Women aboard: the most famous female sailors of all time

Women aboard: the most famous female sailors of all time

For a long time women were just not allowed to sail on board a ship. Yet, undeterred, some of them still managed to conquer the seas. Which ones made history?

According to sailing superstition, women were bad luck on board and their mere presence could lead to misfortune. Sailors held the belief that if women were on a ship, it would anger the gods, causing violent storms and waves. According to more prosaic views, women were simply feared as a distraction to sailors that could lead to discord and acts of violence. Yet, even from ancient times, there have always been brave women who took to the seas — whether for sustenance, protection of their country, love or revenge. Let their stories inspire you.

Seafaring professions were officially barred to women until the 20th century, and participating in the operation of merchant ships was only possible through family ties. As a result, some courageous women disguised themselves as men in order to get on board, but their career was often short-lived. Even among pirates, women were not welcome. But this still didn't stop some from choosing to sail under the pirate flag in disguise, even at risk of the death. In order to survive they had to master all the skills of seamanship and get used to the hard life aboard a pirate ship. And many who did survive, went on to leave their mark on maritime history. 

Gradually over time, women began to assert themselves more on the seas — as captains' wives (certainly not just as decoration), others as lighthouse keepers, and eventually gained admission to naval schools.

Voyaging pioneers: from Vikings to Pirates

1. Lagertha

Lagertha, © Morris Meredith Williams

Lagertha, © Morris Meredith Williams

Lagertha, a Viking shield-maiden, ruled in the 9th century AD in what is now Norway, and according to the chronicle Gesta Danorum, was the first wife of Ragnar Lothbrok, King of the Vikings. Despite Ragnar later marrying Thora, he sought Lagertha's assistance when he encountered difficulties later on in life. Offering 120 ships to the man "who had forsaken her", she played a decisive role in the battle: Lagertha, who "had an indomitable spirit, though frail in stature", surprised the enemy from behind, causing panic and assisting Ragnar to victory.

2. Jeanne de Clisson (1300–1359) 

Jeanne de Clisson

This French noblewoman, also known as the Lioness of Brittany, became a pirate to avenge her husband, who had been executed by the French king for alleged treason. Selling her property and buying three warships (painted black and with red sails), the pirates attacked French merchant ships in the English Channel, always leaving a witness alive from the captured ship to deliver a message to the king. Later on Jeanne de Clisson ended up marrying Walter Bentley, a military representative of King Edward III of Britain. After 1357, when both nations were exhausted and the war had come to a halt, Jeanne and Walter were granted the barony of La Roche-Moisan as compensation.

3. Sayyida al Hurra (1485–1561)

Sayyida al Hurra, meaning "noble lady who is free and independent", was the queen of Tetuan in northern Morocco, known for her pirate activities against Spain and Portugal. Born into a prominent Muslim family of Andalusian nobles, she was forced to flee to Morocco after the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. Al-Hurra considered this an unforgivable humiliation and formed an alliance with Oruç Reis, the governor of Algiers and corsair, known in the West as Barbarossa. With Barbarossa controlling the eastern sea, Al-Hurra ruled the Mediterranean.

4. Lady Mary Killigrew

The fate of Mary Wolverston (before 1525) or Lady Killigrew (after 1587) was predetermined by her surroundings — she was the daughter of Lord Wolverston, a former pirate, and married Sir Killigrew, also a pirate, who was later appointed Vice-Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I. Supporting her husband's pirate activities, Mary was a tough and unscrupulous trader who coordinated hiding treasure at Arwenack Castle, made deals with smugglers and raided ships. After raiding the Maria of San Sebastian, the nearly 60-year-old Lady Killigrew was sentenced to death, eventually being pardoned by the Queen.

Inspired by these stories of courageous women? How about taking a sailing course?

5. Grace O'Malley (1530–1603)  

Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley was an outstanding Irish leader who successfully defended her territories against both the English government and hostile Irish clans. Although she had a brother, after the death of her father, the ruler of Umalla, it was she who took over and went to sea to defend the territory (she even gave birth to her first child on board ship). When the English began to occupy Ireland, O'Malley fortified the coast and offered support to the Irish rebels. In September 1594, she negotiated a truce with Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich Castle in Latin (Grace O'Malley, who refused to bow to the Queen as she did not recognize her as Queen of Ireland, spoke no English, Elizabeth I spoke no Irish).

6. & 7. Mary Read (1685–1721) & Anne Bonny

Mary Read & Anne Bonny

Mary Read and Anne Bonny were two pirates renowned for their ruthlessness. Read was born to the widow of a sea captain who had perished at sea. When Read's older brother died, to continue getting monetary support from her in-laws, Mary’s mother begun dressing her up as a boy. Growing up as a boy, Mary enjoyed it so much that she joined the British military as a man. However, she later married a Flemish soldier, to whom she confessed everything but found herself penniless after his death. So again, in a man's disguise, she was recruited onto a ship bound for the Caribbean. After pirates ambushed Captain Jack Rackham, Mary joined them and fell in love with one of them, who turned out to be another woman in disguise, Anne Bony. Together with Jack Rackham, legend has it, they formed a love triangle, but in 1720 they were all captured. Although Mary and Anne managed to delay their hanging by claiming to be pregnant, Mary fell ill with a fever in prison and died. Anne's wealthy father bailed her out and she changed her name, later getting married and having eight children.

