Woman and the sea

Woman and the sea

Ships and sailboats have long been thought of as a male domain. Even allowing a woman onboard was considered bad luck for hundreds of years, but then so was meeting a redhead (male or female) or someone with flatfeet before a sailing trip! Superstitions aside, history is full of stories of brave women who defied convention and set new standards for seafaring sisters everywhere. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are just a few of their stories to inspire all the ladies (and men) out there who are thinking of taking up sailing.

Shipmates in Disguise

The very first female sailors went to sea disguised as men and many of their stories will never be told. From those we know of, some stand out, such as Grace O’ Malley (1530 – 1603), the Pirate Queen. Legend has it that she cut her hair short and stowed aboard dressed as a boy and learned how to sail on her father's boats. She quickly learned the ropes and her sailing skills were better than most of the male sailors at the time. She eventually rose to command a fleet of vessels and men along the west coast of Ireland.

Ann Chamberlyne (1667-1691) was the first known female sailor in British sailing history. She dressed in men’s clothing and joined her brother's sailboat's crew in 1690, fighting valiantly against the French at Beachy Head in the Nine Years War.

The French botanist Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) was reportedly the first woman to circumnavigate the earth. Disguised as a man, she sailed around the world on the La Boudeuse, an armed sailing frigate. The ship departed in 1766 for the first French circumnavigation of the globe. Jeanne sailed with her partner as his supposed valet, in pursuit of her passion for science and plants.  

Hannah Snell (1723- 1792) joined the army in 1745 using the pseudonym James Gray. She later joined the navy as a cook's assistant and then became a common seaman. She fought in many naval battles and was considered a brave and adept sailor, spending a total of nine years at sea.

The Olympians

Since the early days of the Olympics, women have participated in the Olympic Sailing Competitions. In the 1988 Olympic Games specific women’s event was included on the sailing programme. There are now four different women’s events and the number of female sailing athletes has grown, partly thanks to the increased support available to women in all sports.

Hélène de Pourtalès became the first female Olympic champion as part of the winning team in the 1-2 ton sailing event. She was one of the first woman ever to compete at the Olympics in 1900. She competed for Switzerland in the Yachting event, as the only female crew member on the Swiss boat Lérina.

Scottish sailor Shirley Robertson became the first British woman to win consecutive Olympic gold medals, competing in the Yngling (keelboat) class. She went on to be named female World Sailor of the Year by the International Sailing Federation. In addition, she is the only woman to have taken the helm on the superyacht circuit steering the 45-metre Salperton in three regattas.

Pippa Wilson, from the United Kingdom, continues to be one of the greats. Alongside Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton, she won a gold medal in the Yngling (keelboat) sailing class at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Solo Sea women

Circumnavigating the globe alone on a sailboat is no easy feat. Here are just some of the ladies whose strength and determination got them through the trip

Polish sailor Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz, known as “First Lady of the Oceans”, was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly in a sailboat. She is also a shipbuilding engineer and sea captain. She set sail in 1976 from the Canary Islands alone in her 10m yacht Mazurek, and returned 401 days later.

She only narrowly beat another fine female sailor, New Zealander Naomi James, who completed her own single-handed circumnavigation on 8 June 1978 in her yacht Express Crusader. This voyage was notable as it was the clipper route via Cape Horn and was faster, at only 272 days. Naomi beat Sir Francis Chichester’s solo round-the-world sailing record by two days.

Australian Kay Cottee was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in her 11 metre yacht, Blackmores First Lady. She made the trip in 189 days, alone and unassisted. Kay Cottee’s impressive achievement established the route that is customarily attempted by sailors chasing speed records.

Ann Davison (1914–1992) was the first woman to sail the Atlantic Ocean single-handedly. She departed Plymouth, England at the age of 39 in her 7 metre boat Felicity Ann in 1952. Storms pushed her south and she eventually touched landed in Dominica in 1953.

Jessica Watson is an Australian sailor who, at 16, completed a southern hemisphere solo circumnavigation. Departing Sydney in 2009, she returned to on 15 May 2010, three days before her 17th birthday. To be considered a global circumnavigation, the trip needed to be a minimum of 21,600 nautical miles. Watson fell short; however, she never claimed the voyage to be an attempt, preferring the simpler term 'around the world’.

Laura Dekker is the controversial Dutch sailor who announced her plans to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe single-handed in 2009. A Dutch court intervened and prevented Dekker from departing while under shared custody of both her parents. Finally in 2010 she was allowed to make the attempt and successfully completed an assisted solo circumnavigation in her 11.5-metre sailboat, Guppy. Five hundred and eighteen days later she finished at the age of 16.

In 2013, British sailor Jeanne Socrates became the oldest woman to sail solo round the world non-stop at the age of 70 in her 12m yacht Nereida. Two hundred and fifty nine days later she returned.


Tracy Edwards, the British sailor who she skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989, becoming the first woman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy.

Ellen MacArthur is a British sailing legend. She is Britain’s top female sailor and highest achieving woman in competitive distance sailing. She received Yacht master qualification at the age of 18 and was Young Sailor of Year in 1995. Her solo circumnavigation of Great Britain in her yacht Iduna was completed in the same year. In 1996, she undertook her first transatlantic passage. She also holds the record for a single-handed woman monohull east-to-west passage. She went on to break many more records.

By no means a complete list these are just some of the inspiring female trailblazers in the sailing world. Female sailors, known for their grit stamina and physical strength, have certainly made their presence felt and are an inspiration to any adventurer.


By Merryn Wainwright

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