Last Voyage

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. After five years of subsistence farming, they bought an old fishing boat. The reconditioning took endless time and used up all their money. When the mortgage was foreclosed, they decided to sail for Cuba, sell the boat for a fairer price than they could get in England, and pay up their debts. Last Voyage is ANN DAVISON’S story of what happened.



WE GOT under way with extraordinarily little fuss. In fact I did not even know we had gone until, in the engine room “looking after that engine,” I happened to glance up through the open hatch and saw the quay wall sliding away. In a detached manner I had heard grating noises as the shafts and wheels and cogs of the controls from the wheelhouse went into action; had heard the hubble-bubble of the propeller churning the water — but I thought Frank was simply having a last-minute check-over. But no, there was the quay wall rapidly receding. He had quielly slipped the warps and we were away.

I went into the chart room to note the time— it was 4.25 by the bulkhead clock and then to the wheelhouse, acutely aware of the very slightest vibration.

“That’s the best sight I’ve seen for many a long month,” said Frank, nodding his head in the direction of Fleetwood.

Reliance had come round the bend in the river and was turning into the Channel, leaving Fleetwood astern. It was a vastly different departure1 from the one we had always envisaged, but for the moment nothing mattered. We were outward bound.

“Gosh,” I said, “I forgot all about posting those letters to the mortgagees.”

“ Want me to turn back? ” said Frank with a grin.

“Not on your life — they’ll have to wait until we get somewhere.”

At the end of the Channel we rounded the burned-out remains of the Wyre light and turned on course for the Lune lightship.

Frank said: “Here, you take her. Keep her as she’s going. I’m going down to have a look at the engine.”

Reliance seemed enormous. Bigger by far than she had ever seemed lying quietly by the quay. She pulled and yawed like a hard-mouthed horse, demonstrating her power and my utter ineptitude. Never had I felt so humbled. Here am I, came the thought, half the crew, 5000 miles to go and I can’t even keep her straight.

Then Frank came on deck grinning at the ship’s aimless wanderings as I tugged at the wheel, and siarted tackling the bomber tire we used as a fender. As he struggled to bring it aboard, the holding ropes sheared under the strain and the great tire vanished in a rush and flurry of waiter. Immediately Reliance stopped pulling and settled down. The compass on the port side of the wheelhouse shelf in front of the wheel was in my line of vision just where the compass had been in some of the aircraft I had flown. With this homely touch the ship seemed somehow to shrink to a manageable size. I felt at home. And unspeakably happy.

We passed close to the Lune lightship, about which gulls perched in mournful array, and there turned south into the open sea.

Frank checked the course, streamed the log, and looking aft at the lonely lightship, fast disappearing in the mist, said with a sigh of infinite satisfaction, “Now, at last, we are on our way.”

Grayness dominates the recollection of Wednesday, our first real day out. Gray dawn, gray day, Gray sky, gray sea. But we were far from being gray in spirit. Frank was particularly pleased with life because Reliance was making 6½ knots, which was 1½ better than he had reckoned she would do under power. “At cruising revs, moreover,” he exulted; “wait till we get her under canvas — then she’ll move.”

It was an uneventful day, spent mainly in getting into our stride, so to speak. Accustoming ourselves to a sea life while Reliance bowled south into a southwest wind. Frank and I did not see much of each other. Our carefully thought-out system for keeping watches went by the board, and I spent most of the day at the wheel, putting in ten hours at a stretch. It suited us both very well. Frank had a hundred and one things to do, apart from attending to the engine, charging batteries, working out navigational problems, and cooking himself meals — a subject in which I had no practical interest just then.

All day the sky was overcast, and as the day wore on it lowered, the sea rose, and almost imperceptibly the wind hardened. We had lived long enough by the weather to read its signs and warnings automatically. The portents were not good and we prepared accordingly, consoling ourselves with the thought that in a few days’ time we would be out of the depressions and into the sunshine.

Towards evening we picked up the dark rugged outline of the Irish coast and made a last check — on the Tuskar light.

