So it is no surprise to read, in David Cordingly's "Women Sailors and Sailors' Women," (Random House, $14.95, 250 pages) that in the heyday of British sail, women went to sea, disguised as men, and distinguished themselves.
One of them, who went by the name of William Brown, even became captain of the foretop, a most dangerous and demanding job.
As Cordingly explains, "The topmen were responsible for going aloft in all weathers and furling or setting the highest sails (the topsails and topgallants). The captain of the foretop had to lead a team of seamen up the shrouds of the foremast, and then up the shrouds of the fore-topmast and out along the yards a hundred feet or more above the deck. With their feet on a swaying foot-rope, the men had to heave up or let go of the heavy canvas sails, difficult enough in fine weather but a hard and dangerous job in driving rain and rough seas."
How these women were able to get away with it, in the close proximity and lack of privacy of sailing vessels of yore, is what makes this book fascinating reading.
The most fascinating women who went to sea dressed as men must surely be, as Cordingly points out, the pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. They sailed with Captain John Rackam, or Calico Jack, as he was known. It is an amazing coincidence that of all the pirates in the Caribbean, these two women ended up on the same ship at the same time. They were eventually captured and put on trial, and only escaped the death sentence because they were both pregnant.
This maritime history is structured as a voyage: we start in home port, and we follow the press gangs, the ships at sea, the role of women on board, both official and unofficial, and back to port again. The narrative focuses mainly on the 18th and 19th centuries, and on British and American ships and ports, with occasional forays to the Pacific with American whaling ships. Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of women and their relationship with sailing or sailors.
Cordingly takes us from women on the waterfront --prostitutes and tavern owners, to sailors' wives and girlfriends, to women pirates, to sirens and mermaids, and lighthouse keepers.
One of the most famous sailors' women was Lady Hamilton, Admiral Nelson's mistress. They met at her husband's house in Naples where he was stationed, and their love affair lasted until his death, giving rise to scandalous gossip, and inspiring countless books, movies and a play.
All these women, whether onboard ship, or waiting for their loved ones on land, showed amazing fortitude and courage, strength of character and extraordinary devotion to their husbands. Onboard, they endured cramped quarters, foul weather, and dangerous battles. On land, they were often short of money, and had to run the farm or family business, and raise the children by themselves, all the while wondering if their husbands would return or be lost at sea. If husbands did die on duty, wives were entitled to a pension or compensation of some kind. But it was haphazard and uncertain, and sometimes challenged by other women who also claimed to be married to the same man. "A wife in every port" sometimes turned out to be true.
Maybe that is why some women opted to sail with their husbands. One of the best-known stories is that of Mary Patten, who took over the command of the ship when her husband fell ill. She had fortunately learned navigational skills from him, and managed to get the ship and its crew safely from New York to San Francisco, battling fierce storms off Cape Horn. Not only was she barely 19, but she was also four months pregnant.
Another kind of heroine was the lighthouse keeper. There were no official female keepers in England, as in the United States, but wives and daughters often helped their husbands or fathers, and took over from them when the men were either absent or incapacitated.
Ida Lewis is the most famous of the American lighthouse keepers, credited with having saved many lives. She was visited by President Ulysses S. Grant who, according to legend, got his feet wet when he stepped ashore, and was credited with declaring, "I have come to see Ida Lewis, and to see her I'd get wet up to my armpits if necessary."
It is ironic that women on board ships were considered bad luck, and yet they were believed to have special powers over the waves.
"This belief that the naked female body could calm storms may account for the large number of ships' figureheads that feature a woman with one or both breasts bared." Not only did the figureheads represent Greek goddesses and abstract figures like Faith, Hope and Charity, but ships were often given female names and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who was also supposed to have a special link to the moon and the stars, therefore to the tides and the sea.
Mermaids and sirens have figured in folklore and sagas from Homer's "Odyssey" to the Rusalka of the Danube, and from Shakespeare to Hans Christian Andersen. Oberon, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" describes his encounter with a mermaid in these terms:
"And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song."
Familiar with the devastating strength of the wind and the waves, it is no wonder that sailors were in awe of such powers.
Last but not least are the offshore fishermen's wives. Apart from the usual chores and child-rearing duties, these women also made all their men's gear.
"They knitted their jerseys and socks, sewed up their oilskins, and made their flannel shirts. They repaired the nets, helped the men unload the boats, and packed the fish in barrels." It was a hard life, and a precarious one, too. One storm could wipe out half the male population of a village. Out of 279 men and boys who put to sea on the east coast of Britain, in the autumn of 1881, 189 were drowned, 129 out of one village.
The lives of these men and women were immortalized by numerous artists whose paintings, as Cordingly put it, "are a salutary reminder of the crucial part the women played in keeping the local economy going." Some of these paintings are illustrated in this book, the most poignant being "A Hopeless Dawn" by Frank Bramley showing a fisherman's wife with her head in her mother's lap, mourning the loss of her husband.
This is a fascinating, thrilling and meticulously researched account of women and the sea by the author of "Under the Black Flag". Cordingly worked for 12 years at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.