Women & Sea: A Tale of Women Sailors

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A Woman’s Role

Since ancient times, women stood on the shores of seas and oceans waiting for their husbands to come home. Whether they were fishermen, tradesmen or explorers, the men went off in search of glory and new horizons, and their wives, daughters, and sisters stayed home watching and hoping to see them come home alive.

Over time, sailors developed hundreds of superstitions – from whistling, Fridays, red sunrises to having a woman on board. Yes, having a lady on a ship meant that there would soon be discord in what was supposed to be a tight brotherhood of men trapped on a tiny vessel together. Disaster could easily unfold, as dangerous as an approaching storm.

Women were simply not welcome out there, and the ocean was almost completely explored by men. The only ladies that saw ocean miles pass them by were the beautiful and busty figureheads so beloved by sailors.

While there are many reported spottings of Mermaids, like in 1493 by Columbus, there aren’t many records of women taking the wheel. In fact, most women who had seafaring related jobs were lighthouse keepers. This kept in line with the picture of a woman perched at the very edge of the ocean – waiting, guiding and praying for the safety of those at sea.

This was all about to change. The past 100 years bear witness to just how completely different the world has become. Currently career developement in maritime industry is available to both men and women, as well as sailboat charters all over the world.  Here is a short description of the women who took to the sea against all odds and made it easier for generations of brave, adventurous female sailors to try their luck, skills and chase their dreams across the seven seas.


Wives and Daughters

With the expansion of merchant marine ships in the 1800s, there was more room aboard, and not only for transported goods. Windjammers and other big cargo vessels still had pretty uncomfortable crew areas, but the officers’ and captain quarters became more bearable and private, if not a little luxurious.

This is a time when the wives of captains decided not to wait at home but instead make their home aboard these large vessels. They would often be secluded in private quarters, but still a part of the ships’ daily life. She would help sew, dispense medicine and comfort the crew.

 The Pacific Ocean was becoming crowded with merchant ships – the port of call for a British merchant vessel could be anywhere from Hawaii, the Philippines, San Francisco or the wild Alaskan fishing grounds. The wives of Captains developed their own social clubs in these ports and would support each other in what was undoubtedly a difficult life.

 Alice, the wife of Captain Durkee who was the master of the Balclutha (now a museum ship in San Francisco), gave birth to her daughter while en route to California. The baby girl was named India Frances because she was born on the Indian Ocean. A true daughter of the sea.

Hannah Snell

When it comes to doing it with no husband, there are only a few instances where early women broke the rules and went off to become sailors. There are some recorded examples of this, and one of the most peculiar ones is Hannah Snell.

 Snell was born in England in 1723. She gave birth to a daughter in her early 20s. The child died, and Hannah decided to search for her husband who ran off when she was pregnant. Here is where the story gets peculiar: she did so by taking his full name and dressing up like him. Perhaps it made travel easier in those days?

 One thing led to another, and she soon joined the army and fought against Bonny Prince Charlie in a regiment. She eventually deserted and signed up on The Swallow, and joined the Marines. (It was apparently super easy back then.)

 After many sea battles (she was even shot in the groin and had to find someone other than the ship’s surgeon to mend her in order to escape detection!) she revealed her true name upon returning home and got a soldier’s pension, and even a rare raise.


Naomi James

Naomi James began her sailing career while waiting for her husband to come home from a sailing race. If it was any other era, she would have stayed there and waited forever. But it was 1975 and while standing there and waiting she decided she would sail herself – solo, around the world.

 She didn’t learn to sail until she was in her twenties. She was a New Zealander born in a landlocked dairy farm, and it was her husband, a charter captain who taught her the ropes. She was a natural, and it was obvious there was salt running through her veins.

 Naomi James would be the first woman to single-handedly sail around the world. This feat took her 272 days. It was a harrowing journey including a broken mast and capsizing, losing a kitten overboard and straying off course. She wrote a book in 1979, titled “At One With the Sea”.

 Naomi is an inspiration to all sailors, not only women. In a world where it seems that you increasingly need a head start to succeed, Naomi proved that determination and a strong belief are the most important. She received damehood at the age of 29, still the youngest New Zealander to receive that honor.


Laura Dekker

Another New Zealander on our list, Laura Dekker is a sailor so young that a court had to step in in order to sort out custody issues in order to legally let her try to achieve her dream. She is a New Zealander only by birth – she was born on a 7-year sailing voyage. Her parents are German and Dutch.

 Unlike a lot of our heroines, this lady was born to sail. The first five years of her life were spent underway in her parents’ boat, and she learned to walk on her sea legs before she could walk on dry land.

 It might seem natural that this passionate young woman decided to do it solo so early, after having more sailing experience than any of the aforementioned ladies, despite her young age. In fact, her biggest legal foe was not her gender but her youth. She faced many obstacles like Dutch family services, postmasters and lawyers that told her she was too young to proceed, even if her family supported her.

 She succeeded in setting sail by herself and finally free from legal troubles she journeyed from Gibraltar on 21st of August, 2010. After 1 year and 5 months, she arrived in Simson Bay on Sint Maarten. It was January 21, 2012, and she was 16 years old, having left port at 14.

 If you are a parent, maybe this will make you hold your child closer today, and maybe it will think about trusting them more and letting them chase their dreams.


Sailors, Dames, and Heroes

Women had a much shorter time at sea then men. They missed the golden age of sail by a long shot, but modern day racers, professionals and pleasure cruisers have all the right tools at their disposal. It’s still a man’s world out on the oceans of the world, but it’s so much easier to inspire young girls to take the helm and lead others and to trust themselves.

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