Defining Moment

Finding inspiration from a strong woman long past

I have a new heroine. She's feisty, quick-witted, and fearless. Confronted with an impossible task, she forges ahead. Knocked to the ground, she springs up again. Whine? Never. Cry? Not in public. Scream? Maybe. She's a woman after my own heart. And no, she's not an Alaskan governor. She's not a New York senator, either.

The present tense is misleading, I guess. My heroine died a long time ago, destitute. But she did a lot of living first.

Her name was Mary Ann Patten, and I discovered her during my recent New England vacation. An antique poster in the beach house where we stayed told her story.

The poster advertised a new figurehead for sailing ships. It's an honor most often reserved for mythological characters or other creatures of fancy, but this one paid tribute to a real person who lived a life that reads like nautical fiction.

Mary Ann was 19, and four months pregnant, when she set sail with her husband, Captain Joshua Patten, on a journey from New York to San Francisco in 1856. Their clipper ship was the "Neptune's Car," famous for its speed. Their route would take them around the horn of South America, a treacherous passage even for an experienced mariner and crew.

Mary Ann did not spend a lot of time gazing out over the bounding main or knitting in the cabin below. Bright and curious, she passed the early days of the voyage studying navigational charts and learning Seamanship 101, watching her husband set the course and steer by the stars. She walked the decks and observed the sailors at work, saw how they raised and trimmed the sails, noted it all as carefully as if she were preparing for some kind of test.

As it happened, she was. Nine weeks into the trip, the first mate rebelled and was thrown into irons. Captain Patten took over his duties, standing double watches and wearing himself down to a total collapse. The second mate demanded that they put into the nearest port, but Patten had promised his employer that the ship would enter no harbor but San Francisco. With her husband unconscious and a mutiny brewing, Mary Ann rallied the crew and took command.

For the next 50 days, she barely ate or slept. With her scant, newly acquired knowledge, she piloted the huge clipper through winter storms and towering seas. When she wasn't reckoning the course or dealing with a horde of doubtful sailors, she was tending to her comatose husband below decks. Four months after leaving New York, Mary Ann Patten steered "Neptune's Car" safely into San Francisco harbor.

There were cheers and banners and newspaper reporters. She had no time for any of them. Bundling her stricken spouse onto the next train, she returned home to Boston. A few weeks later, she gave birth to a son. She named him Joshua, for his father.

There was, alas, no happily ever after. The clipper ship company gave her a reward, all of which she spent on her husband's care. He never recovered and died in an insane asylum. A few years later, Mary Ann died, penniless, of tuberculosis.

It seems an ignoble end for such a gallant soul: poverty, illness and single motherhood in 19th century New England. I wonder if she lived to see her figurehead displayed on the prow of another sailing ship. I imagine her standing on a dock somewhere, her small son by the hand. That lady looks like you, he might have said. Nodding, she would remember the swell of the sea, the deck rising and falling beneath her feet, the defining moment of her life. And then she would turn and do what strong women have always done. She would get on with it.