Free-spirited Patricia Kelley learns how to survive aboard male-dominated ships, both as a sailor and a surgeon, finds love and independence, and creates the life she always wanted for herself, away from the stuffiness of proper English society and on the open seas. Patricia Kelley is the bastard daughter of a wealthy baron who is tired of the endless competition against the other wealthy ladies for “who is worth more” and “who can make the better match”. It is the mid 18th century and Patricia regards herself as different to the other girls in England. She's a girl who likes adventure and bending society's rules. As the last days at boarding school come to an end, Patricia counts down the days until she can fulfill her dreams of going back to Barbados where her father runs a sugarcane plantation. Upon hearing that her father has passed away in reduced circumstances, Patricia stows away on a ship going to the West Indies where she might claim birthright to her father's estate. One day, she is discovered by Brian Dalton, a bosun's mate. Brian helps Patricia dress up as a boy so that she can work on the ship, tarring the rigging and doing other odd jobs.
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One day, Patricia is discovered by little Willie Young, who is the son of the Captain of the ship. He tells her that the ship is carrying mostly gunpowder to fuel a war in the Atlantic ocean between the British and the French. Later on, Patricia is discovered by the captain and forced to take her rightful place among the womenfolk of the ship. The Captain plans on leaving Patricia in Madeira, as she is a stowaway. Before she leaves, Patricia wants to climb up to the crow's nest and she impresses Brian with her daring. She and Brian share a brief kiss. Just when Patricia thought she was going to be left in Madeira, the ship's doctor, Dr. MacPherson intervenes and agrees to pay for her passage to Barbados.
Dr. MacPherson reveals that he wanted to keep her because he thinks she has the guts to be his assistant surgeon aboard the ship. When their ship docks in Funchal harbor to get an armed escort for the Atlantic crossing, Patricia is allowed off the ship to get some produce from the markets. She spies Brian fooling around with some prostitutes and this breaks Patricia's heart, even though she is angry at herself for expecting anything better from a sailor. She and Brian wordlessly agree to keep their relationship a friendship.
Finally, their ship weighs anchor and begins the long, treacherous journey across the Atlantic. The days begin to meld together, with Patricia working as a surgeon's assistant by day, a woman's companion in the evening to the Captain's wife, and for a few brief moments in the middle of the night, a sailor with Brian. Brian introduces her to the rest of the sailors and Patricia gets the job of climbing up to the crow's nest and watching for French ships and pirates. She also learns medical terms and how to treat a variety of common sailor's ailments like the pox and scurvy from the Doctor. She even helps the Captain's wife give birth to her son.
The ship passes through still seas for many days before a gale hits and causes havoc for another few days. By the time a few weeks pass, their freshwater supply and food is low. As they are trying to make headway on the seas, they encounter a French Frigate. Their own merchant ship is no match for the frigate and everyone is filled with dread. The Captain plans to send their men in fighting, anyway. They trick the French ship into thinking their own crew and ship are made of harmless old and sickly men and silly women. This gets the French to leave their guard down, which allows Brian to use the canons to shoot at their mainmast and disable the ship. They manage to get away without any casualties.
They drop anchor at Carlisle Bay in Barbados where Patricia hears that her father's plantation has been sold. She and Dr. MacPherson rush to her estate where they find that it is indeed true, her father had to sell the plantation to pay his way out of debts. Patricia now feels she truly has nothing left in the world. Back at the ship, Patricia agrees to marry Dr. MacPherson, and Dr. MacPherson knows that Patricia is half in love with Brian but promises that a marriage with him will not be a bad one. During the wedding, Young Willie climbs the rigging and falls off, knocking himself senseless, causing everyone to anxiously wait by while Dr. MacPherson and Patricia tend to his wounds. Luckily, the boy recovers, but the Captain refuses to let him travel on the dangerous ship, anymore. Later that week, Brian tells Patricia that he will be leaving to sign up for the navy.
Patricia and her husband are re-assigned to work on a floating hospital ship, which is much harder work than Patricia has ever encountered in her short career as a medical practitioner. They nurse injured sailors back to health then deliver them to waiting warships where they pick up a cargo of more injured sailors and begin the cycle again. One night, her husband catches the dreaded yellow fever. Patricia frantically tries her best to nurse him back to health but her husband feels like his time is near. He gives Patricia all their earnings. Patricia is left to grieve over the loss of Dr. MacPherson, who was her rescuer, teacher, husband and friend.
After her husband's death, Patricia tries to obtain a position as a ship's surgeon however because she is a woman no one will take her. She finds a captain who is willing to take her back to England where she might claim her husband's property. On the way there, however, their ship is caught in a rough squall. Because their ship is old, it can't handle the storm very well and sinks, forcing everyone to jump off the ship and save themselves.
Patricia ends up getting washed ashore in Charleston, on Nevis, where she is nursed back to health by a lady named Rachel Hamilton. She finds out that most of her crew have drowned and she is lucky to survive the capsizing. Rachel is very friendly and lets Patricia live with her. It is revealed that Rachel is an illegitimate child of a wealthy merchant, as well. Patricia hatches a plan to make a living for herself as a surgeon by dressing up as a man and going under the pseudonym Patrick MacPherson. One day, Rachel receives word from her husband and must leave to meet with him, leaving Patricia without a place to stay. She moves to new lodgings in Basseterre and falls in with the waterfront crowd of ruffians. Soon, Patricia gets signed up to be a ship's surgeon on a warship.
At her new post on the war frigate, Patricia encounters Brian, who is now a gunner. Brian admits that he always loved Patricia and they spend the night together, high up on the crow's nest. Brian eventually asks Patricia to marry him and tells her his plans to earn enough money so that he can settle down in one of the American colonies. Later on, their ship becomes actively engaged in a battle that ends up with the enemy discovering that Patricia is a woman. They take Patricia, who at that point is feverish from an illness she picked up. Dalton somehow finds her again and brings her back to their ship but in the process disappears into the fray of soldiers. Patricia experiences a few moments of gut-wrenching anxiety until she spies Dalton again and she forces the captain to send a man down to pick him up. The story ends with Patricia and Brian reunited and making plans to marry each other and live in America.
Best part of story, including ending:
When I read the story, I felt like Linda Collison did a lot of good research into how life on deck must have been like for a variety of people with different class standing - from their speech to their mannerism to their common topics of conversation. It was particularly interesting that Patricia was involved in so many jobs on deck - she was a lady's companion, she was a surgeon and she was a simple ship's mate. With each role, Patricia had to speak and behave appropriately in order to be accepted by her peers. It was a very interesting set-up for a story and it made me like and admire Patricia for her versatility to adapt.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene is where the Captain of Patricia's ship wants the ship to look like its manned by foolish old men and silly women in order to escape a French Frigate they encounter in the Atlantic. Patricia plays a crucial role of being a silly Captain's daughter who distracts the French soldiers by telling them that she left her knickers up in the crow's nest. It was very a very daring and silly scene, as Patricia climbed the rigging and pretended to lose her footing so that the soldiers would drop their guns and rush over to help her.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Patricia is a practical-minded young woman with a mind for adventure. She isn't afraid of doing dirty or bloody work and she isn't afraid to take the necessary risks to ensure she can survive, even if it means dressing up like a man and boldly asking for a job as a ship's surgeon on board a warship full of injured soldiers.