Five Remarkable Women Who Changed the Course of Maritime History

From left to right: Eliza Thorrold/National Parks Service; Grace O’Malley/Youtube; Kate McCue; Mary Ann Brown/Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note:

Owen Laukkanen is the author of the Stevens and Windermere series, beginning with The Professionals, which was nominated for the Anthony Award, Barry Award, Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel: New Voices Award, and the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award for best first novel. His follow-up, Criminal Enterprise, was nominated for the ITW Thriller Award for best novel. A resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, he is now at work on the next book featuring Stevens and Windermere.

Even in the 21st Century, the high seas are still very much a male-dominated environment. Whether aboard transatlantic cargo ships or stubby inshore tugboats, crews and officer complements are largely made up of men, and if you do find a woman aboard, it’s likely she’s walked a memorable path to get there.

The protagonist of my nautical salvage thriller, Gale Force, is a young tugboat captain named McKenna Rhodes. McKenna is fictional, but that’s not to say she doesn’t draw from a long line of remarkable female seafarers. Here are five women with whom McKenna would be proud to sail, through any sort of weather:

Grace O’Malley

Ireland’s pirate queen, Grace O’Malley was born to royalty in the sixteenth century, the daughter of a seafaring nobleman, who, legend says, she convinced to take with him on a trading voyage to Spain by cutting her hair short and disguising herself as a boy sailor. However she managed it, she inherited a love of the sea, and built a fleet of trading vessels and warships, the latter of which she used not only to amass wealth through acts of piracy, but also to harass the ships of the English, who attempted to assert control over Irish land. O’Malley ruled not only ships but castles, feuded with Queen Elizabeth, and maintained an independent empire in the face of English encroachment. Her name survives today in Irish legend, as a pirate and a freedom fighter.

Mary Patten

Like McKenna, who inherits her father’s tug after his untimely death at sea, Mary Ann Brown Patten was thrust into leadership at sea long before she might have felt ready. In 1856, at the age of nineteen — and pregnant — Patten was accompanying her husband in his command of the clipper ship Neptune’s Car on a voyage from New York to San Francisco around the always treacherous Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. Afflicted with tuberculosis, her husband fell into a coma just as the ship approached the Cape, and with the ship’s first mate confined to his cabin for sleeping on the watch, Patten took command for 56 days, withstanding not only terrible weather but attempted mutiny, all while nursing her husband back to health. Upon arrival in San Francisco, she refused the customary pilot, docking the ship herself. The Neptune’s Car’s owners awarded her one thousand dollars for her extraordinary efforts.

Eliza Thorrold

Speaking of San Francisco pilots, Eliza Thorrold was the Golden Gate City’s first female tugboat master, taking over operation of the steam tug Ethel and Marion after her husband died from blood poisoning in the late nineteenth century. With five children depending on her and only her knowledge of seamanship to support them, Thorrold captained the Ethel and Marion for seven years, becoming one of the first female masters of a steam vessel, or licensed female pilot, for that matter, in the United States, when she earned her master’s license in 1897.  For the four years previous, since her husband’s death, she’d been obliged to pay a man with a master’s license to remain onboard her tug while she conducted business, at costly and unnecessary expense.

Jan Tiura

A former mountaineering guide, Jan Tiura fell in love with the ocean while sailing to the Galapagos Islands with her future husband in her early twenties. As luck would have it, she applied for work in the tugboat industry just as a class-action suit was allowing women membership in the Inland Boatmen’s Union—the Pacific Coast’s labor group for towboaters. As one of the first women in the union, she battled gender bias and persevered, logging sea time as a deckhand and cook before beginning training to earn her captain’s license in 1979, when she was barely thirty. A fine art photographer of ships and the sea, Tiura retired from the tugs in 2008, after more than thirty years working in San Francisco harbor. She remains active on the water, though, venturing out make photographs in a custom-built rowboat.

Kate McCue

Kate McCue found her start in the maritime world after taking a Bahamian cruise with her family at age twelve. She fell in love with the cruise ship environment, telling her father she wanted to be a cruise director. Her father replied that she could do anything she wanted, including driving the ship, and that set her on a path to the California Maritime Academy and onto the command bridges of some of the largest cruise ships in the world. In 2015, McCue was named captain of the Celebrity Summit, becoming the first female American captain of a mega-cruise ship at just 37 years of age.