Ann Davison: La Navigante Solitaria

Cast into the past to find the founding figure of bluewater feminism, the first in the line that leads to such modern-day characters as Isabelle Autissier, Ellen MacArthur, and Samantha Davies, and you bump up hard against a woman named Ann Davison. She is remembered today, when she is remembered at all, as the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic. She is also something of an enigma, ...

12th April 2010.
By Charles Doane

Ann Davison aboard Felicity Ann

Cast into the past to find the founding figure of bluewater feminism, the first in the line that leads to such modern-day characters as Isabelle Autissier, Ellen MacArthur, and Samantha Davies, and you bump up hard against a woman named Ann Davison. She is remembered today, when she is remembered at all, as the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic. She is also something of an enigma, wrapped up in several ironies. Chief among these is the fact that she probably never would have thought to go to sea in the first place had she not fallen in love with a sailor.

Not that Ann Davison was ever a wallflower, waiting for someone else’s testosterone to imbue her life with purpose. In her heart, she was always an adventurer. Born into a family of artists in London, England (her mother, in particular, had a passion for singing), she fixated on the thrill of motion rather than her own creativity as she was growing up.

As Ann herself once put it, in telling the tale of what became the defining tragedy of her life: “Best of all, I like handling things. Things in action. Driving fast cars, riding wild horses, flying an aeroplane.” She attended London Veterinary College, determined to “do something with horses,” but after becoming engaged to and then ditching a fellow student, she became obsessed with aviation. One of the very few women to hold a commercial pilot’s license in the United Kingdom during the 1930s, she eked out a living for a time as a freelance plane jockey, but then met and married an airfield owner, Frank Davison, who changed the course of her life.

The Davisons lost their airfield as World War II got underway. Civilian aviation was suspended, and Frank was too old to serve, so the couple retreated to a farm on an island in Scotland for the duration. After the war, eager to flee a Britain that seemed increasingly socialist, Frank pushed bluewater cruising as the next dream to pursue.

Together then the Davisons put everything they had into an antique 70-foot motorsailer named Reliance. A two-year refit left them deeply into debt, and in a desperate bid to save the boat from creditors they struck out for Cuba on the sly. Uncertain of their navigation, beset by gales, overwhelmed by the size of their vessel, the Davisons wandered aimlessly in the approaches to the English Channel for 19 days, afraid to make port or seek assistance for fear of bringing the wrath of their creditors down upon them. In the end, Reliance smashed up on Portland Bill on the Dorset coast, Frank was killed, and Ann, barely alive herself, washed ashore at the foot of a cliff after spending 14 hours adrift in a liferaft.

Ann Davison

For most women this would have been the end of sailing, but for Ann Davison the enormity of her loss somehow only sharpened her appetite. As she later wrote: “Three years later I sailed again, alone, but it was not in any spirit of defiance, or revenge, or expiation, or vindication, that I chose to return to a way of life that had barely begun before ending so disastrously. From the start, even as I climbed those cliffs, I knew I would, I had to, though at the time it would have been impossible to explain why.”

Soon after the tragedy, Ann got herself a job in a boatyard, then cast about for a berth as crew on other people’s boats. Finally, inexorably, however, she obtained a boat of her own, a tiny 23-foot sloop named Felicity Ann, and decided to sail it across the Atlantic singlehanded.

As mentioned, Ann was the first woman ever to do this. What we tend to forget now is what a poor job she made of it. She departed Plymouth, England, on May 18, 1952, bound for Madeira, but four days out found she had covered little more than 200 miles. On the fifth day, under stress of weather, she discovered her boat was half full of water and the bilge pumps were clogged. “Anyone else,” she wrote, “would have pulled up the floorboards, baled the ship out, cleared the pumps, found out why the water was coming in and taken steps to stop it. I did none of these things. They never occurred to me.” Instead she accepted a tow from a passing fishing boat into Douarnenez, France, taking in all six days just to make it across the English Channel.

