‘I ought to blister your fantail for that!’
So says ship’s captain Terry O’Brien (Gardner McKay) to a girl he’s just found concealed below deck in the prolixly-titled ocean-going comedy, I Sailed to Tahiti With an All-Girl Crew (1968).
It may come as a disappointment to learn that teenage Jimsy, played by Mary O’Brien, doesn’t get her fantail blistered, or even (to make the expression nicer) her bottom spanked. The reason Cap’n Terry feels like doing it to her is that he’s, well, sailing to Tahiti with an all-girl crew to win a bet, the terms of which specify not only the gender but the number of the crew, so with an additional girl aboard he stands to be disqualified.
There are perhaps more serious reasons to disapprove of stowaways. Ships run on tight calculations, ratios of weight to fuel and food to personnel, which can be disrupted if there’s an extra body to move and an extra mouth to feed. And, less rationally, women at sea are thought by sailors to be bad luck, which is why, until quite late in the last century, they were not allowed aboard working ships and other maritime vessels such as oil rigs.
For example, it was only in 1977 that the first woman set foot on an oil rig. As it happens, she was someone I’d have loved to see turned over a man’s knee for a nice stowaway spanking.
But I’m out of luck, because Lis was there legitimately, by permission, to make a television documentary. From time to time, however, it was the girl stowaways whose luck ran out…
Here’s a case in point:
Roberta Eike was a 23-year-old oceanographer and Harvard graduate, who so objected to the taboo against women at sea that she wrote a paper against it and then, when nothing changed, did everything in her power to get herself included on the roster of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s ship Caryn, which was due to sail on a five-day research cruise in July 1956. The chief scientist, George Clarke, who was also her research adviser at Harvard, refused permission. The ship’s captain refused permission. The director of the WHOI refused permission. What’s a girl to do?
Twelve hours into the voyage, the staff and ship’s crew got a surprise when the unexpected, uninvited and unwanted Roberta, clad in gray Bermuda shorts, emerged from beneath the floorboards. She’d calculated that half a day in hiding was long enough for it to be deemed unacceptably inconvenient for the ship to return to port. And so it was. But that didn’t mean she’d won.
She was marched to the captain’s cabin, where she spent the rest of the voyage locked in. But the first order of business there was a stern, non-academic lecture from Professor Clarke, which culminated with Roberta being upended and given a sound spanking on the seat of those gray Bermuda shorts!
A better known stowaway case happened a decade later, exactly 50 years ago on April 19, 1967. It involved the 20-year-old trainee schoolteacher Sandra Hilder, who was eager to visit her sailor boyfriend Bernard Brewer.
The snag was that she was in Sydney, in her home country of Australia, and he was in California in his home country. They met early in 1967: she was writing a class paper about the Antarctic, and there was a US icebreaker, the Glacier, docked in Sydney Harbor, just returned from a three-month tour of duty there. Seeking first-hand material from the crew, she encountered ‘Bud’ Brewer and was smitten. (Only metaphorically. The literal smiting comes later in the story.)
The fleet wasn’t in for long, and after Bud sailed away with the Glacier to his new deployment with the California Coastguard, Sandra began to think of ways of getting to America to be with him. The fare for the journey was exorbitant, but maybe the US Navy could help – without knowing it. So when the cruiser USS Long Beach put in at Sydney in April, and briefly opened itself to local visitors, Sandra charmed a marine into showing her to the cabin reserved for the Admiral (but not required on this particular voyage). She was found hiding under the bed the following day, April 20, after a guard spotted her shoes outside the cabin door. There were only three hours to go before the ship set sail for the Philippines.
The security implications of the incident were the more serious because the Long Beach was America’s only nuclear-powered guided missile carrier. Sandra found herself in police headquarters being searched and interrogated as a possible spy.
She was later released without charge, but became known as ‘the girl in the Admiral’s cabin’ after the story was broken by Australian journalist Harry Potter – whose admiring colleagues thought he must surely have magical powers to have winkled it out of the security men.
Sandra seemed undaunted by her brush with the law. She courted the publicity, was interviewed on the television news and vowed to continue her efforts to get to America as an unwanted guest of the US Navy. So when another US ship, the aircraft carrier Bennington, arrived in Sydney on April 30, extra security was laid on to ensure that Miss Hilder stayed away. ‘I would not be surprised if she was banned from the area,’ said her father. But it seems that more radical measures may have been arranged.
While the Bennington sailed into Sydney, Sandra flew out, arriving in San Francisco on the evening of May 1, onward bound to New York. How did she manage it? Various stories were told of where the money came from: the trip was paid for by US talk show host Johnny Carson, or by a mysteriously nameless speedboat company, or by a 19-year-old trainee sailor named Robert Winston, whom she had never met but who approached her with a ‘friendly gesture’ to the tune of $500. Sandra later thanked him for his generosity and promised to repay the money:
That’s a peculiar tale, though the papers were careful, almost too careful, to explain exactly how the kid had managed to save up that vast sum out of his seaman’s humble wage. But when there were also two other completely different ‘cover stories’, and with the coincidence of timing, you can’t help but wonder whether, in fact, someone high up in one or other country’s Navy decided it would be a good idea for Sandra to be a long way out of town during the Bennington’s visit!
They may also have decided it would be a good idea for something else to happen to her.
Her New York itinerary included a television appearance – on The Johnny Carson Show, naturally.
After that she was flown back to California by chartered helicopter to be reunited with Bud on May 4. With a manifest sense of irony, the meeting was arranged to take place in Long Beach – the city, not the cruiser. And Bud was upset about all the publicity. Unfortunately for him, he was about to get some more of it. And it wasn’t all that fortunate even for headline-hungry Sandra.
A Smacking Welcome for Sandra Hilder, said one headline. Did it mean this?
Maybe not. Because another read Not the ‘Smack’ She Was Expecting. Bud really wasn’t happy about the publicity:
‘I’ve been wanting to do that,’ he said. ‘Even my father never did that!’ said Sandra. ‘Maybe your father should have,’ retorted Bud.
But the suspicion lingers: if everything about this trip was orchestrated, perhaps from the upper echelons of the Navy, and since Bud Brewer was a serving seaman… might he just possibly have been acting under orders to give the stowaway her just deserts?
The spanking ‘hurt my pride more than my backside’, said Sandra afterwards, but it didn’t do anything to shorten her fifteen minutes of fame. A few days later, she and Bud were offered cameo roles as a pair of lovers in the Phyllis Diller movie Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (released in 1968).
But the relationship didn’t last: Sandra returned to Australia in August, and in October she married a former Mr America, Richard Armijo.
She had one more television appearance to make after her return home, on Sydney’s In Town Tonight, for an interview by the show’s notoriously intense, clinical presenter, Brian Adams. The encounter evidently did not go well for her. Afterwards the press mused that ‘such a little girl’ should get ‘such an almighty thrashing’. I dare say that was just a metaphor – but after what happened to her in Long Beach, who knows?!