Category Archives: nautical history

Herstory: Seawomen of Iceland

To visit Reykjavik’s Maritime Museum you would think there were no seawomen in Iceland’s history. (As of November, 2017, that is.) I first came across the mention of Icelandic female fishers in A Brief History of Iceland by Gunnar Karlsson (copyright 2000, translated by Anna Yates). A single, telling caption beneath a photograph (of a  restored turf shack used by crews during the fishing season in previous centuries) caught my attention:

“This shack which has survived at Stokkseyri, south Iceland, is known as Puridur’s Shack after Puridur (translated as Foreman, or, helmsman) Einarsdottir, who for 25 years was helmswoman of a boat that fished from Stokkseyri in the first half of the 19th century. It was not uncommon for women to crew fishing boats, but they very rarely stood at the helm.” ( Karlsson, pg. 24.)

Except for the brief caption, Karlsson says nothing more of female fishermen.

A Google search soon brought up Margaret Willson’s book —  Seawomen of Iceland (University of Washington Press;2016.

Willson, a professor of anthropology and Canadian studies, has experience working aboard fishing vessels in Tasmania in the 1970’s. In her very readable, painstakingly researched book she finds evidence for women working at sea historically (and has identified over fifty born before 1900.) The author includes chapters on present-day seawomen and looks at the Icelandic fishing industry, workforce, and working environment at large.

“The historic and present contributions of the seawomen of Iceland are virtually invisible,” says Willson. “These seawomen, who in recent decades have formed as much as 13 percent of Iceland’s fishing fleet, are unrecognized, even within the communities where they live…. Nearly all Icelanders with whom I have spoken, with the exception of a few seawomen themselves, are sure seawomen never existed.”

By keeping silent, by ignoring, we forget — thereby editing history through exclusion; it’s herstory too.

Thuridur’s winter fishing hut in the village of Stokkseyri, has been restored; a sign next to it gives an account of her life.

Willson, Margaret. 2016. Seawomen of Iceland. (University of Washington Press; 2016. 233 pages with appendices, notes, bibliography, index, and photographs. Highly recommended.

Iceland’s Immigrant Song

Iceland’s original immigrant song may have been the poems composed by the helmsmen and women of the open rowboats, to aid them in remembering choice fishing spots. The first immigrants to Iceland were Norse, who arrived in the ninth century. They came primarily for the arable land, which was increasingly unavailable in Scandinavia.

Ranching and hay farming to feed the livestock became the main activities. Most landowners fished seasonally, to supplement their food supply.

For 500 years or so, Icelandic shipwrights built their open boats with driftwood. After the 15th century they used imported oak, spruce, and pine. According to the museum’s display, it took two men about six weeks, on average, to build a six-oar boat.

From the 900s until the late 1800’s Icelanders fished in open row boats crewed by family members and hired hands.

Only landowners could own fishing boats. Often the landowners’ sons, daughters, and wives rowed the boat and strung the lines. They made anchors and line-sinkers from lava rock — buoys and floats from driftwood.


Steam changed everything.  Gone were the open boats and the hand lines. Once steam trawlers came into use, factory workers knotted sisal hemp nets to catch more fish.

In the nineteenth century a fifth of Iceland’s population emigrated to North America. Today the population of Iceland is less than 350,000; less than five percent are employed in fishing. Tourism has become the leading industry.

Credits to the Reykjavik Maritime Museum and Margaret Willson. 2016. Seawomen of Iceland. University of Washington Press.

Women at Sea was a special exhibition at the museum in 2016. Why it isn’t a permanent feature is a mystery to me. In researching Icelandic seafaring women I came across Margaret Willson’s book, the Seawomen of Iceland, which I’ll review in a future blog.

Women on board

Transgenders serving on ships is nothing new.

I’ve long been interested in women on ships in the Age of Sail — particularly women posing as men, passing as men, doing what was considered men’s work. This interest arose when I signed aboard HM Bark Endeavour, a sailing replica of Captain James Cook’s historic ship, and lived the life of an 18th century seaman for three weeks. This life included heaving, hauling, standing watch, taking my trick at the helm, and going aloft, out on the yard arm to make and furl sail. It included stringing my hammock from the deckhead, snug alongside the other recruits, and taking my turn in the galley. (Although my husband was aboard as crew too, we never once slept together — nor did we even sleep next to each other!) What I learned was that although the work is hard and requires some training, it doesn’t require a Y chromosome.

I’m not by definition transgender. Nor is my fictional character — though in her mid-18th century world she has found it more convenient to be male than female. Actually, she’s found it expedient to be male.  The term transgender first appears in 1974, according to Miriam Webster’s online dictionary, so the concept, as such, doesn’t exist in my series. But the problems are similar: Individuals not allowed to serve in the military because of their apparent sex.

As I’m writing my way through Patricia’s story in the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures, I’ve learned a lot about life in the 18th century from a female perspective  — a young white female of British heritage. Much depended upon parentage and social standing.  Much depended on luck. And of course much depended on their sex.

