Category Archives: women sailors

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.
















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?

Shining Light on our Ladies


I’m delighted for Patricia MacPherson, my 18th-century cross-dressing protagonist, to be among those fictional ladies in the spotlight this week, as part of Helen Hollick‘s October blog tour celebrating female protagonists through the centuries. Blog tours are fun ways to be introduced to authors you might not otherwise be familiar with. Welcome aboard my blog, a Sea of Words; charting a course from imagination to publication. As you can tell from the title, the major focus of my blog is the process of writing.

I was thrilled when Helen invited me to participate because I’ve been at work for several years now on Leaving Havana, the third book in the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series.

Patricia MacPherson came to me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She appeared in my imagination, insistent that I tell her story. It was the middle of the night while I was at the helm of the HM Bark Endeavour (yes! — I was taking my turn steering the famous replica ship!) on a passage from Vancouver to Hawaii in1999. My husband and I had joined the ship with a few dozen other middle-aged wannabe sailors, as “voyage crew” — temporary hands to help sail the old girl on a part of her journey around the world that year. When we signed on we agreed to stand our watch, climb aloft to make and furl sail, help clean and maintain the ship, and obey the captain and officers. For three weeks we essentially lived the lives of 18th century sailors, standing our watch, steering the ship, and scrambling up the ratlines and out on the foot rope beneath the yard arm high above the deck, to let loose or take in canvas. We took our turns at galley duty, we maintained the vessel, and when our watch was over we strung our hammocks from the deck head an slept, exhausted, until the ship’s bell roused us again. It was very much like a time machine back to life aboard an 18th century British sailing ship. I would later write an article published in Sailing Magazine about my experience, entitled Three Weeks Before the Mast.

But by the time I disembarked in Hawaii I also had the beginnings of a novel in my mind — a story about a young woman aboard an 18th century sailing ship — much like the ship I had just been a part of. The ship was my setting — I knew it intimately. Like me, my female protagonist would not be just a passenger.  One thing I had discovered first hand was that women can do anything men can do, when it comes to sailing or maintaining a ship. Maybe there was more truth than I realized to those old 18th century British ballads and broadsheets about girls going to sea dressed as men.

Although the character Patricia, had made herself known to me, and although I knew the setting like the back of my hand, I had a lot of research to do — six years’ worth — before I had a finished manuscript. In that research I discovered many documented cases of girls who really did go to sea disguised as boys. In most cases they were only discovered while being treated for life-threatening battle wounds. Think of the many who might never have been caught!

My novel Star-Crossed was published by Knopf in the fall of 2006 as a Young Adult historical novel. In 2007 it was chosen by the New York Public Library to be among the Books for the Teen Age.  I wrote the rough draft of a sequel, but Knopf wasn’t interested in a series; they had published it as a stand-alone. My agent declined.  But Tom Grundner, founder of Fireship Press and Editor-in-Chief, wanted to acquire my series and in 2011 Surgeon’s Mate; book 2 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series was published. In 2012 Fireship Press published a slightly revised Star-Crossed  (now out of print) as Barbados Bound; book 1 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series.   Tom was enthusiastic about my books and we were discussing a third book when he died suddenly. My plans for the third book were abandoned for a time, as I felt I had lost not just an editor but a mentor.

Patricia has languished for a few years, seemingly lost at sea, while I’ve completed several other novels I had in the works. Tired of waiting to be rescued, she has managed to jury-rig a sail and find the wind to fill it. She insists I continue her story. I’m not sure I could have, had I not found a new mentor and several trustworthy writing “mates” who know nautical history and are supportive and encouraging of our efforts — Patricia’s and mine. I am very grateful for these writers — and for the readers who have taken the time to let me know how much they want to read more adventures of Patricia MacPherson. Unlike Star-Crossed, the version Knopf published , the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure series are adult novels, not YA . Adobe Photoshop PDF

Barbados Bound (first published as Star-Crossed by Knopf in 2006 as a stand-alone YA historical novel.)

Portsmouth, England,1760. Patricia Kelley, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Barbadian sugarcane planter, falls from her imagined place in the world when her absent father unexpectedly dies. Raised in a Wiltshire boarding school sixteen-year-old Patricia embarks on a desperate crossing on a merchantman bound for Barbados, where she was born, in a brash attempt to claim an unlikely inheritance. Aboard a merchantman under contract with the British Navy to deliver gunpowder to the West Indian forts, young Patricia finds herself pulled between two worlds — and two identities — as she charts her own course for survival in the war-torn 18th century.

