Women and the Sea logo
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Myths and Mermaids
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Life in Port
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Going to Sea
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Lighthouse Keepers
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Changing Roles for Women
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Women in the Military
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Women in Wartime Production
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Early Yachting and Racing
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Women and the Sea in the 20th Century
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In This Chapter


Women Posing
as Sailors
Women and
the British Navy
Merchant and
Whaling Wives


"Whither You Go I Shall Go":
Merchant and Whaling Wives

Sea travel was a rough and desolate life for the men of the crew. For the wife of a sea captain, it was even more confining and socially isolated. Wives were not free to roam the ship or associate with the crew. Much of the time they were expected to remain below decks in the cabin. Their work on the ship's behalf included helping with navigation, making sails, and assisting their husbands with keeping the logbook and accounts. And, of course, they bore and raised children.

A few of these women left a rich record of their voyages in journals, letters, or diaries. For many others whose words have been lost, objects gathered from their travels help us to fill
in the picture of what life on board must have been like.

Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas

Mary Patten
Mary Ann Brown Patten, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Mary Patten on the Deck of Neptune's Car
Gordon Johnson
Courtesy of the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company

Mary Patten was newly married and barely out of her teens when she set out with her husband, Joshua, on the clipper ship Neptune's Car, bound for California. During the voyage, Joshua taught Mary navigation, meteorology, the ropes and sails, stowage of cargo, and many other ship's duties. During the voyage, the first mate was caught sleeping on duty and was thrown into irons. The second mate, Mr. Hare, had little knowledge of navigation, and Captain Patten took most of the watches to keep the ship on course. When Patten collapsed from the strain, the former first mate organized a mutiny. Mary stood up to the sailors, convincing them that she could navigate and get them to California on time. When they reached Golden Gate Bay, California, Mary personally took the helm and navigated the ship to port, delivering the cargo to the owners intact. The trip had taken 136 days. After the voyage Mary became famous, but she ignored all the attention and quietly took her husband home on the vessel George Law. A hospital at King's Point Academy in New York is named for her.

Cape Horn Passage, Arctic Stream
1885 Edwin Levick, photographer
The Mariners' Museum,
Edwin Levick Collection

A nineteenth-century sailing vessel would have been severely tested by the dangerous seas around Cape Horn. Mary Patten stunned the maritime world by safely rounding the cape and delivering her cargo to California on time and intact.

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