June 6: Yar

When last we left Richard Henry Dana, he was chillaxing in San Diego. Well, his ship is approaching Cape Horn, and Spring Break is over:

Rain, sleet, snow, and wind, enough to take our breath from us, and make the toughest turn his back to windward! The ship lay nearly over on her beam-ends; the spars and rigging snapped and cracked; and her top-gallant masts bent like whip-sticks. “Clew up the fore and main top-gallant sails!” shouted the captain, and all hands sprang to the clewlines. The decks were standing nearly at an angle of forty-five degrees, and the ship going like a mad steed through the water, the whole forward part of her in a smother of foam.
I hardly need to add that after this, they let go the halyards and clewed down the yards. That's what I'd do -- I'd be clewing down those yards so fast, I wouldn't even have time to ask what yards are, or how you might go about clewing them down.

This is a gripping yarn, if you don't mind reading a lot of technical Yankee Clipper-type sailing terms without ever learning what they mean. (It does help if you know what "masts" are -- they're the long pointy things, I think.) The anonymous person who makes up these readings makes a good call by starting us at the end of the previous chapter, when the sailing is literally smooth, so that,, when the big swell washes up at the start of this chapter, you're in sympathy with the below-decks tongue-wagging:
Old Bill, who was somewhat of a croaker,—having met with a great many accidents at sea—said that if that was the way she was going to act, we might as well make our wills, and balance the books at once, and put on a clean shirt. “’Vast there, you bloody old owl! You’re always hanging out blue lights! You’re frightened by the ducking you got in the scuppers, and can’t take a joke! What’s the use in being always on the look-out for Davy Jones?”
One of the problems you occasionally run into when reading the classics is that it's the victim of the Moore's Law-like explosion in creative output in the last century. First the movies appropriated seagoing tales, and played it straight, and then magpie parodists such as myself appropriated what the movies did. So it's hard to engage it the way it was meant to be engaged (assuming that's a desirable and/or possible goal).

And, of course, voyages like this were a lot more gripping to a 19th-century audience, because that was how they got their coffee. There was a personal stake in it.

What's timeless, of course, is the need to make men out of boys, and Dana throws in an Outward Bound-type example:
My companion on the yard was a lad, who came out in the ship a weak, puny boy, from one of the Boston schools;—“no larger than a spritsail sheet knot,” nor “heavier than a paper of lampblack,” and “not strong enough to haul a shad off a gridiron,” but who was now “as long as a spare topmast, strong enough to knock down an ox, and hearty enough to eat him.”
Which is a much better phrase than "developed leadership skills."

(I like to think that, thanks to this voyage, this anonymous boy developed the courage and fortitude to keep Catholics out of exclusive Boston clubs.)

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