In writing Patricia MacPherson’s story I wanted to explore what it might have been like for a young woman in the eighteenth century to live, work and reinvent herself aboard a ship.  Although it’s a work of fiction, I have attempted to maintain historical accuracy.

Eighteenth century merchantmen and British Naval ships did indeed carry women — wives, girlfriends, passengers, prostitutes, laundresses — even though the Admiralty had rules on the books prohibiting it.  Children too, were commonly found aboard ships.  Some were born on the passage and some went to sea at an early age for their livelihood.

According to numerous sources, some women really did enlist in the navy and army in male disguise.  Several accounts tell of women who worked for months, and in some cases years, before being found out.  These impostors carried out their duties, performed bravely in battle and were only discovered to be female after being wounded in the line of duty.  (The artifice may have occurred more often than has been recorded, simply because some women may have successfully carried it off.)

Thought the work was hard and not without danger, a ship provided room and board, and a chance for adventure.  In fact, it still does.

Surgeon’s Mate; Book 2.

Surgeon's Mate Medium


It’s late October, 1762. After surviving the deadly siege of Havana, Patrick MacPherson and the rest of the ship’s company are looking forward to a well deserved liberty in New York. But what happens in that colonial town will change the surgeon’s mate’s life in ways she could never have imagined. Using a dead man’s identity, young Patricia Kelley MacPherson is making her way as Patrick MacPherson, surgeon’s mate aboard His Majesty’s frigate Richmond. She’s become adept at bleeding, blistering, and amputating limbs; but if her cover is blown, she’ll lose both her livelihood and her berth aboard the frigate. The ship’s gunner alone knows her secret – or does someone else aboard suspect that Patrick MacPherson is not the man he claims to be? Surgeon’s Mate, book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series, is a work of fiction inspired in part by the historical accounts of actual 17th and 18th century soldiers, sailors and marines who were in fact women. Included in this group were Christian Davies, Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy, Mary Anne Talbot, Deborah Sampson, to name but a few.

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(Here’s a photo of me at the 2012 Historical Novel Society Conference costume party — cross-dressed as Patricia’s male persona, Patrick MacPherson.)

Leaving Havana; Book 3 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series 

In this work-in-progress Patricia continues her association with Yankee smugglers at great risk, and is reunited with three people from her past, making some rash decisions with enormous, life-changing consequences.  Look for it to be released by Spring, 2016…


Now let me hand the microphone to Helen Hollick, an amazing historical novelist who writes in several different eras.  If you are an historical novel aficionado, chances are, you already know this author — a force of nature, she is. I had the good fortune to be on a nautical historical panel with her at the 2012 Historical Novel Conference in London and since I have become acquainted with her and her work I’ve been greatly inspired by her writing process and her writing style — not to mention her energy and willingness to encourage and promote historical fiction by emerging writers.


Helen Hollick

Helen lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with Forever Queen. She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, very engaging, somewhat salty, pirate-based fantasy adventures. The ocean connects us all, and that’s how I first found Helen. As a supporter of Indie Authors Helen Hollick is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award. Please check out her blog post today, Let us talk of many things

As for her ladies — her female protagonists and supporting characters – every sea captain needs a woman to come home to, but Captain Jesamiah Acorne (ex-pirate) has three to choose from: Tiola ( a midwife and a white witch) ‘Cesca, an English woman with a Spanish name (a spy) and Alicia… well, all Alicia wants is Jesamiah’s money…


A rollicking nautical adventure!

Now, let me reacquaint you with Anna Belfrage.
Anna is a delightful author I featured here on my Sea of Words blog last year. (See, Anna Belfrage talks of time travel and other writing secrets)


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.


Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.  When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, chances are she’ll be visiting in the 17th century, more specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This series is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

 Meet Anna’s ‘lady’…. She was blackmailed into marrying an unknown knight. She hadn’t expected having to save his life as well…

visit Anna and   – and a chance to win TWO of Anna’s books!



We are historical fiction writers shining the light on our female protagonists; thank you for your attention!