Hannah Snell, Royal Marine. Born 1723, died 1792. Buried with the old soldiers at Chelsea Hospital, which was her wish.

The Age of Sail was an Age of War. The emerging nations of Europe waged battles — entire wars — at sea. The need for sailors, marines, and craftsmen continued for several centuries, offering a few hardy and daring females an opportunity to escape social and economic confines, to find adventure – or maybe they were just looking for three meals a day and a hammock to sleep in. For a destitute young woman, life aboard a ship was safer than life on the streets.

What we know about these desperate imposters comes mostly from naval records, broadsheets, and the romanticized biographies and fictionalized memoirs written by or about these cross-dressing or transgender figures. One of the most well known and well documented 18th century female soldier/sailor was Hannah Snell who served first as a soldier in General Guise’s regiment, then as a Royal Marine in Frasier’s Regiment under the name of James Grey. She saw action and was wounded several times in India  “Here is a Woman, and an English Woman, who, notwithstanding the many Dangers and Vicissitudes she underwent for near the Space of five Years, during her Travels, was never found out to be of the feminine Gender.” — from The Female Soldier; the Life and Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell. (Project Gutenberg) Hannah herself couldn’t write but she sold her story to a London publisher Robert Walker. After she left the service she performed military drills on stage in costume and sang military songs and The Gentleman’s Magazine reported her story for its readers’ enjoyment.  Hannah Snell’s story is unusual in that the Royal Hospital recognized her military service and granted her a pension.

Stories like Hannah Snell’s have inspired my historical novels. I’m not out to prove that cross-dressing or transgender women existed — we know they did — but to explore why they chose that path and how they might have carried it off. Although Hannah Snell’s memoir (published anonymously but likely penned by her publisher) claims finding her estranged husband was her inciting reason, I suspect that was a literary convenience for the publisher, and one the readers might readily accept. The chance of her finding her errant seaman husband was slim — but the chance of her earning a living was guaranteed. Not to mention respect, opportunity, adventure — and a pension.

There may not have been great numbers of cross-dressing women on board ships in the Age of Sail. But there were some. They existed. They carried it off. At least, for a while.
















The Notorious Captain Hayes; a conversation with author Joan Druett

Joan Druett

The American-born seafarer William “Bully” Hayes was a notorious celebrity in his own lifetime and in the century after his death became the antihero of numerous accounts, novels, secondhand memoirs — and a Hollywood movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Michael O’Keefe.  At least two Pacific watering holes have called themselves Bully Hayes — one in Hawaii and one in New Zealand.

Much has been written about this 19th century adventurer, accused of countless cons, crimes, swindles and brutalities — some true, some embellished, some pure fiction. Overshadowing his misdeeds, or perhaps driving them, is the portrayal of Captain Hayes as a charismatic and dauntless character —  an enduring, mythical,  antihero.  This image was created largely by the popular media of his time, says maritime historian Joan Druett. Her latest book, The Notorious Captain Hayes; The Remarkable True Story of William ‘Bully’ Hayes, Pirate of the Pacific, is the most definitive biography written about the man, the myth, the legend. The author has spent years reading everything in print about Hayes, studying contemporary newspaper articles, letters, diaries, ship logs and shipping lists in an effort to separate fact from fiction.

The result? An objective but very engaging popular history of a sea captain, trader, showman and blackguard known for his many dupes and crimes — some mere swindles — others abhorrent (rape, coercion, and blackbirding — the transport of poor refugees as cheap labor). Joan likens the mythical Captain Hayes to Hollywood’s Captain Jack Sparrow. The bad guy we love, an enduring archetype.

JoanDruettJoan Druett is an award-winning author of numerous maritime history and nautical novels, and a former Fulbright Scholar. She is married to Ron Druett, a maritime artist who has illustrated many of her histories. They live in New Zealand. Here’s a conversation we had via email which gives some insight into her writing process:

Joan, what was the most surprising discovery you came across in your research for The Notorious Captain Hayes?

That he was so likeable! One chronicler of the many yarns told about this rogue wrote that he was “as charming a rascal as ever broached a keg or stolen port,” and everything I read about him — no matter how thunderously critical — confirmed this image.  It was little wonder, really, that he became magnified into the Robin Hood of the Pacific Ocean, because he was a-larger-than-life, charismatic figure. And yet the way he cheated people was truly shocking.”

In your preface you say “There was a lot of garbage written about him” Can you elaborate on your process of separating fact from myth?

By going through the newspapers of the time, including many shipping lists, I was able to build up a detailed timeline, and prove that he had an “alibi” for many of the farfetched yarns.  The first was that he took over the ownership of the clipper bark Canton during her voyage to Singapore in July 1854, but the shipping lists of the San Francisco papers had him in command of another ship on the Californian coast in July 1854. So he was innocent of that particular crime. And there were many other stories that were founded on idle gossip.  As well as this, Bully Hayes loved to tell tall tales about himself, and these were embellished and repeated all over the Pacific.”

