Frank Davison was the owner and manager of Hooton Aerodrome in Cheshire, England, and the director of several aviation companies as well as various nonflying concerns. In 1937 he took Ann on as a pilot and two years later they were married. When the war started, the government put a stop to civilian flying and requisitioned their aerodrome. Frank then turned his hand to running a gravel quarry in Flintshire; but rising wages, wartime shortages, and other complications put him out of that business and into farming. Last Voyage is ANN DAVISON’S story of what happened when they got tired of wrestling with the land.
by ANN DAVISON
YOU know, Frank,” I said thoughtfully, “I could do with some real gut-stirring.”
“What I like about my wife,” he replied, “is her elegant mode of expression. So could I.”
With the start of the war, the government grounded all civilian aircraft and Frank lost his flourishing aviation business. After a disastrous attempt at running a quarry that Frank had fallen heir to, we decided to live by the land. Our first attempt was on five acres in the heart of the country, not far from Liverpool. In 1943 we rented ourselves an island in Loch Lomond. Our bitter experience there made us realize that we would do better to own our land, and we bought and settled on another island in the same lake.
Subsistence farming on submarginal land is a hopeless job; but when we sized up our situation a few years later, we found to our surprise that we had to some extent mastered island life. We had achieved a peasant standard of living at fearful cost, learned our own limitations and an appreciation of an entirely new set of values. We had come a long way from the flying days which seemed so extravagantly carefree in retrospect, and we had a long way to go before attaining a way of life in which there would be time “to stand and stare.”In the normal course of a day’s work there were riding, sailing, and shooting —though this last we limited to rabbits; we loathed killing birds. We could swim or fish whenever we cared to do so. Life was so full we had no need of vicarious entertainment and completely lost the taste for it.
But we were restless. So far we had achieved an end. And to some people achievement is in it sell an end. But to us to go on is simply a repetition, to a greater or less degree, of all that has gone before.
We talked of emigrating, and we traveled round the world on the atlas but could not decide where to go. To emigrate seemed too final and irrevocable somehow.
“If only we could travel slowly and take a look at these countries before we settled,” I said.
“Travel slowly and take a look at these countries,” repeated Frank. “Hmm.”
The next thing was that he came back from a business trip to Glasgow with a retriever look on his face and a sheaf of papers. Lists of yachts for sale. “Happened to pass a yacht broker’s,” he explained casually. “Thought it might be interesting to see what prices yachts are fetching these days.
From then on it was an intermittent conference on ways and means. The “way” was comparatively simple. We should find ourselves a small ship and leisurely sail the world until we found somewhere we liked well enough to settle in. If we did not find anywhere we would keep on going — the world is a large place.
The “means” was not so easy. There was the initial outlay and the following upkeep. We reckoned we should need £2000 to buy and fit out a ship, then reckoned there ought to be another £1000 at least in the kitty. Here we branched out into a frenzied argument as to how we should get the money out of the country, until Frank grinned and said we’d better get it first.
Copyright 1951, 1952, by Ann Davison
“We’ll leave it in the lap of the gods,” said Frank. “If we can sell the island well, we’ll go. If we can’t, then we stay.”
In short, we found we could sell the island well, and began preparations for departure with mixed feelings. Longing to go and sad at parting. Particularly with the animals; they had shared so much of our lives and struggles.
At the end of November, 1947, we were all ready to leave. A few oddments “wanted on voyage” were put into store, and with the rest of our belongings contained in thirteen suitcases we set out to find a ship.
We found the Reliance at Fleetwood. She had been a fishing boat and was a shambles above and below decks. Frank said the engine was a bunch of scrap but he was certain he could “sort” it. If he said so, I knew he could, but it looked like a long job to me.
In 1003 the Reliance had put to sea, complete down to the mustard pot, for the cost of £1200. We bought her, a hull and nothing more, for £1450, and we were glad to get her.
Plans for the refit were not elaborate: masts to be stepped; rerigging; sails to be found from somewhere; decking to be renewed here and there; the engine overhauled; and a cleanup generally below. Frank wanted the wheelhouse strengthened and fitted with a steel base-plate, and the battered engine coaming replaced by a steel structure, and foresaw there might be a little difficulty in getting these fabricated, but on the whole we did not expect the job to take very long or to be of exorbitant cost.