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If you’ve enjoyed our posts please share and tweet #LightOnOurLadies. We appreciate your interest!  In case you came late to the party, here’s what you missed:

The first three weeks of the #LightOnOurLadies tour:

6th October: Helen Hollick  with Pat  Bracewell and  Inge Borg

Light on ladies 1

13th October: Helen Hollick with Regina JeffersElizabeth Revill and Diana Wilder

Ladies post 2

20th October : Helen Hollick with Alison Morton  and Sophie Perinot

Ladies post 3

Keep that spotlight shining, ladies!





Hannah Snell, Royal Marine

One of the most well-known cross dressers who went to sea was Hannah Snell, born in 1723, to a hosier/dyer and his wife on Fryer Street in Worcester, England.  Her grandfather was Captain-Lieutenant Snell who took part in the conquest of Dunkirk and the battle of Blenheim, a turning point in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Hannah was one of nine children.  Except for one of her sisters, all nine grew up to become soldiers, sailors, or the wives of such.  Hannah reports playing army as a girl; no surprise, having six brothers.  She formed a company of young soldiers among her playfellows, of which she was chief.  “Young Amazon Snell’s Company” would parade through the town of Worcester.

After the death of her parents, Hannah went to London to live with her sister and brother-in-law James Gray, a carpenter in Wapping.  At twenty-one she married a Dutch sailor, James Summs, who abandoned her when she was seven months pregnant.  The baby didn’t live long and Hannah set out to find him, taking her brother in law’s name, and a suit of his clothes.  She claims to have enlisted in the army but soon deserted, then traveled south to Portsmouth and enlisting in the marines, where she served aboard the sloop-of-war Swallow.  The Swallow was sent to India with Admiral Boscawen’s fleet and Snell was sent ashore to fight the French in Pondicherry.  She was wounded numerous times.  One wound was to the groin.  She removed the ball and dressed it herself, with the help of an Indian nurse, so her sex would not to be discovered.  As soon as her health was restored she was sent on board the Tartar Pink to perform the duties of a common sailor, then was assigned to the Eltham man-of-war which set sail for Bombay.


Hannah Snell, Royal Marine in Captain Graham's company, Colonel Fraser's regiment.

Hannah Snell, Royal Marine in Captain Graham’s company, Colonel Fraser’s regiment.

Hannah Snell lived and worked as a man for more than four years.  When at last she returned to her sister and brother-in-law’s home in London, she quit her disguise — then capitalized on her bold experiences by selling her story to the publisher, Robert Walker, who wrote and printed it.  (Like many women of her time, Hannah could read but she couldn’t write proficiently.)  Hannah also went on tour, re-enacting military drills before a thrilled audience, achieving significant fame.  Hannah then applied for – and was granted –a pension for her war injuries.

Discovering that her estranged husband, James Summs, had been executed for murder, Hannah was free to marry again.  She did so, outlived that husband, then married a third time and gave birth to a son.  She lived on her pension, and on the money she made as a street peddler, to the age of 86 when she was committed to Bedlam hospital with “the most deplorable infirmity” (which might have been dementia and seizures secondary to neurosyphilis or meningovascular syphilis –forms of tertiary syphilis that present 4-25 years after infection).  If this was the most deplorable infirmity the former marine suffered from, she might have contracted it from her first husband.

Hannah died in Bedlam in 1792.

The Female Soldier or The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell was written, printed and sold by R. Walker, of London, in 1750.  Some of the incidents he might have exaggerated, confabulated or otherwise made up, but by and large, her story is believable.  Tales of women soldiers and sailors, disguised as men, were popular among Britain’s lower classes, who bought them in on the street in the form of inexpensive broadsheets and ballads.  The publication of Hannah Snell’s story gave wider recognition among the middle and upper classes; people who could afford to buy books.

The protagonists of the many stories and ballads of cross dressing women were said to be in search of boyfriends or husbands who had run off to war, or pressed into the navy.  This became a formulaic story, guaranteed to sell broadsheets and ballads.  This motivation was likely interjected by male writers who could imagine no other reason a young woman might want to join the army or the navy.

And why would they, you ask?  For the same reasons a young man might:  The paycheck, the billet, the food, the camaraderie, the adventure, the chance to be part of a greater cause, the opportunity for travel — and the possibility of meeting a man (or in some cases a woman) worthy of your love?  Most people lived hand to mouth, and struggled to get by.  If you didn’t have money, a title, or a good man to support you, life was very hard for an 18th century woman.  Who wouldn’t sell a petticoat and go to sea?

