This story is by C. Yvonne Corbett and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Billy’s pulse beat furiously in her throat. The fate of her father and the captured crewmembers was desperate. An ill-advised solo attack on a British Royal Navy ship, smaller than most but still five times the Addie Lee’s size, resulted in her father and half of his crew being taken prisoner. It had been doomed to fail. Why hadn’t she seen it?
Quick thinking gave Billy a bargaining chip: a British hostage, Captain Nigel Fitz-William who serendipitously happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when Billy, with trembling hand, jabbed the barrel of her pistol tight against his ribs.
How Billy and the sketchy remainder of her crew managed to escape, with hostage, was tantamount to a miracle, and largely attributable to a foggy, overcast day.
As a child, Willamina Wannamaker wanted to be a nurse; then a farmer; then a writer. Never did she aspire to the life of a pirate; but an unavoidable Twist of Fate and a Chance Encounter sealed the deal…
At the tender age of eight, Willamina’s life skewed off-course when, in the year 1802, her mother succumbed to a fatal virus that swept upstate New York. Her father, a St. Lawrence River waterman, dressed young Willamina—a wiry, gangly kid—in boy’s togs and took her aboard his schooner, the Addie Lee. What else could he have done? His wife gone; no family to pawn the girl off on; and him on the water for long stretches at a time.
Her father altered her name: Willamina became ‘Billy.’ With practice, she became adept at responding to her new identity. Living amongst her father’s rowdy crew, she had no choice. Women onboard were bad luck, inviting tragedy. In truth, Willamina’s heart skipped with anticipation…she worshipped her father and loved the river life. Boy’s clothing gave her more freedom than the cumbersome skirts she’d been used to wearing; but keeping up the gender ruse for long periods became tedious, especially when she hit puberty [that was a particularly trying time for her father, too] and her body threatened to give the game away. The saving grace was that dad was the captain of this vessel with his own private quarters where Billy could relax the role-play behind her cramped, curtained-off corner of the cabin. Her sanctuary.
Her spare frame allowed her to pull off the subterfuge throughout her teens—minimal give-away curves and bumps to tattle on her. In looks, she lacked the softer feminine outlines of her mother’s visage; but shared the same piercing blue-grey eyes and curly auburn hair that frizzed unmercifully on the water. Only a firmly bound bandanna kept it in check. In build, she was much like her father—of middling height, sinewy and agile.
For ten years she was accepted as the captain’s son and treated accordingly. By her eighteenth birthday, Billy had learned everything she needed to know about river life.
The Addie Lee, a small but sturdy 28-ton merchant schooner barely earned its keep transporting cargoes of salt, potash and provisions into Canada…illegally, of course. In the Spring of 1812, when it looked like war between the United States and British forces in Canada was imminent, Addie Lee joined other American merchant schooners plying the river to attempt one more profitable voyage before war broke out. Strike while they could, for who could predict what the future would bring?
Billy read concern etched on her father’s face. War meant uncertainty. What would become of his shipping business? Alright, call it what it was—smuggling. The illegality was not the issue…income was the point. His crew’s livelihood depended on the illicit trade. Eight families besides his own. His responsibility. He felt it keenly.
Talk of local merchant ships being commissioned by the American government to augment their navy of gunships on the St. Lawrence River seemed like the answer to her father’s prayers. The fleet little Addie Lee pushed herself to the front of the line.
Initially, the Addie Lee was employed to transport government cargo—a safer occupation than taking on the British Royal Navy. The little schooner was duly dispatched to Oswego on Lake Ontario to bring back gunpowder for the militia forces stationed at Ogdensburg…and the adventure was launched!
Enthralled by reports from local privateers of fabulous profits, the crew eventually grew dissatisfied with the ‘safer’ choice, urging Captain Wannamaker to up the ante.
Billy’s skin prickled when she overheard the risks: winner take, or lose, all; the losers enslaved on board the capturing British warship, or worse yet, locked in a British prison for the remainder of the war. Was she the only one who could see the pitfalls of this plan? She had to talk with her father.
