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The New York Times
The New York Times
Erica Westly

Overlooked No More: Ann Davison, Who Daringly Crossed the Atlantic Alone

On May 18, 1952, Ann Davison set out by boat from Plymouth, England, on a journey that, if completed, would make her the first woman known to sail across the Atlantic Ocean alone. It was a dangerous undertaking for any sailor, but it was especially dangerous for Davison, who had very little boating experience.

Davison wasn’t out to set any records, or to prove a point about women and their abilities. Rather, the motivation behind her trip was deeply personal: Three years earlier, she and her husband, Frank, had attempted to sail a similar route to the Caribbean, where they planned to start a new life together. But after battling gales in the English Channel for 19 days, their boat crashed against rocks in southern England. Frank died the next morning, and Ann nearly died.

Afterward, she vowed to finish the journey on her own.

“One would have thought that this tragedy would have put anyone off sailing for life,” sailor Humphrey Barton wrote in his 1955 book “Atlantic Adventures: Voyages in Small Craft,” “but Ann is a very unusual person.”

Ann Davison was born Margaret Ann Longstaffe on June 5, 1913, in Carshalton, England, to Josephine and William Longstaffe. Her father was an accountant. She loved horses, and she briefly attended the London Veterinary College before her interests turned to planes and she decided to become a pilot.

It was while working as a freelance commercial pilot, transporting passengers and cargo, that she met her future husband, who owned and managed an airfield. They were married in 1939, just as World War II was getting underway.

Davison also enjoyed driving fast cars, and perhaps she would have learned to sail at an earlier age had sailing not been historically closed off to women. Ship captains’ wives and daughters sometimes learned to sail, but they primarily served as assistants, and few had independent careers in the field, as Amelia Earhart and other women did in aviation.

For a woman to embark on a sailing voyage alone was even more unlikely. “There definitely weren’t a lot of women in sailing back then,” Tania Aebi, who sailed around the world almost entirely alone in the 1980s, said in a phone interview. “And it was fairly new, the whole cruising idea — just sailing for the heck of it, for adventure.”

Davison was almost 39 when she began her solo journey. The boat she chose was the Felicity Ann, a 23-foot-long wooden sloop — “the kind of vessel you pull over your head and wear,” she wrote in a 1953 article for Life magazine — but she was confident that it could handle the trip. “It never occurred to me that I might not make it,” she wrote.

Her main concern was not crashing, despite what had happened during her attempt with her husband; it was how the prolonged solitude would affect her mentally.

But Davison’s limited sailing knowledge proved to be her biggest obstacle. At one point her boat flooded, and she had no idea what to do. She also hoisted the wrong signal flags, had trouble navigating and almost ran out of drinking water.

She had originally planned to arrive in the Caribbean by August, but, after making several stops along the European coast to get her boat repaired and practice her navigation skills, she didn’t begin the main part of her journey — nearly 3,000 nautical miles of open ocean — until November.

After another two months at sea, during which both her eyes got sunburned and she became, as she put it, “stupid with fatigue,” Davison finally reached the West Indies in January. High winds forced her to sail past Barbados and St. Lucia, extending her journey by an additional week.

She landed in Dominica on Jan. 24, 1953, officially ending her eight-month-long journey and cementing her status as a sailing pioneer. “She Conquered the Atlantic,” one newspaper headline proclaimed.

Her book “My Ship Is So Small,” published in 1956, got positive reviews. (Her first book, “Last Voyage,” which chronicled her ill-fated 1949 sailing trip, had also been well received.) But after a few years, Davison’s story was mostly forgotten. When she appeared in 1962 on the game show “To Tell the Truth,” in which three people claim to be the same notable person, none of the celebrity judges had heard of her; only one correctly guessed who she was.

Davison was living in Florida by then and had married Bert Billheimer, a former Miami Herald photographer. The two shared an interest in boats, and a 1960 trip they took through the Everglades, during which they traveled by motorboat and took photographs of wildlife, was the subject of a New York Times article.

Davison had sold the Felicity Ann and, by all accounts, never went on another solo sailing expedition. “I knew what single-handed sailing was like now,” she wrote in “My Ship Is So Small.” “The experience was complete.”

In 1990, when Cruising World magazine tracked Davison down after inducting her into its Hall of Fame, she and Billheimer no longer owned any boats and were living in relative obscurity on a ranch in Lorida, Florida, where they bred exotic cats.

Davison died on May 12, 1992. She was 78. A brief death notice appeared in The Tampa Tribune, but it didn’t mention her trans-Atlantic crossing, and there were no obituaries in mainstream newspapers in the United States. Her books were out of print, and she seemed destined to be remembered as a footnote, if that.

Recently, though, Davison’s sailboat was rediscovered after passing through several private owners, and it was restored by the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding and the Community Boat Project in Washington state, which now use it to promote women’s empowerment through sailing lessons and other activities. Additionally, a house in England where she lived with her first husband was given a plaque and named a national landmark for historically significant places in 2017.

Davison may not be a conventional role model: She wasn’t a skilled or dedicated sailor, and the feat she accomplished was arguably reckless. But, as Alfred Ames wrote in a review of her book in The Chicago Tribune in 1956, “Courage such as hers, used to whatever ends, deserves respectful attention.”

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