This pattern of remarkably slow passage times pertained through out the voyage. On departing France, Ann took five days to sail across the Bay of Biscay to Vigo, Spain, a distance of only 300 miles. Closing the Spanish coast in a dense fog, having neglected to bring any bell or foghorn, she beat on a frying pan to announce her presence to commercial shipping. Once ashore she was hailed as “La Navigante Solitaria” and, as was true everywhere she went, attracted much attention, a fact she both resented and relished. One significant drawback to all the publicity was that she was often thought to have been lost at sea, as she was always overdue for her next port.

From Vigo it took Ann 19 days to reach Gibraltar; from there it was 7 days to Casablanca, just a short hop of 180 miles down the coast of Morocco. It took her an astounding 29 days to sail from Casablanca to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, a distance of about 540 miles, an average of less than 20 miles a day. It was, she noted, “a record for tardiness that is likely to stand for some time, unless someone decides to swim it.” Dr. Alain Bombard, who was that same year embarking on his famous transatlantic voyage in a 15-foot inflatable raft, did the same leg from Casablanca to Las Palmas in just 11 days.

Ann did at least manage to tie Bombard’s time crossing from Las Palmas to the West Indies–both spent 65 days on the passage. Ann departed Las Palmas on November 20, and after an interminable ordeal during which she slept little and ate very poorly finally made landfall at Barbados on January 18. She was blown past the island, however, and could not beat back to it. “Unless I can get assistance,” she wrote, “I don’t think I can make port. Am stupid with fatigue and my thinking is warped.” Two days later–strung out on benzedrine, seeing double through one eye–she raised St. Lucia, which she first mistook for Grenada. Again, however, she was blown past the island. Finally, on January 24, she was able to reach Dominica and cast anchor at Prince Rupert Bay.

In examining this portion of Ann’s voyage, it is easy to see what took her so long. Part of it, to be sure, was just bad luck. From December 14 until January 5, sailing at a latitude of 19 degrees north, where one would normally find steady easterly trade winds, she experienced severe doldrum conditions. There was little or no wind, and what there was tended to come from the southwest. Another problem was a lack of self-steering gear. Ann sailed in the days before reliable windvanes and as a novice was rarely able to get her boat to sail itself. She spent most of her waking hours at the helm, and when she needed to sleep simply pulled down the sails and left the boat to drift.

Ann’s inexperience cost her in other ways as well. She was a poor navigator and learned to use a sextant as she went along, an effort that drained much of her energy. More significantly, perhaps, a close reading of her account of the voyage suggests that she was simply too timid to take advantage of what fair wind did come her way. Again and again, particularly during the run down the Iberian coast in the northerly “Portuguese trades” and during the crossing to the West Indies, she tells of heaving to in following breezes she believes are too strong to sail in. She never supplies quantitative wind speeds, but one suspects most of this wind might have been put to much better use.

Ann Davison in New York

Easy as it is to critique Ann’s effort in retrospect, there is no denying her spirit. She not only was capable of enduring immense fatigue and discomfort, she seemed to thrive on it. She arrived at Dominica completely exhausted, literally on the verge of a breakdown, but never for a moment, having achieved her goal of crossing the Atlantic, did she think of quitting sailing. Instead, just as she had after losing her husband, she quickly pulled herself together and continued on, sailing Felicity Ann singlehanded through the West Indies to the Bahamas, and thence up the U.S. East Coast to New York City, where she was hailed as a conquering heroine at the 1954 New York Boat Show.

For five years afterwards, Ann lived as an itinerant cruiser, drifting back and forth between New York and the Bahamas with the seasons. She remarried once during this time, but divorced soon afterwards. She fell in love and remarried again, to a businessman named Bert Billheimer, just as she decided to sell Felicity Ann and embark on a new venture–a singlehanded circumnavigation of eastern North America via the East Coast, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico aboard a 17-foot outboard-powered cabin cruiser. While preparing her new boat, which she called Gemini, she was diagnosed with cancer, but was treated and recovered and took off on her last solo cruise, which she successfully completed, soon afterwards.

