December 21, 2010

Women who go to sea

NOT ALL WOMEN believe they were meant to go to sea. That’s the view of Karen Larson, founder and editor of Good Old Boat magazine. In her editorial article in the January/February 2011 issue she adds: “I’m convinced, in fact, that the vast majority are sure that women are not meant to travel on boats of any kind. Historically, it hasn’t been our role.”

Well, er, I’m sorry. Karen, but I have to disagree. I have just been dipping into Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421, the Year China Discovered America. And he details the interesting historical role that woman played on the 15th-century treasure fleets that China sent around the world.

Aboard all of these ships were hundreds of concubines, recruited from the floating brothels of Canton. They were not allowed to go ashore at any port of call, and they were not allowed to marry Chinese men. It was their job to attend grand banquets aboard the treasure ships, where they ate and drank with ambassadors and envoys, and thereafter satisfied some other appetites. They were well educated, played cards and chess, sang, acted, and danced.

They were “not viewed with contempt because of their profession; they were regarded as a long-established, legitimate and necessary part of society,” Menzies argues.

Well, the world has changed a lot since those days, I guess, and not always for the better. I don’t recall seeing any concubines tucked away on today’s round-the-world yachts, and I’m not sure they would be received with joy and loud handclaps by today’s puritanical society in any case.

Nevertheless, it just shows that you have to be careful when you talk about women’s historical roles on ships and boats. There are many women serving in the U.S. Navy these days in all kinds of capacities, and just recently they started appearing aboard submarines. I know a woman master mariner who pilots big ships across the bar where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, and another who captains large passenger/vehicle ferries in the Pacific Northwest. And let’s not forget the dozens of documented women pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read who struck terror into men’s hearts between 600 BC and the 19th century. And the women who still race small sailboats non-stop around the world. Women are out there carving roles for themselves if you look for them, lots and lots of them, and always have been. And while it’s true that the vast majority prefer to keep their feet firmly planted on shore, that’s also true for men. And if you say, well, what I really mean is that many more men than women go to sea on small boats, that can only be because the women have more sense.

Today’s Thought
Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.
— Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Ottawa

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #136
No matter what the professionals say, celestial navigation is neither difficult nor mysterious. As three-time circumnavigator Eric Hiscock put it: “Setting the course, keeping the dead reckoning up to date, and fixing the position by observations of the celestial bodies, call for nothing more than simple arithmetic, a little geometry, and some dexterity in handling a sextant.”

A lady is a woman who never shows her underwear unintentionally.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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