.

Day after day, we went up the hill, but no ship was to be seen, and we began to form all sorts of conjectures as to her whereabouts; and the theme of every evening’s conversation at the different houses, and in our afternoon’s paséo upon the beach, was the ship—where she could be—had she been to San Francisco?—how many hides she would bring, etc., etc.

Tuesday, August 25th. This morning, the officer in charge of our house went off beyond the point a fishing, in a small canoe, with two Kanakas; and we were sitting quietly in our room at the hide-house, when, just before noon, we heard a complete yell of “Sail ho!” breaking out from all parts of the beach, at once,—from the Kanakas’ oven to the Rosa’s house. In an instant, every one was out of his house; and there was a fine, tall ship, with royals and skysails set, bending over before the strong afternoon breeze, and coming round the point. Her yards were braced sharp up; every sail was set, and drew well; the Yankee ensign was flying from her mizen-peak; and having the tide in her favor, she came up like a race-horse. It was nearly six months since a new vessel had entered San Diego, and of course, every one was on the qui-vive. She certainly made a fine appearance. Her light sails were taken in, as she passed the low, sandy tongue of land, and clewing up her head sails, she rounded handsomely to, under her mizen topsail, and let go the anchor at about a cable’s length from the shore. In a few minutes, the topsail yards were manned, and all three of the topsails furled at once. From the fore top-gallant yard, the men slid down the stay to furl the jib, and from the mizen top-gallant yard, by the stay, into the maintop, and thence to the yard; and the men on the topsail yards came down the lifts to the yard-arms of the courses. The sails were furled with great care, the bunts triced up by jiggers, and the jibs stowed in cloth. The royal yards were then struck, tackles got upon the yard-arms and the stay, the long-boat hoisted out, a large anchor carried astern, and the ship moored. Then the captain’s gig was lowered away from the quarter, and a boat’s crew of fine lads, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, pulled the captain ashore. The gig was a light whale-boat, handsomely painted, and fitted up with cushions, etc., in the stern sheets. We immediately attacked the boat’s crew, and got very thick with them in a few minutes. We had much to ask about Boston, their passage out, etc., and they were very curious to know about the life we were leading upon the beach. One of them offered to exchange with me; which was just what I wanted; and we had only to get the permission of the captain.

After dinner, the crew began discharging their hides, and, as we had nothing to do at the hide-houses, we were ordered aboard to help them. I had now my first opportunity of seeing the ship which I hoped was to be my home for the next year. She looked as well on board as she did from without. Her decks were wide and roomy, (there being no poop, or house on deck, which disfigures the after part of most of our vessels,) flush, fore and aft, and as white as snow, which the crew told us was from constant use of holystones. There was no foolish gilding and gingerbread work, to take the eye of landsmen and passengers, but everything was “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.” There was no rust, no dirt, no rigging hanging slack, no fag ends of ropes and “Irish pendants” aloft, and the yards were squared “to a t” by lifts and braces.

The mate was a fine, hearty, noisy fellow, with a voice like a lion, and always wide awake. He was “a man, every inch of him,” as the sailors said; and though “a bit of a horse,” and “a hard customer,” yet he was generally liked by the crew. There was also a second and third mate, a carpenter, sailmaker, steward, cook, etc., and twelve, including boys, before the mast. She had, on board, seven thousand hides, which she had collected at the windward, and also horns and tallow. All these we began discharging, from both gangways at once, into the two boats, the second mate having charge of the launch, and the third mate of the pinnace. For several days, we were employed in this way, until all the hides were taken out, when the crew began taking in ballast, and we returned to our old work, hide-curing.

Saturday, Aug. 29th. Arrived, brig Catalina, from the windward.

Sunday, 30th. This was the first Sunday that the crew had been in San Diego, and of course they were all for going up to see the town. The Indians came down early, with horses to let for the day, and all the crew, who could obtain liberty, went off to the Presidio and mission, and did not return until night. I had seen enough of San Diego, and went on board and spent the day with some of the crew, whom I found quietly at work in the forecastle, mending and washing their clothes, and reading and writing. They told me that the ship stopped at Callao in the passage out, and there lay three weeks. She had a passage of little over eighty days from Boston to Callao, which is one of the shortest on record. There, they left the Brandywine frigate, and other smaller American ships of war, and the English frigate Blonde, and a French seventy-four. From Callao they came directly to California, and had visited every port on the coast, including San Francisco. The forecastle in which they lived was large, tolerably well lighted by bulls-eyes, and, being kept perfectly clean, had quite a comfortable appearance; at least, it was far better than the little, black, dirty hole in which I had lived so many months on board the Pilgrim. By the regulations of the ship, the forecastle was cleaned out every morning, and the crew, being very neat, kept it clean by some regulations of their own, such as having a large spitbox always under the steps and between the bits, and obliging every man to hang up his wet clothes, etc. In addition to this, it was holystoned every Saturday morning. In the after part of the ship was a handsome cabin, a dining-room, and a trade-room, fitted out with shelves and furnished with all sorts of goods. Between these and the forecastle was the “between-decks,” as high as the gun deck of a frigate; being six feet and a half, under the beams. These between-decks were holystoned regularly, and kept in the most perfect order; the carpenter’s bench and tools being in one part, the sailmaker’s in another, and boat-swain’s locker, with the spare rigging, in a third. A part of the crew slept here, in hammocks swung fore and aft from the beams, and triced up every morning. The sides of the between-decks were clapboarded, the knees and stanchions of iron, and the latter made to unship. The crew said she was as tight as a drum, and a fine sea boat, her only fault being, that of most fast ships,—that she was wet, forward. When she was going, as she sometimes would, eight or nine knots on a wind, there would not be a dry spot forward of the gangway. The men told great stories of her sailing, and had great confidence in her as a “lucky ship.” She was seven years old, and had always been in the Canton trade, and never had met with an accident of any consequence, and had never made a passage that was not shorter than the average. The third mate, a young man of about eighteen years of age, nephew of one of the owners, had been in the ship from a small boy, and “believed in the ship;” and the chief mate thought more of her than he would of a wife and family.

The ship lay about a week longer in port, when, having discharged her cargo and taken in ballast, she prepared to get under weigh. I now made my application to the captain to go on board. He told me that I could go home in the ship when she sailed (which I knew before); and, finding that I wished to be on board while she was on the coast, said he had no objection, if I could find one of my own age to exchange with me, for the time. This, I easily accomplished, for they were glad to change the scene by a few months on shore, and, moreover, escape the winter and the southeasters; and I went on board the next day, with my chest and hammock, and found myself once more afloat.