Our values were still tenaciously pre-war in spite of the price we had had to pay for Heiiance, and we still believed it was only necessary to know what to do to be able to go ahead and do it.
Reliance was 70 feet overall, with a beam of 18.1 feet and draught of 9 feet 6 inches. She was built of pitch pine on oak frames, with a sheer strake of greenheart and gar board of English elm. The frames were doubled and so closely spaced she might have been built for Arctic exploration.
It was a good basis to build on, seeing that in 1947 she was practically as sound as ever.
Frank dreamed of putting her back to her old gaff rig if and when sails, spars, and hands were available, but was temporarily contented with a jib-headed main and Bermudan mizzen, which was, he philosophically remarked, as much as the two of us could handle anyway.
Below deck the finished accommodation from for’ard to aft was forepeak, forecastle, then saloon. This was approximately 14 feet by 11 feet, which made a sizable cabin. Before the joiners got to work and while it was still a hold 2000 gallons of fresh water was pumped through to clear out the accumulation of years of fish filth. We prepared the woodwork for painting ourselves and laboriously scraped forty-odd years of fish paint off the oak deck beams, which were then simply oiled and looked magnificent.
The galley was our pride. I shall never know a better galley to work in as it was exactly what I wanted. Possibly the only time in my life I shall ever attain just that. It was a compartment 6 feet by 5 feet 6 inches, and strictly utilitarian. There was no room for any of those superannuated, lidless, handleless, bottomless, useless, to-be-mended-oneday utensils which inevitably clutter a kitchen ashore. Pots and pans were kept to a minimum — I wanted but little there below and got that little good!
Aft of the engine room the accommodation was entirely new, and where there had once been one dark cabin was now a complete little home from home. Our stateroom had a double bunk with a locker at the foot, and two enormous drawers tinder, a seat locker, and a dressing table. Aft of our cabin on the port side was a small spare cabin, with a bunk which could be double or single as needed, with lockers and drawers and so forth. Then lastly was a locker containing a 60-gallon paraffin tank and space for paints and bosun’s stores.
The whole layout was planned for ease of working at sea and comfort in port. Nothing was left to chance. For instance, there were three bilge pumps: an automatic bilge pump on the main engine; the pump operated by the auxiliary motor; and a hand bilge pump on deck — a hell of a thing with a 6-foot lever — on the port side of the steel engine coaming. One could move from one end of the ship to the other without going on deck, an invaluable asset in bad weather, and there were plenty of exits and entrances, so to speak — the forecastle hatch just for’ard of the windlass, the main hatch just aft of the mainmast, the engine hatch and the hatch in the wheelhouse, so that one could get on deck in rough stuff without groping for lifelines in heavy seas. The wheelhouse was strengthened by steel uprights and a steel base-plate.
For’ard of the wheel was a mahogany chart-shelf (made from a couple of mantelshelves we had carted round with us for years with the idea they might Come in Useful), and fixed on the port side of this shelf was my pride and joy, the aviation compass. Its nautical equivalent was a deckhead fitting. Navigation lights were electric and there were two deck lamps on the front, of the wheelhouse. Light switches and fuse panels were fixed on the aft bulkhead inside. Throttle and gear controls were operated through a system of wheels, chains, and shafts to the engine.
There was a mast winch on the deck by the main hatch. Three anchors — two heavy fisherman type and a kedge — were slowed in the bows, and an anchor davit was fitted on the port side of the stemhead. The davit was removable and could be used as a boat davit. We were still trying to replace the small boat and had not yet succeeded. Dinghies were as scarce as hen’s teeth and prohibitively expensive. A Carley float was lashed to the starboard side of the wheelhouse. We thought it would be rather fun for bathing in tropical waters.
And I forgot to mention the two life jackets suspended under the wheelhouse shelf. A couple of Mae Wests — relics of our flying days.
