Cherishing your connection to the ocean can mean a lot of things. International Women’s Day is a time to honor the achievements of women throughout history, and we are celebrating six women who have made history with their passion for the sea and for boating. These women have defied convention and rode the waves to their dreams. Each of them has an amazing story, and each reminds us of our own potential.
- Grace O’Malley (1530 – 1603) – Born into a family of pirates in County Mayo, Ireland, Grace began demanding to go to sea with her father when she was only a child. Eventually, he relented. Grace inherited lands from her father. She built up power on land and sea and became famous for her ruthless, no-nonsense approach. Known as the Pirate Queen, she refused to curtsy to the queen of England when they met. Why should one queen curtsy to another?
- Héléne de Pourtalés (1868 – 1945) – In 1900, American-born Héléne became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She and her Swiss husband were part of the crew of the Lérina, sailing for the Swiss. They also won a silver medal. This was the first year women were allowed to compete in the games.
- Michelle Howard (b. 1960) – Admiral Howard made a career of being first in the US Navy. She was the first African American woman to earn three stars and to command a naval ship. The first woman to become a four-star admiral, she was also the first to serve as vice chief of naval operations for the US Navy. Along the way, she developed a reputation for putting pirates out of business.
- Lai Shan Lee (b. 1970) – She began windsurfing at 12 and turned pro at 19. Lee won a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics, despite being stung by jellyfish before the first race. Known by her nickname San San in her native Hong Kong, she is famous for being the first to bring home the gold for the island nation and for her many other windsurfing wins around the world.
- Ellen MacArthur (b. 1976) – Young Ellen was so passionate about boats that she paid for her first craft by saving her school lunch money. She was the youngest person to complete in the Vendee Global round-the-world race. She came second, but she also set many records before and after that race. After retiring from competitive sailing, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust.
- Ayme Sinclair – When she discovered sailing, she loved it but noticed that she didn’t see many other Black women sailing. Sinclair enrolled in sailing classes and joined the crew of the Sweet Caroline. She traveled to Kenya and organized an international team of women to compete in Lamu’s traditionally male dhow race in 2018. They didn’t win, but they did finish and they weren’t last. She is the force behind Sailing Noire on Instragram, which she hopes will inspire more women of all backgrounds to try it.
Whatever your own connection with the ocean, whether your love a leisurely stroll on the beach or powering through the waves at top speed, these six women are inspirational. They remind us we are all the captains of our own ships.