Navigating by the Stars

Barbara Hughes
in the Sportswoman's Library
(BL permission)

The title of my book has been changed: That Spirit of Independence has become Stars to Steer By. It’s still a book of celebration, mentioning more than one hundred wonderful sea-women. And yes, they are all included because of their variously independent spirits. No change there.

The title I chose myself was given me by a rebellious Solent racer called Barbara Hughes. She was racing slim, fast keelboats from the age of about 13 in 1885 and loved it: ‘It is the most delightful education in the world, the most interesting and healthful. It becomes so engrossing that you will not rest until you understand the whole thing and know the why and wherefore of all the different moves.’ Barbara was the 5th of 6 children so was usually subordinate to her father, brothers or older sisters. She wanted to be in charge of her own boat, competing on equal terms: ‘you should have it all in your own hands, with no one to say you “nay”, otherwise that spirit of independence (so rarely enjoyed by our sex) is lost.’

Barbara was quite happy to have a willing crew to do her commands but the long-running problem for women sailors is that we have usually been typecast as the willing crew, rather than the person in charge. She was lucky in that the fashion for ultra-lightweight boat design in the later 1880s and 1890s suited women’s lighter weight and she and her sisters’ skill and sensitivity at the helm was discovered. As was their courage and willingness to sail in weather that kept many men at home. Barbara lived at a time when ideas of the ‘New Woman’ encouraged female activity, participation, independence. 

There have always been women like this: it’s the fair or foul winds of public opinion that makes their lives and achievement easier or almost impossible. Think of slugging down the English Channel under sail with the wind funnelling up against you – or, more often in my case, trying to row upriver from PD’s mooring against a sluicing ebb and stiff northerly breeze. Sometimes one just has to wait a bit and try again.

Translated 9
 ready to leave from Southampton

So it is when Marketing and Sales say NO. If one hasn’t got some amazing high-powered engine and a lifeboat-quality hull (otherwise known as being a best-selling author with worldwide reputation!) they are the prevailing wind and tide. If they want a different title they have to have it. I think of this rather like an ocean racer knowing she has a better chance of making it round the world if someone else offers sponsorship. If the sponsor wants to stick their logo on the hull or even change the name, that’s okay. Clare Francis’s ADC Accutrac from the 1977/8 Whitbread Round the World race became Translated 9 in the 2023/4 Ocean Globe race, Fazer Finland became Spirit of Helsinki and even the iconic Maiden, Great Britain (Made-in-Great-Britain … geddit?) had a previous existence as Disque D’Or II.

Stars to Steer By isn’t a bad title anyway. It’s inspirational as these women sailors are. So many of them were first in some way: Anna Brassey, first to sail round the world with her family for pleasure, Barbara and her sisters, first (possibly) to compete in a ladies race, Blanche Coules Thornycroft, first woman member of the association of Naval Architects; Ann Davison, first across the Atlantic single-handed; Sharon Sites Adams, first woman single-handed across the Pacific; Jill Kernick, first woman employed at sea by Trinity House; Naomi James, first woman single handed-around the world; Clare Francis, first female skipper of a  round the world racing team; Tracy Edwards, first female skipper of an all-female round the world racing team; Heather Thomas, female skipper of the first winning all-female round the world racing team. There are so many more. Women who were tough, adventurous, imaginative, talented, pioneering. It’s thrilling to voyage in their company.

Maiden's crew
soon after arrival in Cowes

This is the most collaborative book I think I’ve ever written. So many people have helped, either by telling me their own experience or suggesting others. It’s almost reached a point when I say no no please! not another astounding woman who sailed from Australia to England because she wanted to attend a recorder course and couldn’t afford the air fare; not a woman who set out to sail (with her husband) from Britain to New Zealand immediately after their wedding and used her bridal veil to fish with; not a master mariner’s wife who brought an ocean-going schooner into port single-handed when the entire crew was down with beri-beri. She saved the owners a fortune in salvage but when they presented her with a piano as a small token of their gratitude, she wept because she had never learned to play; not a woman who ran cargos of gelignite across the Pentland Firth in wartime. Nooooo!

I’m doing the acknowledgments page today and have almost finished contacting people to ensure that whatever I have said about them is correct and they are content that it should be included. I send out my emails in trepidation: I know I’ve done my best to ascertain the facts and record them accurately; often we’ve had a meeting or a long phone call but still I understand it’s going to feel odd for them hearing their own words coming back or imagining themselves misunderstood by people they’ll never know. Every single one has responded with generosity and thoughtfulness, even when the subjects are painful.

To give just one example. One woman with whom I’d corresponded, had written in her autobiography that, when she met her future husband, she ‘had failed at everything and was fully occupied with being a wreck’. As if this was her failure! She did say she was in a ‘loony bin’ but made no mention of the fact that she had been the victim of a violent rape, had made four attempts on her life and endured the most gruesome excesses of mid 1960s psychiatric treatment. I’d learned these details elsewhere and wondered how she would respond, seeing them in someone else’s words, in print, in my forthcoming book.

Jill Kernick,
first woman to work for Trinity House
changing the bulb on a navigation buoy

She replied at once, with clarity and candour. In fact, she had subsequently written about her experience herself but couldn't found a publisher to accept her work. What did those Sales and Marketing depatments say, I wondered? Too many of the women in this book have endured disappointment, injustice, and loss, yet they’ve remained resilient, found ways to survive and finally to succeed. 

I have learned so much from the women in this book. I feel like someone who has finally mastered the art of celestial navigation and can find my way across oceans with a sextant, a set of log tables, a clear view of the horizon and the sky above. 

Great title, don’t you think? Stars to Steer By.


Dianne Pearce said…
I love the title! It sounds like a fantastic book!

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