WHEN at last we had reached the stage of being almost ready for sea, when we should have been planning shakedown cruises, ordering stores, studying charts, and generally enjoying the fruits of our labors, we were tied to the quayside by a horrible tangle of financial complications. If only we had sailed early before matters got out of hand, we should have been at the other side of the Atlantic, pounding out journals, articles, books, and working the ship, gathering in pieces of eight to clear off the dead wood, before anyone would have been the wiser or been able to do anything about it. If only we had sold Reliance at the top of the market.... If, if, if. . • •
We could not do these things anyway. We could not clear out in the early days of our troubles because the ship was not ready, nor were we ready to take such a step. We still had some belief that all would come right in the end. We could not sell the ship because she was not complete, and to part with her would have broken Franks heart. I did suggest something of the sort when I saw how things were going—we were by no means in the red, but money was melting away like snow on the desert’s face, and I recognized the path we were following.
But Frank was so in love with the ship. “Sell her?” he said. “For why? It’s going to be a tight squeeze, Bui we’ll make out. Look, Ann, ‘ he went on slowly, “I can’t start again. I am sick of starting things. This is the last. I have put everything of myself into Reliance — she is more than just a ship ...”
At the beginning of the refit it seemed we had plenty of cash for the job and in fact we were more concerned as to how to be able lo use it abroad. At the end of the job we were broke, with a pack of creditors snapping at our heels, and Frank, drawing on reserves of wry philosophy, said, “Well, we’ve one worry less now — how to get our money out of the country.”
We paid a considerable sum for Reliance in the first place because we wanted her— that was the price; the seller would not take less and we could afford to pay it. We did not have to have her. But we did take exception to what struck us as a series of altogether excessive overcharges and scamped jobs. For instance, the mast showed signs of softness above the hounds and instructions were given for the decaying timber to be removed and a graving piece inserted; but the workman (he was obviously no craftsman) slammed on a bit of putty and called it a day. Frank rioted over this and eventually, after further smart pieces of evasive action, the job was done properly. But it was all charged for.
We took a firm stand over the questionable items and refused to pay, which resulted in writs being hurled at the ship, a form of blackmail, hallowed by time and long usage, for a ship cannot move with a writ on her. If one’s livelihood depends upon the working of the vessel, one is expected to pay up and go quietly to avoid legal proceedings. For the Admiralty Court is a mill that grinds very slowly indeed: proceedings are long-drawn-out and excessively expensive. It is therefore often cheaper to meet excessive demands rather than fight with the ship lying idle for months. But we fought. A legal wrestle with no holds barred on either side. We were so infuriated we made no secret of what was going on, and many a fisherman agreed it was time someone took a stand against this sort of thing. But for themselves they never dared to. “It’s all right for you,’ they said; “you don’t. have to live here, we do.” But it was not all right for us. True, it was all eventually settled out of court, and we won our point, but the delays and expenses cleaned us out, taking not only all we had got but what we had not got besides. There was a mortgage on Reliance and this was eaten away too.
We advertised for partners to share the cruising or working of the ship, and “paying guests" whom we were prepared to sail to any destination. There were thousands of people then bitten by the idea of emigrating. People unable to settle into peacetime niches; people tired of the bonds of socialism; people tired of the bonds of any civilization — all turning their eyes to distant lands across the sea, but thwarted because shipping space was so short after the war and waiting lists were so long.
Most of the answers to our advertisements were from impoverished people, eager, they said, to work their fingers to the bone for us if only we would take them along.
We worked out a scheme for commercial traveling on a big scale, turning Reliance into a floating showroom to exhibit Britain’s wares abroad. As everyone was busy yapping about the supreme importance of the export trade, we thought we were on to something good. It was an original idea, and indeed the project excited quite a lively interest. Levers’ overseas sales manager kept us on the hop for six weeks, but in the end it was decided that Levers could not afford the luxury of a sailing showroom, seeing they could easily sell the limited amount they were able to produce at that time. We followed trail after abortive trail. Traveling in French brandy suggested appealing possibilities but the various offers made were not enough in themselves to cover our liabilities and it was impossible to negotiate by remote control.
We tried to charter Reliance, willing to let her go without us even, so that we might keep her in the end, but failed even in that.
Then a Dutchman contacted us from Holland. He was a master mariner. Had been trading in the South Seas for the past nine years and was in Europe looking out for a ship and a partner to take back to the Pacific. Romance and finance. What a combination! Lagoons and swaying palms, coconuts, copra — and cockroaches — dizzied our imaginations. It was an exciting correspondence. But faded to nothing.
