Women on the Water

 Female sailors have only recently made their presence felt in the nautical world of sailing.

Despite ships being considered a domain for men, and despite women being considered “bad luck” and not even being permitted to step aboard for centuries, a few brave women challenged the norms and set new standards for all of us. Thankfully girls now have strong role models of women who are competent and confident in their choice of environments such as the 1995 America’s Cup Women’s Team who made such a mark on the sport. This week’s blog post celebrates some of those early women who made a difference.

 We have to go back to England to locate the very first woman sailor, Ann Chamberlyne (1667-1691). She joined her brother’s ship’s crew in 1690 and fought the French at Beachy Head.

220px-jeanne_barreFrench botanist Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) was reportedly the first woman to circumnavigate the earth, albeit disguised as a man.   Her story is chronicled in the book The discovery of Jeanne Baret: A story of science, the high seas, and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, by Glynis Ridley.

In the “New World”, Mary Ann Brown Patten sailed a ship from Cape Horn to San Francisco in 1855 after her husband, Captain Joshua Patten, became ill.  She was 19 and pregnant with their first child. The 1st Mate, who had been discharged from his duties by Captain Patten for his lack of navigational ability and sleeping on duty, implored her to reinstate him. She refused and took responsibility for the ship and its navigation.  Her husband had been teaching her how to sail a ship all along. 


Mary Patten faced down a mutiny during the voyage and safely navigated the clipper Neptune’s Car to port. According to the New York Daily Times, she also learned medicine during the voyage to care for her injured husband and is credited with keeping him alive. She delivered the ship’s cargo intact and on time after 136 days at sea.  The ship’s insurers, recognizing that she had saved them a fortune, rewarded her with $1000 in February of 1857. Captain Patten died in July of 1857.

In modern times,

At the age of 39, Ann Davison (1914-1992) was the first woman to sail the Atlantic Ocean single-handedly. She departed Plymouth, England in her 23 foot boat Felicity Ann she set sail across the Atlantic on 20 November 1952, aiming to make land-fall in Antigua. Storms pushed her south and having been driven past Barbados she eventually touched land in Dominica on January 23, 1953. After an extended stopover in the Caribbean she sailed north to Florida and finally to New York by way of the Inter-coastal Waterway. Her account of the voyage was published as My Ship Is So Smallbeating-001

And in California, Sharon Sites Adams (1930-    ) a diminutive woman in her 30s became the first woman to sail alone from California to Hawaii, which she did in 39 days in her 25-foot folk-boat named “Sea Sharp” in 1965.  In 1969, she returned to San Diego from Yokohama, Japan in her boat named “Sea Sharp II” after seventy-four days sailing a 31-foot ketch from Japan becoming the first woman to sail solo across the Pacific. She was named the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year in 1969.

San Diego’s local sailing scene still reflects its male heritage but the sight of women on the water, in charge and in front, is no longer a sight to behold and women have made their mark on the global scene at recent Olympic events.


Ashley Gardner, Women’s Museum of California Board Member
Learn more about Women On The Water here
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