The best books about women at sea through history (including some pirates)

Who am I?

I picked these books because I love telling stories about bold women, and pirates float my boat. Being able to incorporate so much of history into my seafaring women, making them real and believable, makes writing that much more enjoyable. When I can incorporate real historical tidbits into my work it’s a good writing day, and I wanted to share my favorite research books with other readers. 

I wrote...

Sea Change

By Darlene Marshall,

Book cover of Sea Change

What is my book about?

David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! What he has is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician captured by the American privateer and ordered to save Fletcher’s brother. Charley Alcott's medical skills are put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley's life as well as the patient's. There will be hell to pay – and maybe a plank to walk – when Captain Fletcher learns Charley is really Charlotte Alcott.

A war is raging on the world's oceans, and the two enemies will fight their own battles and their attraction to each other as they undergo a sea change neither of them is expecting, but cannot deny.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bold in Her Breeches: Woman Pirates Across the Ages

Why did I love this book?

When I was a little girl I wanted to grow up to be a pirate, and women pirates in particular inspired me. They still do. This collection expands on some of the well-known pirates like Ann Bonny, Mary Read, and Grace O’Malley, and brings diversity with tales of non-European pirates who ruled fleets of ships. When I’m writing my pirates, I can look at the historical record and know that while my work is fiction, there’s plenty of historical evidence for women seizing command and carrying the day.

By Jo Stanley (editor),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Bold in Her Breeches as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As far back as 480 BC, when Artemisia commanded her Greek trireme, women have taken to the high seas in pursuit of life and liberty. Simultaneously revered and reviled by superstitious male mariners, the realities of these women pirates' lives have been lost in a murky fog of sexual and racial preconceptions.
Bold in her Breeches takes a wholly fresh look at these mythical figures and places them in their true historical and cultural contexts. From Artemisia to the contemporary women pirates of today, via eighteenth-century Grace O'Malley and nineteenth-century Cheng I Sao, we learn why women took to piracy,…

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

By Joan Druett, Ron Druett (illustrator),

Book cover of She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

Why did I love this book?

Joan Druett is the dean of authors writing about women at sea. Her books bring to life not only the pirates and transgressive women, but the wives and daughters of sea captains who sailed alongside their men and shared the ship’s command and the global adventures. When I want good, historical data I turn to Druett and the tidbits she incorporates into her writing bring dry historical figures to life.

By Joan Druett, Ron Druett (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked She Captains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In an innovative look at maritime history from the female perspective, Joan Druett introduces a remarkable array of characters and re-creates their adventures with a captivating immediacy and wit. There are 'pirate queens' armed with cutlasses and pistols who strike fear into the hearts of sailors. There are sea-loving women and women eager to be with the men they loved, who dress as men and join unsuspecting crews where they serve with honour and daring. The brave housekeepers and rescue workers are here too - including twenty year old Grace Darling, whose rescue of nine castaways in 1838 inspired a…

Book cover of Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail

Why did I love this book?

Stark’s book is a fascinating, in-depth study of women who worked on British warships in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some were wives of warrant officers, others were disguised and serving as sailors in wartime. There were far more petticoat sailors than standard histories and fiction about war at sea would lead one to suspect. I found it easier to write my own books once I learned that “chicks in breeches,” women serving while disguised as men, wasn’t at all far-fetched. 

By Suzanne J Stark,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Female Tars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a very long time now I have delighted in histories, letters, records, and memoirs to do with the Royal Navy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century; but Suzanne Stark's book has told me many, many things I did not know, and I shall keep it on an honored shelf."--Patrick O'Brian

The wives and female guests of commissioned officers often went to sea in the sailing ships of Britain's Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there were other women on board as well, rarely mentioned in print. Suzanne Stark thoroughly investigates the custom of allowing prostitutes…

Book cover of The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea

Why did I love this book?

Sjoholm goes far back in history to document tales of women who went to sea, and commanded ships, in Phoenicia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Ireland. There was no holding back strong seafaring women and I love seeing their stories brought to life. Grace O’Malley in particular won the respect of her English foes, including their strong ruler, Elizabeth I.

By Barbara Sjoholm,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Pirate Queen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Pirate Queen begins in Ireland with the infamous Grace O'Malley, a ruthless pirate and scourge to the most powerful fleets of sixteenth-century Europe. This Irish clan chieftain, sea captain, and pirate queen was a contemporary of Elizabeth I, a figure whose life is the stuff of myth. Regularly raiding English ships caught off Ireland's west coast, O'Malley was purported to have fought the Spanish armada just hours after giving birth to her son. She had several husbands in her lifetime, and acquired lands and castles that still dot the Irish coastline today. But Grace O'Malley was not alone. Since…

Book cover of Flying Cloud: The True Story of America's Most Famous Clipper Ship and the Woman Who Guided Her

Why did I love this book?

When we think of seafarers’ wives, too often we envision them up on lonely widow’s walks, looking out to sea and waiting for their men to return. We don’t think of them as heroines in their own right, but Eleanor Creesy was an exceptional woman by any standard. Eleanor grew up in the New England fishing center of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and studied weather, the ocean, and astronomy in the mid-19th century. When her husband became captain of The Flying Cloud on its maiden voyage, he took Eleanor along so he could utilize her expertise and she rose to the occasion, setting the world record for navigating a clipper ship from New York to California. Her ship would have been known as a “hen ship” because the captain’s wife sailed with him, but her own story deserves to be told and is captured in this engrossing history.

By David W. Shaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flying Cloud as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1851, Elanor Creesy, in a position almost unheard of for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century, served as the navigator on the maiden voyage of the clipper ship Flying Cloud -- traveling from New York to San Francisco in only eighty-nine days. This swift passage set a world record that went unbroken for more than a century. Upon arrival in San Francisco, Flying Cloud became an enduring symbol of a young nation's frontier spirit. Illustrated with original maps and charts as well as historical photographs, David Shaw's compelling narrative captures the drama of this maritime adventure.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in piracy, the British Royal Navy, and Ireland?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about piracy, the British Royal Navy, and Ireland.

Piracy Explore 123 books about piracy
The British Royal Navy Explore 53 books about the British Royal Navy
Ireland Explore 225 books about Ireland

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Maiden Voyage, Pirates!, and Blackbeard the Pirate if you like this list.