8. Jeanne Baret (1740–1807) 

This French botanist was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Her lover and well-known botanist, Philibert Commerson, had been chosen to be part of French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville's round-the-world expedition. In order to accompany him as his assistant, they came up with a plan to disguise her as a man. Unfortunately, her identity was found out during the voyage, with her and Commerson eventually remaining in Mauritius. She later returned to France.

9. Zheng Yi Sao (1775–1844) 

Zheng Yi Sao

The most successful female pirate in history, also known as Ching Shih, was born into humble circumstances. At the age of 26, she married Zheng Yi, commander of the Red Flag Fleet. After her husband's death, the 32-year-old Ching Shih controlled the largest pirate fleet in history: an army of 1,200 men (with a crew of 70,000) that dominated the South China Sea. Notorious for for her harsh punishments for disobedience, she implemented strict rules that women of raided villages must not be harmed, and made rape punishable by death. After being pardoned by the Chinese emperor, Ching Shih remarried and ran a gambling house.

10. Anne Jane Thornton (1817–1877)  

Anne Jane Thornton

By the age of 15, Anne, from Donegal in Ireland, had fallen in love with Captain Alexander Burke but was heartbroken at his decision to travel to New York. So, disguised as a boy, she set off herself across the ocean, only to learn on arrival that her beloved had died. Again in disguise, in an attempt to get back to London she worked on ships as a cook. Eventually she succeeded in doing this (as Jim Thornton of Donegal), but not before her identity had been discovered. Through reports in the newspaper, her story became a sensation in London and despite being offered large sums of money to perform on stage, she declined. With the help of London's Lord Mayor she returned to her native Donegal and went on to write a book about her adventures.

11. Mary Lacy  (1740–1801) 

No history of seafaring can overlook Mary Lacy — a British sailor, shipwright and memoirist who was the first woman to pass an exam and a receive a pension from the British Admiralty. Born in the county of Kent, she was a self-described wild child and more than a handful for her mother — so at the age of 19 she ran away from home disguised as a boy and boarded the ship Sandwich, adopting the name William Chandler. As the Navy was engaged in the Seven Years War at the time, they didn't ask many questions. On board, Mary suffered a series of hardships, from fistfights to a bout of rheumatic fever which worsened so much that in 1760 she ended up in hospital. After her recovery, she was assigned to the Royal Sovereign, where she remained until the end of the war in 1763. After her discharge from the navy, she obtained a position as a ship's labourer in the Chatham dockyard. Working hard and despite being nearly found out, she went on to pass her exams and become a shipwright in 1770. However, in 1771 rheumatism forced her to stop working and she applied to the Admiralty for a pension under her real name Mary Lacy. Her pension was granted.

Who else was riding the waves?

12. Grace Darling

In 1838, the British steamship Forfarshire was struck by a storm near the Farne Islands, causing it to hit a rock. Lighthouse keeper William Darling and his 23-year-old daughter Grace made two perilous trips to the rocks and were able to rescue nine survivors (sadly, 43 passengers perished). For her efforts, Grace received a Silver Medal for Bravery and several monetary rewards, including one from Queen Victoria herself. Unfortunately she was unable to enjoy her fame for long, dying just four years later.

13. Mary Patten    

In 1856, the Neptune's Car set sail from New York to San Francisco, commanded by Captain Joshua Patten who was accompanied by his 19-year-old, then pregnant wife Mary. During the voyage, Captain Patten was forced to relieve the First Mate of his duties, due to lack of trust, and so took on the role himself. However, while sailing around Cape Horn, Captain Patten fell ill, losing his eyesight and hearing. Mary, who had been on several voyages before, took on the role of captain while caring for her sick husband. With the help of the Second Mate and crew, the ship arrived safely in San Francisco. Mary's insurance company paid thousands of dollars for saving the ship and the Patterns returned to New York, where Mary gave birth. Unfortunately her husband died shortly afterwards.

Women record-breakers in modern times

14. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz (1936–2021 )

Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz

Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz became the first woman to sail around the world solo. Setting sail from the Canary Islands in March 1976 and returning there in April 1978, she had covered 31,166 nautical miles (57,719 km) in 401 days. She only narrowly beat New Zealander Naomi James.

15. Naomi James

While Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe solo, Naomi James (born 1949) was the first woman to sail around Cape Horn single-handed. Strangely, she couldn't swim until she was 23 — she had previously worked as a hairdresser before boarding a large ocean liner bound for Europe. After she and her husband Rob James won the 2000-mile Round Britain Race, she ended her career as a sailor in 1982.

16. Nancy Wagner

Nancy Wagner came from a seafaring family, but she never imagined she'd make a living at sea — when she was growing up, women simply weren't in positions like that. Originally majoring in communications, she noticed an ad in the media that the U.S. federal marine academy in Kings Point, New York, was opening to women applicants. Among the first women admitted to the school in 1974, she went on to become the first female ship pilot in the United States, a real pioneer. She served as an advisor to the captains of large cargo ships and tankers, entering and leaving San Francisco Bay — a pilot must know the local tides, currents, wind, weather... Although initially challenging, she managed to earn the respect and trust of others.

17. Jessica Rose Watson

In 2010 and at the age of just 16, Jessica became the youngest person in history to complete an uninterrupted solo circumnavigation of the world. Although her record was not recognised by the World Speed Sailing Record Council (WSSRC) as she didn't complete the minimum distance necessary, her feat still deserves the greatest of respect.

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