Drunken sailors, rusty razors, early mornings — you have to admit, life at sea is tough. For hundreds of years, the seas were rife with ships full of men battling the onslaught of the elements. Among the members of those salty crews, there were just a few notable women.
You’ve probably heard of the tough-as-nails lasses that pulled on their pirate boots, but there were other women that sought out a seafaring life free from criminal ambitions. To be given access to the decks of massive ships, they had to make other sacrifices to pass by undetected.
In 1817, Rose de Freycinet marched onto the French military vessel the Uranie. Eyes bright with visions of what she was getting herself into on a ship with a crew of swashbuckling men, as the lone woman aboard, she was prepared for some depravity.
Library of Congress
If you’re thinking, “wow, that’s very brave,” then you’re right. Rose was ready to rip off the bandaid on her life as an aristocratic wife. The only catch was that a woman had no place on the deck of a ship, not at that cultural moment, anyway.
Luckily, Rose had a brilliant plan. Her husband was Captain Louis de Freycinet, the leader of the voyage, so they conspired together on how Rose would slip in amongst the crew undetected. What she needed to do was glaringly obvious — she had to pass as a man.
At first, Rose had to keep a low profile, hiding out in her husband’s living quarters and using the private bathroom. Meanwhile, she was bursting to discuss the things she was experiencing, so she spilled all her secrets out onto the pages of her memoir.
Historian and curator of seafaring texts and artifacts, Huw Lewis-Jones, explained why journaling was so vital to people on these voyages, useful tools for “navigation, recording coastlines, keeping mind and soul occupied, overcoming fear, as much as boredom.”
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Early in the journey, Rose’s disguise fell apart. Her identity was revealed to the crew, and somehow, word reached the outside world. This was a major screw up. It wasn’t just frowned upon for a woman to be on a naval ship, it was illegal.
Pirates of the Caribbean / Walt Disney Pictures
Well, it was too late to undo what Rose and Louis had already done. The voyage continued with Rose free to live in her true identity, taking in the sights, sounds, and tribulations, and recording all of it in her journal.
Pirates of the Caribbean / Walt Disney Pictures
“I am pale, yellowish, and have sunken eyes: in short I look like a ghost,” Beyond her physical transformation, Rose felt a deep shift in her personality. Months at sea whittled away at the light-hearted parts of herself, replacing them hardened spirits that she detailed in her writings.
Rose holds the title as the first woman to record her experiences of circumnavigating the world, though the legacy of being the first woman to masquerade as a man to sail the world belongs to Jeanne Baret.
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Though she didn’t risk her secret getting out from careless journaling, a record of her presence on a 1766 French expedition came from the word of four of her fellow shipmates. Jeanne disguised her identity, binding her chest with bandages, to board the ship undetected.
Joining an all-male crew of salty sea dogs wasn’t a decision born out of adventure-seeking. For several years, Jeanne served as the housekeeper to scientist Philibert Commerson. Somewhere along the line, their relationship turned romantic.
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Philibert was invited on the expedition for his scientific expertise and was allowed an assistant. He knew no better mind than his botanist girlfriend Jeanne, who welcomed the challenge of presenting as male in order to pursue a life of scientific fulfillment.
The jig was up when their crew reached Tahiti. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that the botanist was modest about relieving “himself” in front of the crowd, or that “he” treated his scientist partner with particular tenderness.
Muppet Treasure Island / Jim Henson Productions
Jeanne’s posing as a male sailor was small potatoes compared to her pursuit of science. As Glynis Ridley, author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, said, “A female stowaway was a curiosity, a female botanist was a breach in the natural order of things.”
Over ten years after her run on the seas ended, and her beau, Philibert Commerson, had died, Jeanne was recognized by the French Ministry of Marine. She was the first woman to receive a government pension for contributions to science.
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By the early 1800s, a woman’s presence on a sea voyage was less controversial. Wives of the captains, like Susan Veeder, were welcomed aboard military and merchant vessels. But they had limited responsibilities and many restrictions — basically, to serve their husbands.
Susan spent her days painting watercolors of the sights onboard the Nauticon. However picturesque her experience seemed, it was wrought with tragedy. Her one-year-old daughter Mary developed an illness and died on the expedition.
Nantucket Historical Association
Later in the 19th century, the Age of Sail petered out. Technology brought ships with both sails and steam-powered engines. It was still a long time before people began taking booze cruise yacht trips, but this was where it started.
Lady Annie Brassey was on the first steam engine yacht to circumnavigate the world. A woman of higher station, Annie spent her days on the sea in relative luxury, collecting various trinkets at the ports, and regaling her family back home in descriptive letters.