 All ye noble British spirits

That midst dangers glory sought,

Let it lessen not your merit,

That a woman bravely fought…


The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, with a Forward by Tom Grundner.  Fireship Press, 2008.  Tom Grunder encouraged my writing about the crossdressing Patricia MacPherson, and gave me this book to help me with my research.


For more salty history, visit my fellow shipmates blogging about all things nautical:

J.M. Aucoin

Helen  Hollick

Doug  Boren

Margaret  Muir

Julian  Stockwin

Anna  Belfrage

Andy Millen

V.E.  Ulett

T.S.  Rhodes

Mark  Patton

Katherine Bone

Alaric  Bond

Ginger Myrick

Judith Starkston

Seymour  Hamilton

Rick Spilman

 James  L. Nelson

S.J. Turney

Prue Batten

Antoine  Vanner

Joan  Druett

Edward James

Nighthawk News



Who wouldn’t sell a petticoat and go to sea?

A sailor takes her ease artwork by Eye Be Oderlesseye.

A sailor takes her ease
artwork by Eye Be Oderlesseye.

Women in breeches — I got caught up in the masquerade back in 1999, while serving as a voyage crewmember aboard the HM Bark Endeavour, a replica of James Cook’s 18th century ship, which was circumnavigating that year.  On my three-week passage from Vancouver to Kealakekua, Hawaii I worked alongside 53 officers and men (one of whom I was married to) to sail, steer, and maintain the ship.  Eight of us were female.  On this passage of a lifetime, I became intrigued with the idea of a woman dressing like a sailor and doing a man’s job aboard a ship – because that’s exactly what I was doing!  I figured if a middle-aged woman could do the work, surely a much younger gal would have no problem.


In spite of the persistent, old husbands’ tale that women are bad luck at sea, women have long been going to sea, luck be damned.  But for a period of several hundred years some of them had to resort to disguise.

And for some, it ended badly.  From the St. James Gazette, supplement to the Manchester Courier on July 5, 1890 we hear this snippet of a story:

The case of the poor little sea apprentice “Hans Brandt” who the other day fell into the hold of the barque Ida of Pensacola, at West Hartlpool and was killed, adds one more name to the long list of women who, for one reason or another, have put aside the garments of their sex and have donned the habits and imitated the ways of men.  Not until “Hans Brandt’s” body was being prepared for burial was it discovered that the Ida’s apprentice was a girl…  (

From the Renaissance through the Victorian age there are many acounts of women in disguise working aboard ship as sailors, servants, skilled craftsmen, marines –and even a few officers, such as Anne Chamberlyne, twenty-three year old daughter of a lawyer, who served aboard the Grifffin Fireship, commanded by her brother Clifford, during the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690.  Most of these femmes fared better than poor Hans Brandt who fell into the hold.  Some went on to write their memoirs.  Some became immortalized in folk songs.  And some, like Anne Chamberlyne, had memorials errected in their honor.

The first books I came across that were entirely devoted to women at sea were Joan Druett’s Hen Frigates, and She Captains; Heroines and Hellions of the Sea.  I soon discovered many other works, but Joan’s books introduced me to the world of women on ships.  Another of her books on the subject is Petticoat Whalers; Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820-1920. Over the years I’ve collected many more sources.  Historians Lesley and Roy Adkins, authors of several British Naval history books, have been very helpful in sharing their own research with me.

Just as I was writing this post, Andrew Beltz, one of the crew aboard “All Things Nautical” Facebook group gave me a hot tip about Louise/Louis Giradin, a French woman who masqueraded as a steward on La Recherche, which set out 1791 under the command of Bruny d”Entrecasteaux, in search of the missing La Perouse.