Frank took over again at nightfall and I turned in, to find sleep strangely elusive for one who had been up and about since two in the morning. The motion was more pronounced and I rolled and tossed in the wide bunk. Shortly after midnight, fed up with myself, I joined him in the wheelhouse. He was surprised to see me so long before time, but nodded when I explained the fears that kept me awake.

“Yes,” he said, “I know it is foolish. But I have a similar trouble. If I can’t hear you I worry, and if I can hear you I wonder what you are up to. It is just one of those things we have to get over — like your seasickness.”

In fact, it was one of those things we did not get over. Throughout the voyage we were hampered by an unshakable confidence in our own immunity from disaster while extending towards each other the nervous concern of a hen intent upon keeping an improvident duckling away from the water. And so through another night and we wandered into Thursday. Time was already getting out of hand. It is easy enough to keep track of the days when you go to bed on the night of one and wake up in the morning of the next. Sleep makes a definite break. But snatch sleep when you can, see every dawn, and live through that interminable no man’s land of time between an early sunrise and eight o’clock and you find individual days soon lose their identity. They become nameless and memorable only for events.


DAWN of Thursday was sullen and threatening. There was a fairish sea running and Reliance was lively.

It was on the Nymph Bank south of Ireland that we got the first real intimations of the bad weather in store for us. There we ran into an ugly little cross sea. Steep, round-topped hummocks of water rushed hither and thither without any unity of purpose, which bothered Reliance no end. She charged them aggressively and flopped into the troughs, and rolled and pitched with exasperated fury. There seemed no way of tackling these angry white-headed mounds of waves that came from all directions. Reliance knew far better how to deal with them than I did, hanging on to the wheel, going through the motions of being a helmsman. Frank came into the wheelhouse, watched the gyrations for a few minutes, said Reliance was a bit of a bitch and would be steadier under canvas and that things were coming unstuck below, and suggested I might like to tidy them up. In other words, he would take over for a while. I went below and found things were coming, had come, considerably unstuck, but did not notice any lessening in the violence of Reliance’s antics under the touch of the master hand.

It is extraordinary what a shaking-up at sea can do in the way of disorganization, no matter how well one may have stowed, packed, fielded, and battened down. Everything with a lid, door, or drawer in it will burst open and scatter the contents — a surging, seething jumble—on the floor. And the galley —oh, the galley! Pickles and syrup, coffee and tea, bottles and cans and bags of flour, churned in horrid confusion at my feet. I salvaged what I could and scraped the rest into the slush bucket, prepared lunch, and left it to cook slowly on the Valor stove — a leftover and rather prized possession of our island days added to the galley equipment just before sailing, on account of its ability to sustain a low heat unattended.

By the time I returned to the wheelhouse the seas were bigger, more meaningful and threatening, pyramidal in shape, and still very much at crosspurposes.

Frank, feeling the general outlook called for it, went out and fixed a life line from mizzen to main shrouds, while 1 clucked quietly at the helm. These fishing boats have nothing much in the way of freeboard aft — Reliance had less than a foot, which brought the angry ocean pretty close to. He had just come back into the wheelhouse and was busy unrolling a chart when I spotted a wisp of smoke floating out of the open main hatch. It was snatched away by the wind, and followed by another and another.

“My God!" I shouted. “Fire!”

Frank rocketed out of the wheelhouse and up the deck. Leaving Reliance to look after herself I shot after him. The galley was ablaze. Through the main companion doors we could see the wicked flames leaping under the rising palls of smoke. Guessing what had happened — that the stove had broken loose, rolled over, and spilled the paraffin out of its tank and set it alight — Frank dived into the galley with the intention of removing the stove. But it was a little inferno in there. He grabbed the fire extinguisher at the foot of the companionway, found it would not work, and leaped up on deck again, shouting for water.

Meantime I was feverishly disentangling fire buckets lashed to the port pinrail. Frank darted for the steel hatch and dropped into the engine room, returning breathless with the engine-room fire extinguisher as I succeeded in releasing the buckets. I threw one overside on a line, heaved it slopping aboard, and together we fought the fire.

The extinguisher spent and the fire still raging, Frank changed his weapon and seized another water bucket.