Aboard the Sunbeam, Annie mused about the hardships that befell them. Her letters made clear how those prickly situations affected the different social classes represented on the yacht accordingly. We can’t forget, money and privilege allowed her to sit in comfort of a cabin.
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From their own words, we learned the reality of life on the high seas for a woman in a world where they were second class citizens. Still, they chose to be there. They sought out to taste the spray of the salty air no matter what danger lay ahead.
These days, braving the open ocean can be just as risky. People have ready access to ships that can carry them thousands of miles into uncharted waters, and fall victim to overconfidence. Two women who thought they had it all figured out barely lived to tell their story.
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In early May of 2017, Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava, along with their dogs, Valentine and Zeus, boarded their yacht, the Sea Nymph. Their course was set to sail from Honolulu to Tahiti, a trip meant to take just under 3 weeks. But plans quickly changed when the unexpected hit.
Shortly after departing, a devastating storm damaged the Sea Nymph. Their steerage system was essentially ruined, inhibiting them from keeping any sort of course. Just hours after hitting the open sea, Appel and Fuiava were rendered helpless, completely at the mercy of the Pacific.
The two women had only met a few months earlier, and they were certainly an odd duo. Appel was 47 when they started the voyage and Fuiava, just 27. Despite their significant difference in age, their experience sailing was about the same — basically none at all.
Fuiava had previously been a security guard in Samoa, while Appel was coming from a job in Texas as a landscaper. Appel’s plan was to settle on the Polynesian Island and find her way into organic farming. Fuiava was just in it for the adventure. That adventure, as it turned out, was a lot more than she bargained for.
In spite of the two women’s nominal seafaring experience, they did make some elaborate preparations. For example, they somehow had the wherewithal to stock enough food for themselves and their two dogs to last them a year. So while Appel and Fuiava were adrift on the Pacific, they could at least rest assured they wouldn’t starve.
As days turned into months, friends and family ashore grew concerned about the two women. Fuiava’s mother reported her daughter missing at sea after only days had passed and there was no word from her. Even still, their whereabouts, let alone whether or not they had survived the storm, were a mystery.
Then in late October of 2017, almost 5 months since the two women had gone missing, their boat was spotted. A crew of Taiwanese fishermen discovered the boat about 1,000 miles off the Japanese coast. As the crew approached the defeated Sea Nymph, they braced themselves to encounter the worst.
After five long months alone at sea without any contact, Appel, Fuiava, and their two dogs were alive and well! The Taiwanese fishing crew contacted the U.S. Coastguard based out of Guam. The USS Ashland was then promptly dispatched on a mission to rescue the two women and their pets.
Appel reported that seeing the Navy ship on the horizon felt like the ultimate salvation. She recounted, “They saved our lives. The pride and smiles we had when we saw [them] was pure relief.” Not surprisingly, the women also had some truly wild stories from their longtime adrift.
An ongoing encounter with a group of tiger sharks was one of the more hair-raising stories Appel shared. She explained how a group of the sharks, some up to 30 feet, had surrounded their yacht and used it as a prop in teaching the young sharks how to hunt. Appel described the sharks batting at the boat and attacking the hull at night.
As word spread about Appel and Fuiava’s rescue and the tales they relayed, people started to cast doubt on the plausibility of what the women claimed to experience. One of their biggest critics was George Brugess, a shark expert from The Florida Museum of Natural History.
Brugess cast doubt on Appel’s story of the sharks. He clarified that tiger sharks are not social animals and would never be in groups. He also made the point that tiger sharks never grow anywhere near 30 feet, and they also don’t teach their young how to hunt.
Others question the validity of the storm that wrecked them in the first place. The National Weather Service reported that there were no storms on May 3rd when the women claimed they had been ravaged. Footage from NASA satellites backed up the weather reports, yet Appel vehemently protested.
According to her, they were caught in a Force 11 storm. To prove her case, she printed out an email from a Coast Guard forecasting 10-foot waves on that date. Even so, a Force 11 storm would produce waves between 37 and 52 feet. This would make Appel’s claims more than just a small exaggeration.
The other big mystery about the Sea Nymph was why a distress signal was never sent out. There was indeed a working Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon aboard the yacht. If the women truly felt in peril, why did they never employ their rescue device?
When questioned about this, the two reported that they never felt they reached a level of danger worthy of activating the alarm. After five months of aimless drifting, maybe they just got into the ultimate chill mode? Who knows, but that was definitely a long time to sit and just hope for the best.