By the summer of 1948 the situation had grown pretty desperate. No longer able to moot mortgage repayments, we borrowed £250 on a promissory note, to keep up to date, determined to shanghai a skipper and get fishing. But it was no use. Time went on until the mortgagees suggested something must be done. They were mild and very fair, even suggesting if we cared to remortgage elsewhere they would speak kindly of us. We hawked Reliance round every finance house in the country, while still pursuing elusive skippers, partners, and passengers. But markets were closed, money was tight, times were hard. Suddenly, without warning. We could not believe it. Reduced to the lowest ebb of living, we had not enough money to buy food. Sly periodic visits to the pawnbrokers reduced our stock of personal treasures but enabled us to continue advertising, letter writing, telephoning, and to keep up a spurious appearance of well-being.
We racked our brains frenziedly for articles, some of which brought in checks. But payment was slow and the amounts about as useful a contribution as a tumblerful of water thrown over Niagara Falls.
Finally the mortgagees, having exercised more patience than we could ever have hoped for, said they must foreclose. We begged one last boon. If Reliance had to go, we asked if we might sell her ourselves, a private sale being more hopeful of profit than a forced one. To this they agreed and the ship was placed in the hands of agents.
For six months she was on the market and we did not get so much as a bid. No one had ever doubted the value of the vessel. The manager of one of the biggest trawling companies had given his opinion that she was worth between £10,000 and £12,000. He had no axe to grind and we had no reason to disbelieve him. We had spent over £6000 on her. And of this total we owed only £2000.
Frank, stricken at the thought of losing the ship without even having had a sail out of her, kept murmuring, “It’s fantastic . . . there must be some way. ...”
On Christmas Eve, 1948, we received notice of foreclosure.
Legal formalities regarding foreclosure went through the courts in London some time early in the New Year. We were given ten days in which to make a. complete settlement. We did our desperate best, but of course were unable to do anything of the sort. And inexplicably nothing happened. The ten days dragged on into weeks and even months without our hearing anything more from the mortgagees. We did not know where we stood. They were no doubt generously giving us every chance, but the uncertainty was killing.
Then the people from whom we had borrowed the £250 brought out a summons against us. Heaven knows they too had waited long enough for their money, but they had gambled on an exceedingly high rate of interest. Their action was precipitate. And it was our undoing. The case would obviously go against us. It would mean a writ on the ship and ruination to any chances of an auction sale successful enough to meet all our debts. For to have a sale at that time was bad enough, but with a writ on the ship as well . . . We hadn’t a chance.
By the beginning of May we had still heard nothing from the auctioneers; no date for sale, so far as we knew, was fixed, and it seemed that our dismal affairs were to be dragged through the courts first.
One morning, sitting in the saloon working halfheartedly on a manuscript, more with the intention of keeping my mind off present anxieties than of achieving much in the way of rewriting, I paused to watch Frank, pacing to and fro like a caged tiger. Suddenly he stopped: —
“Ann, I cannot stand any more of this. Let’s clear out.”
It was as if life — our life together — turned a swift, somersault and landed up on its feet facing the other way. Because I knew he meant it. There is a limit to what anyone can stand. You did not have to look very searchingly at Frank’s strained and haggard face to realize he had reached that limit, I thought of all that lay ahead. The grubby misery of the law courts. Writs on the mast. Brokers in the ship. Ignominies of a forced sale. Vultures swarming over Reliance. Losing her to someone to whom she would be just another ship. Someone else’s bargain (“Silly beggar overspent himself”). All Frank’s efforts, the culmination of his hopes and aims, to come to nothing. All the years that had gone before, years of struggle and endeavor, valueless.
“Not even to have had a sail out of her,” he was saying savagely.
“At least we can have that,” said I, putting down my pen to roll a couple of cigarettes. He took the shaggy little cigarette automatically, looking at me narrowly.
“ Do you mean that ?”
He slumped into the swivel chair on the oilier side of the table and lit up. “No,”he said slowly. “No. I can’t drag you into that. I’ll take her myself. . . .”
“You bloody won’t.”It was my turn to be savage. “The rough and the smooth. I’ve had quite enough of the rough — and you needn’t think you can keep the fun to yourself, Reliance goes to sea and I go with her. . . .”
