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The early days of women at sea

Throw her overboard
Wives and the sea
Women in disguise
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Throw her overboard

The traditional view for centuries was that women had no place at sea. They weren't strong enough either physically or emotionally. Men would be distracted and led to vice. 

Many people thought that to have a woman on board would bring bad luck to a ship. A terrible storm was bound to destroy the vessel and everyone on it. This was ancient superstition and deeply ingrained amongst sailors as truth. In Suzanne Stark's book 'Female Tars' she tells of an example in the middle ages when sailors gave in to this fear with horrible consequences. At the height of a storm off the coast of  Cornwall, panicking men in a fleet of ships began to throw their female passengers to the sea. Over sixty women were drowned in this way in the hope of appeasing the storm and saving themselves. It failed to work and the majority of men, including their commander, Sir John Arundel, died.

[20417] Figurehead for HMS Bristol

magnifyFigurehead of H.M.S. Bristol
In later years the only woman happily accepted on board by many sailors was the ship's figurehead. These wooden figures in the bow of the ship have traditionally been used for luck for many centuries and were made to embody the spirit of the ship. They were carved into many designs, mainly mythological creatures. From the 1770ís human figures became more frequently used, particularly women. Despite being viewed as unlucky aboard a ship, women were perversely believed to be the best navigators. Superstition amongst sailors said that the female figurehead should have eyes to find a way through the seas when lost, whilst her bare breast would shame a stormy sea into calm. Pliny first recorded this belief in the power of female nudity over 2000 years ago.

This section will examines the slow evolution across centuries of the relationship between women and the sea. It explores the stories of women that sought adventure for themselves and ran away to sea in disguise, even taking to piracy in some cases. There are the stories of women that accompanied their husbands on ships and even raised their children on board. Some of them learning to navigate and plot courses, becoming perhaps the first women to gain a legitimate role in this man's world.


Throw her overboard
Wives and the sea
Women in disguise
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