As Appel and Fuiava’s story came under more scrutiny, other publications came out to report on the women in a more pejoratively defaming sense. The Daily Mail uncovered some of Appel’s past that includes work as a “professional dominatrix and exotic dancer.” How this was pertinent to the story was unclear.
To their defense, the women set up a GoFundMe page. The description for their campaign gave a long, detailed account of all the was misconstrued. It has garnered many negative comments and in 11 months only raised $40.
Even with the questionable tale and contemptuous response, both women said they were not deterred from setting sail again in the future. Though they admitted they would make better preparations.
We may never know what really happened on their boat that fateful day. The important part was that no one, not even the doggies, were harmed in this strange happening. Whatever happened at sea, stayed at sea. But for another sailor, the maritime survival was a bit more dire…
When a middle-aged fisherman named Louis Jordan mysteriously disappeared at sea one fateful day, his family braced themselves for a lifetime of unresolved heartbreak. Would they ever see their son again?
Louis was a 37-year-old fisherman and dock worker from South Carolina who loved being out at sea. So when he embarked on a trip in January 2015 off the coast of South Carolina all by himself, no one thought much of it.
Louis told his family he was going to be home later that same evening, but he never came back. His parents were sure he decided to spend an extra day at sea without telling them, but then a week passed with no word from their son…
Louis’s parents decided they needed to take some kind of action.They began passing out flyers along the coast, hoping someone had seen him. They also started monitoring a list of dead bodies that washed onto the Carolina shores, praying that Louis wasn’t one of them.
Louis’s family held on hope for as long as they could. However, after two straight months, they started to come to terms with the fact he may never return home. His mother hung up photos of him and his boat as a memorial.
Even though friends and family weren’t certain of Louis’s whereabouts, several of them held memorial services in his honor. They all knew the odds of him returning after two months at sea were slim to none.
The family still wanted to believe that they would suddenly receive a phone call telling them Louis had been rescued, but the chances of that happening now seemed like a pipe dream.
However, on Good Friday morning, something astounding happened: Louis Jordan, emaciated, exhausted, but alive, arrived at his parent’s home and jumped into their arms. Their son was back! But how?
Apparently, the day before Good Friday, a massive cargo ship spotted Louis sitting on top of a battered boat that was barely afloat. He was 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina!
According to Louis, a huge swell capsized his 35-foot-long boat during a storm just a couple of days into his journey. The mast of his ship broke in the process along with his radio equipment. He also seriously injured his shoulder. After, he was left drifting alone in the middle of the ocean.
Because Louis was a seasoned fisherman, he was able to bring the ship back to its proper positioning after it capsized. But Louis faced another dire situation: how was he going to catch food with a broken shoulder and almost no equipment?
Luckily, he had pancake mix and a small supply of clean drinking water. But he needed to be extremely mindful of how he rationed his portions. He used his boat’s stove, which still worked, to cook the pancakes, and he managed to catch a few fish using a small net.
Louis also needed to bail water out of his boat frequently to keep it afloat. It suffered a lot of damage in the storm and would take on water throughout the day. Louis managed to remove the sea water, and he also began to collect rainwater to drink.
Using his expertise, Louis was able to construct a makeshift mast and sail. Unfortunately, the ocean’s currents were too strong for the mast to do any significant work, but the wind did help to move the vessel, albeit slowly.
According to Louis, one of the most important items he had with him was a copy of the Bible. He read it over and over again, cover to cover. He prayed every day, hoping it would help him reach safety.
On the day Louis was saved, he was standing atop his vessel waving his arms like a madman and screaming at the top of his lungs. At 1:30 p.m., the day before Good Friday, the coast guard received a call that the Houston Express, a massive cargo ship, picked up a stranded sailor.
Once back on land, Louis was flown to a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. However, he refused treatment once he got there despite the fact he had a broken shoulder and was severely dehydrated. He wanted nothing more than to reunite with his family as quickly as possible.
The coast guard called Louis’s family to make sure they would be home when he returned. The family was dumbfounded by the phone call. They had almost entirely given up hope, but now their prayers had just been answered.
Louis and his family had an emotional reunion as soon as he arrived. Watching their son walk into the room alive and well was the greatest moment of their lives. They embraced each other for what felt like an eternity, and then they sat down and ate a delicious Easter dinner.
What is Louis going to do now that he’s back on land? He’s not entirely sure. He’s currently living with his parents and taking things day by day. Right now, he’s just glad to be alive, and so is everyone else!