The best books on women seafarers and pirates

Who am I?

I grew up in Long Beach, California and have always gravitated to port towns and saltwater. I had a summer job as a student working on the famous Hurtigruten cargo ship and traveled up and down the Norwegian coast as a dishwasher. Since then I’ve kayaked, sailed, and wandered the shores of many countries, including the Pacific Northwest, where I live now. Being Irish and Swedish myself, I wanted to make women’s history as seafarers in the cold waters of the North better known. I had a great time researching this travel book about little-known places and women skippers, fishers, and sea goddesses. 


I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

Barbara Sjoholm explores history and myths about women and the sea while traveling around the North Atlantic, often by ship. From the west coast of Ireland where the Irish chieftain and pirate Grace O’Malley taunted the British in the 16th century to the herring lassies of Orkney to the skippers of Iceland, from mermaids to storm witches to sea goddesses, Sjoholm collects a riveting array of historical personalities and maritime legends. A personal log of travel to Ireland, the Scottish islands, the Faroes, Iceland, and the Norwegian coast, The Pirate Queen is also a book of landscapes and seascapes, and of encounters with women who make their living from the sea now. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of My Ship Is So Small

Barbara Sjoholm Why did I love 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. 

By Ann Davison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Ship Is So Small as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of Maiden Voyage

Barbara Sjoholm Why did I love 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.

By Tania Aebi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1985 Tania Aebi was an 18-year-old working as a bike messenger in New York City and frequenting bars until late at night. It was then that her father offered her a college education, or a boat. However, if she chose the boat, she would have to sail around the world alone. This volume tells of her 27,000 mile voyage. When she left New York harbour in 1985, she had never sailed alone before and knew little about navigation or anchorage. What began as a quest for adventure became a spiritual test, and fight for survival.


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

Barbara Sjoholm Why did I love 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. 

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,…


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

Barbara Sjoholm Why did I love 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?

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 Pirates!

Barbara Sjoholm Why did I love 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. 

By Celia Rees,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Pirates! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

From the author of the bestselling and award-winning WITCH CHILD, comes another outstanding historical novel.

When two young women meet under extraordinary circumstances in the eighteenth-century West Indies, they are unified in their desire to escape their oppressive lives. The first is a slave, forced to work in a plantation mansion and subjected to terrible cruelty at the hands of the plantation manager. The second is a spirited and rebellious English girl, sent to the West Indies to marry well.

But fate ensures that one night the two young women have to save each other and run away to a…


You might also like...

Dancing in the Ring

By Susan Sage,

Book cover of Dancing in the Ring

Susan Sage Author Of Dancing in the Ring

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Influencer Activist Crazy cat lady

Susan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Detroit in the 1920s proved to be the Paris of the West for many – including Catherine McIntosh and Robert Sage. Both law school students, they are as ardent about each other as they are about their career dreams.

From a poor family in the Detroit neighborhood of Corktown, Catherine learns early on, the necessity of being resilient. Bob, the ‘battling barrister,’ boxes in order to pay for law school. Despite his tough-boy personality, Bob was a friend to all: judges, cops, as well as a few members of the notorious Purple Gang. He was immediately smitten with Kate, one of Detroit’s first women attorneys. They became legendary in legal circles for their commitment to social justice causes – as well as notorious in the local speakeasies.

Dancing in the Ring

By Susan Sage,

What is this book about?

Detroit in the 1920s proved to be the Paris of the West for many-including Catherine McIntosh and Robert Sage. These two law school students are as passionate about each other as they are their dreams.

From a poor family in the neighborhood of Corktown, Catherine learned early on, the necessity of being resilient. She becomes one of the first women in Detroit to obtain a law degree. Bob, the 'battling barrister, ' boxes in order to pay for law school. Despite his gruff and tough-boy personality, he is a friend to all: judges, cops, and even a couple members of…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in piracy, Pirates, and the Caribbean?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about piracy, Pirates, and the Caribbean.

Piracy Explore 131 books about piracy
Pirates Explore 80 books about Pirates
The Caribbean Explore 191 books about the Caribbean