“It is not as though we’ve spent our all on riotous living, he said irreverently. “Christ, I’m beginning to wish we had. . . . We’ve sweated and worked and believed for years. . . . One bad break after another. It’s too much. From now on the game is going to be played my way. To my rules. And if anything goes adrift it will he entirely my fault. And that will be a change. We will sail Reliance across to the States, or Cuba, or somewhere, and we will have a chance to sell her for something like her value. She’ll have an Atlantic crossing to her credit. That should be worth something.”
“And a story that will make the headlines,”said I with an eye to the main chance. “That should be worth something too.”
“It’s our only chance, as I see it, of meeting these liabilities. You never know, we might be able to work it to keep the ship. Get a job for her that will pay off our debts, which certainly won’t happen here. And I’m damned if I am going to wait like a chicken for the axe. But if the worst happens and we have to part with her, at least we will have the advantage of starting again in the sunshine.”
“And we will have had a sail,” said I, gathering up the manuscript.
THE was short. Less than a fortnight remained before May 17, the date of the court proceedings. We had to get away before the writ was clamped on the ship. To get away after would he pretty well impossible, and to attempt to do so would invite really serious trouble. Contempt of court on top of everything else would be just about the end.
We picked Havana for our destination. We realized the ship would probably be seized on arrival, but Havana seemed to be as good a spot as anywhere to be held. Sailing date was fixed for Sunday, May 15. The tide was right then, around midday, when the quay would be deserted — nothing short of an earthquake will keep a Lancashireman from his Sunday dinner — and we could make our departure unnoticed. A night departure, though more in keeping with the project, would entail too much risk. We wanted everything on our side, and daylight was more to our advantage than darkness. We were taking an untried vessel out an unknown to us — and admittedly difficult channel.
Our plans for the voyage were briefly to “steam” (full speed ahead) down the Irish Sea, keeping over to the Irish side, until well into the Atlantic, where we would blow down the boilers so to speak, hoist sail, and amble southwards to about the 23rd parallel, pick up the trade winds, and turn our flight westwards to Cuba.
Everything salable in our possession which made no contribution to the working of the ship we sold. Articles hitherto regarded as indispensable, such as the typewriter, or of irreplaceable sentimental value, all went. Memories need no tangible reminder and one can write with a pen. Pressure was brought to bear on those who had borrowed from us in our more prosperous moments in the past. Thus, unpleasantly, money was acquired to make departure possible. Obstructive accounts were settled. We began to lay in stores.
It was essential Reliance did not appear in any respect ready for sea. Tailings of the refit, rope ends, bits of matchboarding, holoplast and oddments, littered the deck. Sails were left casually dumped on the engine coaming. Below, bookshelves were left unfidded, and ornaments bestrewed the saloon, houseboat fashion. Hoping for a continuance of the prevailing fine weather, we intended to get shipshape at sea and watched the barograph keenly, listened daily to weather reports. Stores were brought aboard in penny numbers and hidden away immediately. But there was no secret method of filling up with Diesel oil. This meant notifying the oil company and moving Reliance down the quay to the end of the basin. An operation that would undoubtedly attract a lot of attention. Because of this and possible repercussions I wanted to leave taking on oil to the last moment, but Frank said, “Let’s get it aboard,”and made arrangements for tanking up on t be morning tide of Monday, May 9. And pretending the engine was out of commission, fixed for a fishing boat to tow her into the basin. As the whole operation bad to be done in the open it seemed best to bluff it out. And it was as well we did. Old-timers halted on the quay as the oil pipes were slung aboard. “This looks more like it,”they approved. “Happen you’ll be going soon.”
“Aye, one of these days,”said we, cheerfully.
On our way back to our berth the fishermen cast off too soon. Reliance was swept off on the outgoing tide and fetched up on the dredger chain stretching across from the quay to the dredger. Pandemonium. People danced on the quay and threw lines. The little fishing boat dashed up and down like a distraught bumblebee. Lines went hurtling through the air to land from all directions. Amidst the shouting and the hooha, silly with laughter, we got a line out to a boat by the quay, whose fisherman started up the capstan and hauled us back out of trouble. Secure in our berth we leaned against the wheel house, mopped our brows and wiped our eyes.
