BOOK REVIEW – Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860

Philip Hichborn, Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860. Edited by William H. Thiesen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010. Notes, appendices, index, 148 pp.

Review by Timothy G. Lynch
SUNY Maritime

In Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860, we are treated to a first-person account of what it was like to serve aboard a clipper ship in mid-nineteenth century America. The slim volume, part of the now-discontinued series on maritime history and nautical archaeology formerly published by the University Press of Florida (and now continued under the able stewardship of Gene Smith and James Bradford at the Naval Institute Press) is based on the diary of ships’ carpenter Philip Hichborn. The original manuscript was discovered by Coast Guard Historian Bill Thiesen while he was researching material for his own book, and makes for a fascinating read.

Most accounts of sailing ship experiences are based on the journals of officers or, less frequently, of men sailing before the mast. Hichborn adds a new dimension to this binary discussion—as a part of the ship’s crew he is able to relate universal experiences to the reader, and as a relative outsider (though he would have a long and distinguished naval career following this journey) he is able to comment on things that seem extraordinary to him. The 143-day trip provides ample material for Hichborn to comment candidly on the social life and living conditions aboard ship, as well as to revel in the amazing features of the natural world. Squalls, ice floes, doldrums and scorching heat mark the voyage, and Hichborn routinely questions why he chose to leave the relative comforts of his Massachusetts home. True, some of the material is mundane, ranging from weather conditions to the abysmal quality of food served in the galley, but there are also insightful comments made about the nature of life under sail, including penetrating analysis of the role of the captain and the inherent dangers of life at sea. One of Hichborn’s fellow crewmen loses his life after a frightening fall, and many of those remaining harbor serious misgivings about the competencies and abilities of their curmudgeonly captain, leading to a dramatic series of events that almost culminates with a mutiny.

The journal is contextualized in a well-written introduction, whereby Thiesen introduces the main players and tells the history of Dashing Wave, one of the most well-known clippers of its day. A series of appendices, including a sail plan and glossary of nautical terms, allows even the most landed of readers to quickly acclimate themselves to the nautical world, and closes the loop on many of the major figures covered by the journal, including the ship itself. A nice compilation of images and photographs chosen from the leading archives of nineteenth century maritime history add a poignant visual element that similarly help the reader better understand the subject matter.

Cruise of the Dashing Wave is an easy and interesting read that adds a new dimension to our understanding of life on a nineteenth century clipper. The human dimensions are as compelling as the challenges posed by the natural world, and Hichborn and Thiesen have done a great job in making these available to 21-century readers. This volume is a welcome addition to the extant literature in the field.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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