Her argument fell on deaf ears. The Addie Lee became a privateer.
Brow furrowed in disgust, she watched her ‘home’ being outfitted with a 6-pound cannon, muskets, pistols, hatchets, and knives. All the trappings of a pirate ship.
Before long, captain and crew were joining forces with other privateers to intercept and capture flotillas of bateaux ferrying supplies to British warships upriver on Lake Ontario.
It was a sweet deal! All plunder of stores from the captured vessels and bounty from hostage-taking was awarded to the schooners’ captains. And the river was virtually crowded with troops of British bateaux. Having his crew’s welfare—and his daughter’s—in mind, Captain Wannamaker made certain the Addie Lee was always in the fray of things.
Her father was skilled at striking fast and retreating—lessons that Billy assimilated easily—and they quickly amassed a small fortune in plunder.
Captain Wannamaker insisted that his daughter learn how to handle a firearm. There were risks, after all. Her accuracy with a pistol was a revelation; she kept a smaller one tucked always into the deep pocket of her britches…just in case.
The excitement of the chase—overtaking an enemy vessel; seizure of lucrative cargoes; hostage-taking at twenty-five dollars a head—was undeniably an adrenaline kick. With no deaths nor serious injuries to mar the adventure, her tension eased. Billy’s hunched shoulders relaxed; excitement sparkled again in her eyes. Her reservations had been unfounded. Billy grudgingly admitted that the outcome was more favorable than she had anticipated.
Until…that Chance Encounter with a British warship.
The last thing Billy would have expected was her unmitigated enthrallment with the enemy who had become her hostage. And his enchantment with her…once he’d accidentally discovered her long-held secret. But, was it accidental? Billy was nineteen, nubile, and naïve. The opportunity was ripe; and Fitz-William was a charming chap.
It happened just days after his capture: at Captain Billy’s request, the First Mate shoved their unsuspecting hostage into the cabin—just as Billy was emerging from her bath. The door was unlocked. The shocked silence was short-lived. Before long the entire crew was privy to Billy’s secret.
After that initial introduction, the situation developed apace. Nigel, duly smitten, revived his new love’s nearly-forgotten name. Willamina blossomed.
Being already thoroughly disgusted with the state of British command, Nigel was all too willing to play along with the hostage ruse, especially in light of this tantalizing alternative. His status, however, failed to persuade the British command to exchange Captain Wannamaker and his crew to get their captain back.
Billy’s outrage—and Nigel’s humiliation—provided the momentum to go rogue, pillaging and plundering both American and British vessels. They were out for Revenge! and they were very, very good at it, Billy knowing all the hidden bays and channels through the maze of scattered islands of the St. Lawrence. Evasion became her trump card.
The Addie Lee’s piratical shenanigans, and incredible disappearing acts, made Billy Wannamaker a local legend.
Also, a target.
A thorn in the side of both American and British navies, it was inevitable that these two powerful adversaries would eventually get the upper hand. Emerging from a hidden island port into the onset of a British-U.S. skirmish, Billy found the naval guns rapidly redirected toward her piddling little schooner.
The Addie Lee was sunk.
But the bodies from the Addie Lee were never recovered. Not a one. Rumor going ‘round had it that Billy and Nigel had stashed an impressive bounty of riches on a tree-shrouded island. Years after the sinking of the Addie Lee, another fleet little schooner called the Willamina, piloted by a Limey bloke, was reported to ply the waters of Lake Ontario. Scuttlebutt claimed its captain was a copper-haired pirate for whom the ship was named.
But then, there are those who claim that Billy Wannamaker and her crew perished with the Addie Lee, outgunned by two indomitable adversaries.
To this day there are reported sightings of the Ghost Ship Addie Lee on the St. Lawrence. In the Fall of the year, when the mists rise off the warmer waters into the crisp autumn air, hearsay has it that the Addie Lee might be seen skimming over the river with her Captain, Willamina ‘Billy’ Wannamaker, at her bow.