Friday, October 1, 2010

Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860 by Philip Hichborn, edited by WIlliam H. Thiesen



Why I read it: I know the editor.

Summary: Ship's carpenter Philip Hichborn, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, native, shipped out to take on a new job in San Francisco, en route to a fantastic career as a naval architect. Along the way he kept a journal that stands out from the typical ship's recordings. He hates the captain, and has no problem writing his thoughts about that fact. He constantly discusses his place on the ship in relation to the mates and the rest of the crew. His journal goes beyond dates and latitudes and into social aspects of life aboard a ship that most accounts leave out.

My Thoughts: Could I do it?

I just don't know. The passage of the Dashing Wave from Boston to San Francisco in 1860 took 143 days, nearly five months. There were becalmed times, and winter storms. But I don't know if that would have been my problem. I live in New England. I revel in the instability of nature.

No, I think that I'm too much a child of the late twentieth century. I love my creature comforts. I can go without my Wii. I can go without my cell phone. But I don't know how long I could go without showering. Call me a wuss. Go ahead. Then think about whether or not you could do it.

People of the 1800s were tougher than I am, and there's nothing wrong in admitting it. Philip Hichborn was born in to a world without daily showers, and lived in a world - for at least 143 days - in which he had to constantly prove his manliness. He expected to get into fights, and his anger poured out of his head and into his journal. Showering is, of course, just a metaphor. I just don't know if I could stand the life.

Hichborn was an intelligent man, that much shines through. He was one of two boys to graduate from Cambridge schools in 1855, and that puts him in an odd place when he boards the ship. He is, as far as one can tell, more learned, more literate than most of the men around him, though he does discuss swapping reading material with one of the mates. He was, in some ways, a fish out of water.

Living the passage through the eyes of one who was there, who drifted at sea knowing that the 1860 American presidential race had come and gone, and that he had no idea when he would find out who the winner was, was certainly an eye-opening experience. After all, the study of life is best attacked through varying perspectives. Ultimately, I'm glad Hichborn wrote the journal, and even happier that Bill Thiesen brought it back to life a century and a half after the journey.

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