Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea


Ann Davison, My Ship is So Small, 1956

When Ann Davison crossed the Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to Antigua, in the West Indies, in 1952, she became the first woman ever to sail across an ocean alone. Her accomplishment was made even more extraordinary by the size of her boat Felicity Ann--23 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide--and by the fact that a previous attempt, in a 70-foot ketch, had ended in a shipwreck that had claimed the life of her husband. Her journal of the leg from Casablanca to the Canary Islands captures many of the elements of solo sailing; the courage, the endurance, the loneliness, the peace, the serenity, the need for constant vigilance, the sense of connection with the living sea. And always, just over the horizon, the unknown dangers and the unexpected pleasures--not only wind and weather but also passing ships.

Conditions had a delicious dreamy Southern feel about them, calm and unhurried. There were lovely soft pearl-grey nights of a peculiar luminosity and soothing restfulness that were the physical manifestation of contentment. There were sunrises of such crystalline clarity and pristine glory that one could forgive any amount of travail for the joy of beholding those few golden moments when the world was born anew. There were sunsets so lurid, when an orange sun crept down a black and blood-red sky into a smooth lead-coloured sea, that one was convinced there was nothing less than a hurricane in the offing. I would shorten sail and batten down and prepare for the worst, only to discover that all the fuss in the heavens was for a few drops of rain. The weather eye I had acquired through years of flying and farming in England was sadly out in the lower latitudes, where the familiar signs and portents meant nothing at all. The weather could, and did, change with extraordinary rapidity, and the minutest rise or fall in barometric pressure might mean a severe blow, or nothing. . . . I soon gave up trying to forecast and took the weather as it came. After all, there is very little else you can do in the ocean, with no convenient ports to run to for shelter there, so I gave up reefing until it was necessary, and it was hardly ever necessary on this trip, as most of the time there was either a glass calm or a very light breeze, and our average day's progress was twenty miles.

The snail-like advance was a straight invitation to barnacles to grow on the log line, and they were surprisingly tenacious and difficult to remove. The water was so still and clear that sometimes it was almost as if you could see straight down to the bottom of the sea. Fascinating little striped fish, black and bright blue, swam about in the shade of the ship. A few flying fish skittered across the surface like flat stones thrown on a pond. They were very small flying fish, no bigger than minnows. There were times when rubbish thrown over the side in the morning would still be alongside at nightfall. Then the air was breathless and there would not be the smallest sound from the ship, not even a creak, and the silence was primeval. One might have been alone on the planet where even a cloud spelt companionship.

Most of the time, however, there was a huge swell in which FA rolled abominably and flung her boom from side to side with a viciousness that threatened to wrench it clean out of its fastenings. She rattled her blocks and everything not immovably fast below with an aggravating irregularity, so that I was driven to a frenzy of restowing and rigging preventers in an effort to restore peace. An intermittent blop--rattle--crash on a small boat at sea is the nautical version of the Chinese water torture.

Calms permit a little basking, but not much for a single-handed sailor. They provide an opportunity to overhaul gear and repair or renew anything that might give way under more embarrassing circumstances, for if there is one thing the sea will not forgive it is a lost opportunity. I made up and reeved new jib sheets, mended slide-seizings on the mainsail, patched the sails where they showed signs of chafe, and recovered the fenders whose canvas covers had been ruined by oil in the dock at Gibraltar, and felt no end salty at my work, deriving a deep satisfaction in the doing of it, even though the patches on the sails were by no means the finest examples of a sailmaker's art.

For the first nine days out of Casablanca there was not a ship to be seen, and I missed them, grizzling quietly to myself at the loneliness; then we joined the north- and south-bound shipping lane and two steamers appeared on the horizon at the same time, whereon, embarrassed by riches perhaps, I perversely resented their presence. "What are you doing on my ocean?"

Being in the shipping lane again meant the resumption of restless, sleepless nights. I figured out it took twenty minutes for a ship invisible over the horizon to reach us, and as a big ship was extremely unlikely to see me I had to see her, so any rest below was broken every twenty minutes throughout the hours of darkness. Enough practice since leaving England had endowed me with a personal alarm system which rang me out of a comatose condition at the appropriate intervals. Occasionally it let me oversleep, and once I awoke to find a south-bound steamer twenty-five yards astern of us. . . . A miss is as good as a mile maybe, but twenty-five yards is a narrow enough margin in the ocean, and it gave the required jolt to the personal alarm clock. On these ship-watching nights I used to get two hours of genuine sleep at dawn, when it could be assumed that FA was reasonably visible, and I couldn't care less by then anyway, but the overall lack of sleep did not improve the general physical condition, already much lowered by dysentery. The thought process, never on Einstein levels, were reduced to a positively moronic grasp, and I had some rare hassels with navigational problems. However, the balance of nature was somewhat restored in that I was eating better on this trip than on any of the previous ones--the voyage from Douarnenez to Vigo was made almost exclusively on oranges--and there are several references to cooked meals in the log book. . . . I had an uncomplicated yearning for plain boiled potatoes and cabbage. As these do not represent a normal taste on my part, I concluded it was a deficiency desire, and stepped up the daily dose of vitamin tablets: a strict necessity for ocean voyagers, as I discovered on the nineteen-day Vigo to Gibraltar run, when I tired to do without them and broke out into reluctant-to-heal sores. The only canned goods whose vitamin content survives the canning process are tomatoes, which probably explains why canned foods lost all appeal for me as soon as I went to sea. Very practically I was learning what stores would be required for the long passage.

One supper was especially memorable, though not for the menu. At 1750 hours, Sunday, October 5th to be exact, I was fixing some cheese nonsense on the stove, for it was a flat calm and I was in an experimental mood, and whilst stirring the goo in the pan I happened to glance through the porthole over the galley and spied a steamer way over on the horizon, the merest speck to eastward of us, going south. A few minutes later I looked out again and to my surprise saw she had altered course and was making towards us. Coming out of her way specially to look at a little ship. Thrilled to the quick, I abandoned supper, brushed my hair, and made up my face, noting with detached amazement that my hands were trembling and my heart was beating, and I was as excited as if I was preparing for a longed-for assignation.

She was a tall, white-grey Italian liner, the Genale of Rome, and she swept round astern of us, the officers on her bridge inspecting FA keenly through their binoculars. As she had so kindly come many miles out of her way, I had no wish to delay her needlessly, for minutes are valuable to a ship on schedule, so I made no signals, but waved, and the whole ship seemed to come alive with upraised arms waving in reply. She went on her way satisfied that all was well with her midget counterpart, and the night was a little less lonely from the knowledge of her consideration.

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gene carl feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)