“She had appeared at Brest disguised as a man, with a letter of introduction to Mme Le Fournier d’Yauville. She persuaded her brother Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec, then second in command to d’Entrecasteaux, to recommend her as a steward on the Recherche. It appears that d’Entrecasteaux knew her secret, and gave his approval…  She had a small but separate cabin…  During the voyage, Girardin maintained a male identity, despite widespread suspicion. She even fought a duel with a crew member who questioned her gender… “  from — Journeys of Enlightenment  

While Louise Girardin is honored with a plaque in Tasmania,  few scholars have given serious attention to the many women soldiers and sailors of the pre-modern era.  Not many fiction writers have given life to their stories, either.  Crossdressing women on ships seem to be regarded by many historical novelists as unwanted intruders into the male domain of wooden ships.   Why can’t the damned dames just stay home, card wool, and mind the starving brats?  OK, maybe there were a few of these broads in breeches (obviously lesbians) — but NOT on my ship, dammit!  Julian Stockwin includes a crossdressing stowaway named Pookie in one of his Kydd adventures, but for the most part, they are shunned.51EKdjKF1vL__SL500_AA280_

But crossdressers were once objects of admiration.  Beginning in the Elizabethan era and continuing through the 19th century, stories and songs about young women gone to war on land or sea, were popular among the working classes of Great Britain and North America.  According to Dianne Dugaw, these folk songs were as well-known in their time as Blowin’ in the Wind was, in the 1960’s.  The female soldier or sailor was an enduring motif – a character who displayed both male courage and female fidelity.  In most of these ballads (Dugaw cites hundreds of them) the theme is that of a virtuous woman gone to war in search of the man she loves.  This heroine captured the imagination of the public for hundreds of years but died out in the twentieth century, as women’s rights became more of an issue — and perhaps more of a threat.

“But how did they get away with it?”

I can only throw out some educated guesses based on my own experience and what others have to say on the matter.

As Joan Druett, Suzanne Stark, and other nautical historians have pointed out, there were many young boys serving aboard these ships.   A female in breeches might easily pass as a teenaged boy.  We’ve all seen such epicene youngsters in that awkwardly beautiful stage of development; people who could be either male or female, we can’t be certain.

Before the twentieth century the navies didn’t require thorough physical exams.  The only time seamen were required to strip was if they were about to be flogged.  The navies needed capable men — especially when a war was on, which was much of the time in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.   If someone presented themself as a man and was dressed like a man, and gave a man’s name – why, he would be welcomed aboard, no questions asked.  Who cared if he had a smooth cheek and a soft voice?  Ample breasts are easily flattened.  Loose breeches rather than tight ones would hide what wasn’t there.  My fictional crossdresser Patricia/Patrick MacPherson is by nature flat-chested with boyish hips and a complexion ruined by freckles.  It’s only her voice she has to work on.  After a time it becomes second nature.

Having lived and worked aboard the Endeavour Replica, I can tell you that seamen are kept busy most of the time and people aren’t lurking around corners waiting for you to flash your undergarments or to see what’s hidden inside them.  Eighteenth-century ships were ill-lit and extremely dark belowdecks, even during the daytime.  People didn’t bathe often; they seldom changed their clothes.   Women likely held their bladders until after dark before relieving themselves in the heads, or the “seats of ease.”  People in crowded places, such as ships, tend to respect one another’s privacy.  As sodomy was punishable by death, men likely tended to keep their eyes and hands to themselves, once they sailed away from the prostitutes who came to the ship by the boatloads when the ships were at anchor.  Then again, the warrants could take their wives to sea with them –the ship was their home –so 18th century ships were not the exclusive male clubs some novelists make them out to be.   There were women on many ships and maybe some of these warrant’s wives recognized and helped their sisters in disguise.

What of menstrual periods, some ask me.  If you’re a squeamish male, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph.  Well, what of it?  I mean, can you walk into a crowded room today and pick out the women who are menstruating?  I doubt it.  There were rags — and there was oakum, the fibers of worn-out ropes picked apart and collected to reuse as caulking.  Pretty scratchy, but it might work in a pinch.  Beause many of the seamen suffered from constipation and bleeding hemmorhoids, blood-stained breeches would not draw much notice – and the stains could be covered up with tar, plentiful on a ship.   Then again, amennorhea may have been the rule.  The Mayo Clinic lists stress, low bodyweight and excessive exercise as conditions which can cause the cessation of menstruation.  Due to the hard work and limited diet, women posing as men might have skipped menses or have had very light flows, easily contained.  OK squeamish males, you can start reading again. 

Maybe some of these masquerading women had sponsors –  men or  women aboard who knew their secret and helped them get by.  Maybe they were friends or lovers on land.  Maybe the sponsor felt compassion for them.  Maybe they admired them.   Then again, maybe some of these women were coerced into giving sexual favors in return for guarding their real identity.