In all of these ventures, obviously, Ann Davison exhibited extraordinary self-reliance. Probably more than any other it was this trait that defined her. She herself, however, in the wake of the Reliance disaster, where a refusal to seek help had cost her her husband, was wary of it. Perhaps the greatest irony of her life was that it was her solo voyage across the Atlantic, an act of putative independence, that taught her at last how to rely on others. She was acutely aware of all the help she received–from the fishermen who towed her into France, to the well-wishers in various ports who performed work on her boat for free, to the friends she made everywhere who opened their homes to her–and was deeply grateful for “the kindness that did so much to chip away the rock of cynicism.” In the end, she realized, it was her career as a solo sailor that saved her from herself.

Felicity Ann: Slow boat to America

Felicity Ann was hull number 12 of a line of stock wooden “four-ton” sloops designed by Sid Mashford and built by the Mashford Brothers at Cremyll Shipyard outside of Plymouth, England. Construction on “FA,” as Ann always referred to the boat, started in 1939, was postphoned during World War II, and was not completed until 1949, when she was purchased by a West Country yachtsman who commissioned her for a cruise to Norway. This gentleman, however, changed his plans and sold the boat to Ann in February of 1952.

Ann Davison aboard Felicity Ann

Ann had the boat surveyed by Humphrey “Hum” Barton, who had established an international reputation as a small-boat voyager just two years earlier when he sailed the 25-foot Vertue XXXV across the Atlantic in 1950. Barton recommended that several modifications be made prior to Ann’s voyage. These included the installation of pulpits, lifelines, and a cockpit dodger (Barton invented the modern dodger and had installed the first example on Vertue XXXV); a reconstruction of the cockpit that drastically raised its coamings and included a sort of doghouse at the aft end to fend off boarding waves; and a structural reinforcement of the coachroof to help support the deck-stepped mast. He also recommended that the mast and boom be shortened by 6 feet and 8 inches respectively, which reduced sail area from 237 square feet to 183 square feet, and he devised an interesting twin-staysail rig with offset stays and twin whisker poles that were fixed to the forward lower shrouds rather than the mast.

Some commentators have criticized Barton’s drastic rig reduction in retrospect and blame Ann’s slow passage times on a lack of sail area. In Ann’s account of her voyage, however, she never once complains of not being able to set more sail. Instead, she seems to have kept the boat undercanvassed, which suggests that Barton’s caution was fully warranted. The twin-staysail rig, however, was less than a success. Ann found that the boat rolled horribly when the twins were set and that they were difficult to set and strike. As a result, she used them relatively infrequently during the voyage.

Felicity Ann, last I knew, belonged to John Hutchins, of Haines, Alaska, who purchased the boat in 2000 from a pair of schoolteachers who found her derelict in San Diego, California, 20 years earlier.

Specifications

LOA:  23’0″

LWL:  19’0″

Beam:  7’6″

Draft:  4’6″

Displacement: 4 tons

Sail area: 183 sq.ft.

Ann Davison aboard Felicity Ann

Books by Ann Davison

Last Voyage (1951): Ann’s tragic account of the shipwreck that ended her marriage to her first husband Frank is easily her best effort from a literary point of view.

Home Was An Island (1952): After the success of her first book, Davison was emboldened to offer up this charming account or her days living on an island farm with Frank during World War II. Some of this story is related in cursory form in Last Voyage.

My Ship Is So Small (1956): The classic tale of the Atlantic crossing that made Ann famous.

In the Wake of the Gemini (1962): Ann’s last book recounts her cruise aboard a 17-foot powerboat through the eastern U.S. via the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. After this last venture, she retired to Florida, where she bred cats and finally died of cancer in the late 1990s.

Note: None of these books are currently in print but all are available at www.abebooks.com

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Charles Doane

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Charles Doane is an editor-at-large for SAIL, where he previously was a senior editor. He also served as managing editor at Offshore and associate editor at Cruising World. Charles has logged more than 40,000 miles as an offshore sailor, including six transatlantic passages and some single-handed passages. His blog posts appear courtesy of his website www.WaveTrain.net.
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