You liken the myth of Bully Hayes to the now iconic Disney antihero, Captain Jack Sparrow – a great comparison and one which helps to explain his appeal.   Can you compare Captain Hayes’s him to any real life celebrities?

“It’s the combination of wickedness and likeability that makes Jack Sparrow a fictional version of Bully Hayes — that and the touch of humor.  And it is that combination that makes Bully Hayes stand out from political crooks and Wall Street pirates.  None of them as attractive as he certainly appears to have been.”

Your artist husband Ron has illustrated some of your past work. Did he have an artistic or other role in the making of the Bully Hayes biography?

“No.  The designer, the publisher and I had fun making up the jacket, as we wanted it to look like a “wanted” poster, and Ron had fun watching us at work.”

Joan, I’m an admirer of you work; your nonfiction is lively and your fiction has a sense of realism and historical accuracy. Do you have a preference?

“I used to say that I put on weight when writing nonfiction and lost it when writing novels.  How true that was I am not sure, but historical novels are very hard work.  Enjoyable, but not as easy as researching material, thinking about it, and then using it within a nonfiction framework.”

I’d hardly call researching material and writing a legendary man’s story easy. How long have you been researching Bully Hayes?

“Fifteen years!  I started in 2001, by reading everything in print.  Then I moved to newspapers.  As you can imagine, my eyesight kept on giving up on the job.  Trawling through microfilms isn’t fun. It was digitization that made the job possible.”

Hilo Bay

While reading Joan’s book this weekend on my e-reader I was reminded of a personal story associated with the myth of Bully Hayes and the long list of boats he became associated with — boats with evocative names such as Otranto, Black Diamond, Ellenita, Shamrock, Lotus, and many others — many of which came to a bad end. When Bob and I moved to Hawaii we bought Topaz, a 20-year-old sloop in need of some work, anchored off Hilo. I well remember closing the deal on the shores of backwater Reeds Bay, Bob writing the check to a scruffy, roguish, charming American sailor named Hayes. (We weren’t bilked: the boat was sound, had clear title, and we enjoyed many years sailing her). Our man Hayes immediately bought another boat named Pumpkin Patch and purportedly sailed to New Zealand with his wife and young daughter.  This was in 1993. After that, we lost track of him… Somehow –unfairly — I associate him with the legendary Captain William “Bully” Hayes, who died more than a hundred years ago but whose name and reputation lives on in the islands of the Pacific.

Follow author Joan Druett on her World of the Written Word blog.  For more information about her books, please visit  her website,  and Old Salt Press.















Weymouth’s First Maritime Literary Festival March 12-13 2016


I’m looking forward to attending England’s first maritime literary festival and meeting up with many of my nautical writer friends and acquaintances, and hopefully making new ones. Organized by James Farquharson, the event will be taking place the weekend of March 12-13, 2016 at The Royal Dorset Yacht Club and several other venues in Weymouth.

The festival includes 37 official events organized by James Farquarson, which are predominantly lectures given by well-known maritime historians David Childs, Anne Collier, Dr. James Davy, J.D. Davies, Richard Dunn, Dr. Steven Gray, Brian Lavery, and Barbara Tomlinson, maritime archaeologist Gordon LePard and wreck divers Graham Knott and Selwyn Williams, photographers Steve Belasco and Nigel Millard, sailing gold medalist Lijia Xu — and a significant number of well-known and emerging nautical novelists, autobiographers and nonfiction writers, including the ever popular Julian Stockwin and Old Salt Press author Antoine Vanner.

Nine of the presenters are women. They are Emma Banford (newspaper and magazine editor; sailor), Lizzie Church (Regency novelist), Fiona Clark Echlin (author, poet, playwright and academic), Anne Collier (historian and author), Angela Cockayne (artist), Laura James (author) and Kate Kelly (author and scientist), Barbara Tomlinson (author and Curator Emeritus, Natl. Maritime Museum), and Lijia Xu (gold medalist sailor and author).

For a complete list of speakers and events (which include a maritime church service and a Moby Dick Big Read, artistic exhibit, and showing of the movie) see the official programme. 

The events, held over the course of two days, are sold a la carte. I have so far bought tickets to three events and will surely add others.

A festival such as this is a great opportunity for writers to learn from each other and support maritime literature. We’re connected by the sea, both physically and thematically. This coming together is important to share ideas and inspirations. Gatherings also presents networking opportunities for writers. A dozen or so of us will be meeting informally throughout the weekend to discuss topics such as writing process, publishing opportunities and marketing strategies. What better place than an old port town to have a maritime literary festival? Yes, there will be a pub crawl!

For more information and to purchase tickets in advance please visit Weymouth Leviathan Maritime Literary Festival website.

See you there?