Ships as women, women as ships. The comparison has built itself into the Western psyche, even in an age when grammarians and feminists alike disapprove of the comparison. Why is it so compelling?
The era of sailing ships aligns most exactly with an ear when women wore large, wide, impressive dresses, and often distinguished themselves by revealing a great deal of bosom. The resemblance between a well-dressed woman, her skirts rustling like a ship’s sails, moving forward through a crowd of people, who stepped out of her way like the waves parting before a ship’s prow, was unmistakable. A woman so dressed had the gravitas of a large merchant vessel or warship.
But a young girl with sort skirts, laughing and dancing and kicking up her heels seemed more like a small dory or rowboat. She probably doesn’t travel in a straight line very often. Instead she skitters this way and that, lightly, quickly, and unpredictably.
Like ships, women are not composed of straight lines. Some racers are narrow, smooth and fast. Others, like merchant ships, are wide across the beam, stocky, solid and likely to carry and care for a large number of people.
I personally have had one of the unforgettable experiences of a lifetime, which is to be on the deck of a wooden ship when the wind reached her sails and she came alive. Unlike steel ships, wooden vessels were made to flex, to bend with the wind, creating the sensation that the ship is breathing. Anyone who has be privileged to feel this knows that the ship is alive. Living things have genders.
There are many humorous stories about ships and women. It is said that women and ships look very good when fresh-painted (make-up). Ships never leave port asleep. They leave awake (a wake). Ships always head toward the buoys (pronounced ‘boys’ these are lane makers that show the area it is safe to sail through.) She always has a crowd of men around her. Or, as the old song goes:
She carries her bow high,
Her stern is nice and round
It’s easy to hold her when she is sheeted down…
There are many remarks about the personality of ships. Like a woman, a ship is endlessly variable. She is in tune with the sea around her, and as such, she may not do just what the men around her want her to do. Caught between a headwind and a contrary sea, even a staid matronly cargo ship can cut some energetic capers, tossing her masts around in figure eights, bouncing her bow clear of the water, shaking her stern, and generally doing her own thing while the men who depend on her can do little more than hold on.
And yet the same ship will hold firm in the face of the worst possible conditions, hold it together in the face of unbelievable adversity. She will go to unbelievable lengths to protect those who depend on her. Wooden ships are what they are, and they nurture those around them.
And most of all, the reason why tall ships are so much like women? The one thing that everyone agrees with?
Because men love them.