In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret (Crown Publishers; 2010) Glynis Ridley suggests that the the crossdressing Jeanne who went on Bougainville’s expedition as the botanist Commercon’s assistant, was gang-raped by some of the crew on the island of New Ireland, and subsequently became pregnant, delivering the baby on Mauritius, where she remained for seven years before completing her circumnavigation.  Ridley’s interpretations of the accounts of Bougainville and his officers, is a dark and chilling one.  I don’t always agree with the conclusions she comes to, but the case she presents is plausible.  Although in Ridley’s interpretation it wasn’t the sailors who gang-raped Baret, but the other servants and possibly, the ship surgeon.

So why did they do it? The paycheck was of course, the big draw.  Always in arrears, the pay was likely more than a femme sole could make selling fish — or selling her favors.  The roof over her head, leaky though it might be, was a nice perk.  As were the three square meals of weevily ship buscuit , mouldy cheese and salt beef.  A ration of grog and a hammock to sleep in?  And aboard a naval ship, the chance of prize money, which was divided among the crew!   Are you kidding me?  Who wouldn’t sell a ragged petticoat and go to sea?


But some females were coerced into the role of cabin boy by their masters.  Mary Anne Talbot, for instance.   Talbot’s master was militia captain Essex Bowen, who assigned her with boy’s clothing, the name of John Taylor, and brought her along to the West Indies as his personal servant.  We can only imagine the many tasks she was required to perform for him…  Another reported case is that of thirteen-year-old Rebecca Ann Johnson whose father dressed her as a boy and apprenticed her to a collier ship where she served four years.

But surely a few girls went to sea primarily for the adventure, as I did aboard Endeavour.

How many?  We’ll never know.  How did they get away with it?  We can only surmise.  What I can tell you for certain is that a woman can do a man’s job aboard a sailing ship.   I did it, and I earned the respect of my male watchmates, whose knees trembled as much as mine  the first time we climbed up the ratlines, up and over the futtock shrouds, on up to the cross trees and out on the foot rope to make and furl sail.  When no sail changes were required, we were put to work doing ship maintenance, which was never-ending.  And when, after four hours on watch we went below, we strung up our hammocks and collapsed from fatigue.

In summary, some crossdressers had inside help — someone who knew their secret and helped them — or forced them — to maintain their ruse.  But I believe a few enterprising females acted independently,  deftly pulling the wool over their shipmates’ eyes.  I base this on a phenomenon I call “male pattern blindness” or “androgenic visual deficit.”  Many ordinary objects are totally invisible to men who have this genetic trait, which has reached epidemic proportions in the twenty-first century.  Maybe you know someone with this handicap?  Someone who goes to the refrigerator for a bottle of beer but literally can’t see it lurking behind a jar of mayonaise, and calls to his wife, asking for help?



Having lived and worked with men, both at sea and on land (and having found countless bottles of invisible beer in the refrigerator) I think I know how a women could get away with it.  Dress like a man  (or a mayonaise jar) and pull your weight.  Do your duty, don’t cause trouble, and chances are good your watchmates won’t see past your seaman’s slops and your sunburned, tar-smudged face.   Apparently it worked for Hans Brandt — but watch out for open hatches.

In future blogs I’ll share more of my personal experiences as an ordinary seaman  aboard HM Bark Endeavour — and I’ll discuss individual crossdressing seamen in more detail.


By a Yankee Moon, a novel about a crossdressing sailor and book three of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series, will be available in 2014.  Barbados Bound and Surgeon’s Mate, the first two books in the series, are published by Fireship Press.

For more nautical posts please visit the rest of the fleet on this week’s blog hop, organized by Helen Hollick, author of  Sea Witch Voyages, a pirate-based fantasy, and other historical fiction.  A rising tide raises all ships!

J.M. Aucoin

Helen Hollick

Doug Boren

Linda Collison

Margaret Muir

Julian Stockwin

Anna Belfrage

Andy Millen

V.E. Ulett

T.S. Rhodes

Mark Patton

Katherine Bone

Alaric Bond

Ginger Myrick

Judith Starkson

Seymour Hamilton

Rick Spilman

James L. Nelson

S.J. Turney

Prue Batten

Antoine Vanner

Joan Druett

Edward James

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