The Mary Lacy:
A Famous Woman Shipwright Invoked in New Boatbuilding Scholarship at The Apprenticeshop
By Nate Hathaway
“Name a famous woman boat builder or shipwright?” I had questioned during a winter staff meeting at The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Maine.
Despite all the years of experience in the sailing and boatbuilding industry sitting at the table— boatbuilder-turned-Executive Director Isabella Feracci, a boatbuilder-turned-Student Affairs/Outreach Director Nina Noah, and Seamanship Director (and boatbuilder-to-be) Emma Hathaway, whom all identify as women—we were all up blank at the moment.
We were brainstorming about how to bring more diversity and more women into the program. Boatbuilding and sailing being so traditional, those roles have been traditionally done by men. So, we started asking who we can highlight to be a role model. Emma Hathaway had a book entitled: Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail by Suzanne Stark. We found the final chapter was about Mary Lacy, a female boatbuilder in eighteenth-century England.
Her story is incredible. She ran away to Chatham at 19, dressed as a man to avoid trouble (i.e. rape) as a young unaccompanied woman on the roads. She took the first name of her father and her mother’s maiden name to become William Chandler and was recruited into the Royal Navy. In Mary’s 1773 autobiography, she recalls the enticing words of the recruiter: “’For it is fine weather now at sea, and if you go, I will get you a good master on board the Sandwich.’” Fine weather, right, that’ll last!
The HMS Sandwich was a 90-gun ship of the line and Mary, er, I mean William, was servant to a person she calls “the drunken ship’s carpenter.” Knowing how much booze was consumed then, to call someone a drunkard must have meant it was really bad. To summarize this part of her story, Mary goes to sea, gets into fights with the crew to maintain her honor, learns carpentry, sends word home about her new name William Chandler, asks her parents to send any mail to that name, and signs her letter, “Your undutiful daughter, Mary Lacy.” Then Mary has a bout of rheumatism (foreshadowing) and has to go to the hospital, but she is soon back again aboard the Royal Sovereign and remains there until the end of the 7 Years’ War in 1763.
At that point, Mary comes back ashore. She is able to get an apprenticeship at the Chatham Dockyard and to get lodging aboard the Royal William. She continues to live life as a man, visiting home and not breaking her persona, courting other women, and excelling at her job. One story tells of her rowing the bosun’s canoe in a race against 3 men in a 4-oared boat while going to get beer (boatyards haven’t changed much) and upon winning the race starts victoriously shouting: “ Where’s my money?”
Mary stays in the apprenticeship, and after seven years she is recognized as a shipwright in 1770. Some jerk tries to “out” her in 1771, and then her rheumatism flares up with a vengeance. So, in 1772 she comes out, writing the Navy to apply for a pension. She tells the whole story, as she cannot continue to work as a shipwright due to her rheumatism. Her pension is ￡20 a year, equivalent to six months wages as a shipwright of her caliber.
She then goes on to get married to another sailor, doesn’t seem to have any children, and appears in the history books as an enterprising shopkeeper and builder of several houses, some of which are documented in The Further Adventures of Mary Lacy by Peter Guillery in The Georgian Group Journal, Volume X, 2000.
Mary’s story may end around there, but ours at The Apprenticeshop does not. Emma Hathaway, who had brought Mary Lacy to our attention, had started out working as an assistant cook on a Maine windjammer at 15, having been struck with sea fever. At 17 she finished high school a year early to join a Maine-built schooner in Hawaii, bound for Victoria B.C., with a sextant as a parting gift from her parents. Now 34, Emma has sailed extensively on traditional ships, holds a 500-ton Oceans license, and has been master of several prominent vessels, including Maine Maritime Academy’s Bowdoin in 2016 and Lady Washington of Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in 2018, the latter of which was featured in Disney’s Pirates of The Caribbean. Emma came to The Apprenticeshop in the spring of 2019 to fill a position as Director of Waterfront and Seamanship.
After a busy summer of expeditions, sailing classes, dock upkeep, and then haul-out season, Emma wanted to build a boat. “I’ve worked winter maintenance and shipyard projects [on big schooners], but you’re always part of a group working on a piece of the ship. It’s a very different skill set being alone and building a complete boat from rough sawn wood all the way to the finished product.”
The idea for a women’s boat building scholarship stems from The Apprenticeshop’s Executive Director, Isabella Feracci. Bella, as she’s known in the shop, came from a background in design and was inspired by the challenge to craft something with no straight lines and with her own two hands. Bella worked as an instructor after her 2-year apprenticeship and also spent time at Rockport Marine, where she remembers being one of the only women in carpentry and one of very few in the Maine boatbuilding industry.
“This whole place built a fire under me,” she said, speaking of her time at The Apprenticeshop. “We [women] could all do it if we were given a chance.”
That chance is what this scholarship represents. Bella remarked that she was fortunate to have others’ generosity enable her experience, and that she wants to make sure the door stays open for women in the greater world of trades and craft.
“Women traditionally did not have access to these skills and this kind of work,” Bella says, noting that Mary Lacy was a remarkable outlier.
This spring, in The Apprenticeshop’s 12-week skiff program, Emma built the skeleton (chines, stem and keelson) of the boat out in oak, upside-down, and then planked the hull in pine and cedar with copper rivets and bronze screws. The skiff flips over and then gets seats, rails for stiffening the hull, and is finished out with paint of the builder’s preference—Emma chose “Deep Red,” a luxurious glossy burgundy.
Of her experience Emma says, “It makes me happy to see women have this chance, especially younger women.” Emma, knowing she did not want to “just” be a cook on her first schooner, had considered a boatbuilding program but considered it too expensive and continued to sail instead.
“For women who have been told their whole life how to look or how to dress or how to behave, this is the chance to do something different,” says Emma. “The Apprenticeshop experience is about overcoming self-doubt, accepting mistakes, and ultimately realizing most things are fixable. . . People meet you where you are at.”
Emma completed her skiff at the end of the 12 weeks, finishing right before the Apprenticeshop closed in March during the pandemic. Emma returned to work in April, along with the rest of the staff, to resume her role as the seamanship and waterfront director. Her boat, the Mary Lacy was raffled off July 2, after raising over $9,000 for future women attending boatbuilding programs—enough for both a 9-month apprenticeship and a 12-week apprenticeship!
The raffle ticket was drawn by a local young woman who helped build the Mary Lacy during her prospective student visit earlier in the year, and she will directly benefit as the first recipient of the funds for her apprenticeship beginning this September. The event was streamed live to The Apprenticeshop facebook page, and concluded with Emma launching and rowing her skiff.
When asked what’s next, Emma is most excited to share her boat-building skills with young women and hopes to put together a program with that focus soon. The Apprenticeshop will continue to fundraise for women in boatbuilding with their ’20 for 20 in 2020’ as they seek 20 women to contribute $1000 each to cement the scholarship funds for future female apprentices.
The Apprenticeshop was founded in 1972 as part of the experiential education and traditional boat revival movements. Located at 655 Main Street in Rockland, Maine, The Apprenticeshop offers 12-week, 9-month, and 2-year boat building apprenticeships. There are sailing courses for all ages, as well as workshops, lectures, and after-school programs. For more on The Apprenticeshop, including boats for sale and commissions, please visit https://www.apprenticeshop.org/. Visitors are welcome by appointment at the shop, which features 3 floors of boatbuilding, from skiffs to lobster boats and even larger yachts.