The best books on women seafarers and pirates

Barbara Sjoholm Author Of The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea
By Barbara Sjoholm

The Books I Picked & Why

My Ship Is So Small

By Ann Davison

Book cover of My Ship Is So Small

Why this book?

It’s not just that Ann Davison crossed the rough Atlantic alone in her twenty-three-foot yacht, the Felicity Ann, it’s that this solo crossing, in stages, took place in 1952-3. Ann Davison, middle-aged and widowed, took her heart in her hands and set off from Plymouth, England, to find “the key to living.” The boat was sturdy but the ocean was big, and it was winter.  A lot of the logbook reads “Wretched night” or “Squalls” or “Incessant scream of the wind,” but you know she’s going to get through it. In its humorous, modest, courageous way, this book continues to be my favorite seafaring story. Even though I would never ever try the same thing. 

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Maiden Voyage

By Tania Aebi

Book cover of Maiden Voyage

Why this book?

Tania Aebi was eighteen when she set sail on an around-the-world voyage in her twenty-six-foot sloop, Varuna. It took her two and a half years to complete the 27,000 mile voyage, but she returned to New York in 1987, becoming the youngest person and the first American woman to make a solo circumnavigation. She hit a tanker at one point. She found herself in a lightning storm. One of the things that most stays with me, though, is that she brought her cat, Tarzoon, with her. Aebi was even less prepared than Ann Davison for the challenge of the sea. She was a high school dropout and knew relatively little about navigation. The sea calls to misfits and makes women out of aimless, surly teenagers. It’s a grand adventure story.

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Bold in Her Breeches: Woman Pirates Across the Ages

By Jo Stanley

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

Why this book?

I picked up this book in a London bookshop long ago and read it on a stay near Land’s End in Cornwall, looking out to sea and dreaming. Just about everything in the book was new to me. It made sense that among the Viking warriors who attacked in their longboats, there were women like the pirate Alfhild, but I’d never heard of Grace O’Malley of Ireland who regularly raided English ships. I was ignorant of the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, scourges of the Caribbean, or of the Chinese pirate Cheng I Sao. Stanley’s book, with contributions by three other historians, was eye-opening, fun, and decidedly feminist. After I’d read it, I definitely wanted to jump into a ship and wave my cutlass around. 

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She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

By Joan Druett, Ron Druett

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

Why this book?

If you want a thorough grounding (watering?) in women’s maritime history, this is the book for you. New Zealander Joan Druett tells amazing tales of women at sea from Ancient Greece to contemporary times. Her chapters are packed with all the information you could wish about warriors, pirates, crossdressing sailors, and wives who sailed with their captain husbands. Druett’s scope is wide, given that many people who traveled in the past traveled by sea—but that makes it possible to discuss more sorts of gender and racial issues, such as colonization and the British empire. Substantial and engaging, it’s the gold standard, and who can resist a book with “hellions” in the title?

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By Celia Rees

Book cover of Pirates!

Why this book?

Pirates! Historical fiction for young adults and anyone who enjoys a sea story with twists and turns aplenty, this novel begins in Bristol, England in the eighteenth century. Nancy Kingston’s father is a shipowner whose money comes from sugar plantations and enslaved labor in Jamaica. A tragedy makes sixteen-year-old Nancy his heiress; her brothers send her to the West Indies to marry. But life takes a surprising turn; she and the enslaved maid Minerva, escape to become pirates in the Caribbean. If you’re looking for an absorbing, multicultural tale of girls who go in search of adventure and freedom amidst the horrors of plantation life, this is a must-read. According to the author the novel is based on a true story, which makes it even more fascinating. 

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