“Good job we didn’t try to make a secret of this,”said Frank.
A few days later I blundered down the companionway with a load of provisions, to find Frank entertaining in the saloon. I pitched the purchases into the galley and went in.
“This is Mr. Blank,” said Frank without so much as a warning flicker, “from the Ministry of Transport.”
A tall grizzled stranger rose from the settee at the end of the table, holding out his hand and keeping his head down, as one who has learned the decapitating properties of small ships the hard way. “We heard you were leaving soon,” he said genially, “and I have just come round to see what you are up to.” Mr. Blank smiled. “I have been meaning to visit you for some time,” he said. “ Your name has been lying on my desk — you see, we are . . . er . . . interested in all craft preparing to go abroad. Then we heard you were ready for sea. I had to visit another boat here this morning and I thought I would take the opportunity to drop in on you.”
He turned to Frank. “You promised to let us know when you were going,” he added a little reproachfully.
“So I did. But lam not ready yet. What makes you think so?”
“When you fill up with oil, the company serving you notify Customs and Customs tell us.”
“Oh,” said Frank, legitimately surprised.
Mr. Blank from the Ministry of Transport studied the deckhead. “Oh yes,” he said, “you cannot do anything these days without its being notified, checked, and indexed.”
We laughed. Not hollowly; nor yet too heartily. I wished he would go. I wanted to ask Frank if he too read a warning in those words. Or was I getting jumpy?
“What I am mainly concerned with,” went on Mr. Blank smoothly, “is whether your navigation lights conform with regulations. If you want to sink yourselves, that is your affair, but we cannot have you sinking other people.”
“Quite so,”said Frank pompously, on firmer ground. “Come and have a look round.” Together they plodded off on a tour of the ship, affably discussing details of M.O.T. requirements. I went into the galley, ostensibly to see about lunch, in reality to relax my face and brood.
Frank bounded into the galley a little while later. “What do you make of that ?” he said.
I shook my head. I didn’t know.
It was all very disturbing. We fell as if we were walking blindfolded along the edge of a precipice.
Preparations reached a climax on Saturday, the day before we planned to sail. Frank and I rushed on separate tasks to and from the town, bringing back loads of gear and goods. Time after time we sallied forth. Time after time we staggered back to dump our loads aboard; then off again to collect the next batch. Shopping for stores for an eight - week voyage was fatiguing. The purchases had to be spread over several different shops. To buy 40 pounds of flour from one grocer’s would disrupt the whole organization and clinch any rumors going. Me were tired, and ready to start at our own shadows. Strangers seemed unnecessarily inquisitive. One in particular, felt-hatted, fawn-mackintoshed, loitered on the quay in the vicinity of Reliance with what seemed to us sinister significance.
At last we were finished. On my last trip back from town I ran into Frank, resting inexpressibly weary on a large tin box parked on the quay, talking to a Polish fisherman. They were discussing our mythical summer cruise, arguing hotly the number of souls needed to sail Reliance.
“It is not as though I shall be singlebanded,” Frank was saying as I came up. The fisherman looked at me with nettling scorn, showing what he thought of my capabilities as a hand.
“You can go without food,” he said. “But you can’t go without sleep. That’s what gets you. You are like drunk. . . .”
He staggered a bit to show how like drunk you are without sleep.
Last thing on Saturday night we wrote letters. Frank wrote to the mortgagees: —
As I have not as yet been able to find a private buyer or suitable charter, and as the financial position prevents me from using the ship as a working fishing smack for profit, it seems that I cannot but look forward to a “forced sale” auction, and with today’s buying market it is obvious that the price realized will be a poor one, and leave me little or nothing after meeting your requirements.
I have made the most exhaustive efforts to avoid this becoming necessary, for everything we have is in the ship and two years’ work and worry.
My only alternative is to sail the ship to a destination where she will bring her value, and this is the course I am taking today. I will get in touch with you in due course, and advise you as to how funds will be passed to you to meet my liability.
I deeply regret the trouble that I am putting you to and assure you that I would not have taken this action if there had been any other alternative available. . . .
“We’ll post these just before we sail,” he said.
(To be continued)