Then, suddenly, resistance crumpled. The fire was under control. It was out. And, as if at a given signal, the galley extinguisher, left rolling at the foot of ihe companionway, snorted into action on its own and added a quota of foam to the shambles below.

Speechless, we waited for it to stop, then went down into the galley. We stamped out the final embers and tore up the smoldering remains of the floor covering and threw them over the side. Awed at our escape, a fire at sea in a wooden ship being a grimly inescapable disaster if it gets a hold, and anxious to avoid a repetition of the experience, we checked over the fastenings of our other stove very thoroughly indeed. Then Reliance caught us off our guard and pitched us summarily across the galley to remind us she was on her own.

“Go up and see to her,” said Frank. “I’ll clean up here.”

Later he joined me in the wheelhouse and asked for something for his hands. This was the first I knew of his having burned them. His wrists and palms were painfully scared. I dressed them as best I could with acriflavine, but he flatly refused to have them bandaged, saying he could not work with them all bound up. Unprotected, they were always soaked in Diesel oil and salt water, which seriously delayed healing and must have given considerable pain.


THAT was our introduction to a three-day session of heavy weather in the Atlantic. A small ship in a big sea brings the weather right lo your feet. When it is not sloshing over your head. Thank God for the wheelhouse, we thought, as seas broke over the ship.

At first Reliance mounted the waves with the ease of a good horse jumping a big fence. But all the time the fences were getting bigger. At the top of them we looked quickly round and pointed monsters out to each other — “Gosh, look at that one!” Then the course got too stiff and Reliance faltered. She put in a short one and rose too late. She took off too soon.

Sometimes, caught off guard, she went hurtling down a wave like a tin tray down a flight of stairs, to land with a crash which would have shaken Nelson off his column. And which would bring Frank ramping up, if he was below, to find out what was going on.

As the weather grew worse and Reliance more unmanageable, the fuel header tank needed more and more frequent attention. Diesel oil was fed to the engine by gravity from a 12-gallon header tank, which was normally good for four hours and was then refilled from the main tanks by a hand pump. But in a violent seaway the header tank could not be filled right to the top. The wilder the sea the less fuel in the tank, therefore, and the more frequently it needed pumping up. The process kept Frank hopping from wheelhouse to engine room like a jack-in-the-box.

The waves grew ever higher and steeper and more vicious, and there could no longer be any question of keeping to a course and driving Reliance into it. The engine was throttled right down, and the ship drifted, broadside on to the seas, rolling with savage abandon. Waves crashed down on her and frothed aft, looking for scupperholes and a way out. The slow whispering thud of the exhaust changed lo loud bang-bangs of protest as it was rolled under. And the ship’s bell spontaneously rang up a good one, to be echoed by a hoarse croak from the hooter.

Watching the mainmast whipping with incredible rapidity from side to side across the low leaden sky, my husband shook his head. “This won’t do,”he said, quietly. “It will roll the sticks out of her. We’ll try running.”

Going with the wind and sea gave a momentary illusion of peace. It seemed as if silence superseded sound, as a curious hush supersedes the roar of an engine in an aircraft on the point of stall. With her engine barely turning over, Reliance tore off downwind and the wicked waves reached after with breaking crests curling over like overhanging cliffs.

“ And this won’t do either,” said Frank, “for long.” We put out the sea anchor and had respite until the warp fridged through with strain and the fight was on again.

The sea does not let up for a moment, and the wheel, heavy at the best of times, grew heavier and heavier as the sands of our energies ran out, until but a few spokes of a turn took all the strength one could muster.

The night watches were short. Towards dawn they got shorter and shorter, as we could only stick about ten minutes at a time. To remain on hand in case of need, we did not turn in off watch, but rested at the end of the alleyway, under the wheelhouse, aft of the hatch, between the companion ladder and sail locker, where there was just space to lie cramped. A more uncomfortable roost it would be hard to devise, but we were beyond caring about such things.

At the wheel it was hard to keep awake — I dozed off several times on my feet — yet, below, it was impossible to sleep. Of overriding importance was the necessity of not failing the other fellow, so one lay cramped and alert, listening.

Daybreak was magical in effect. A potent restorative. As the darkness lightened, so did the burden of our weariness, until we grew to recognize this fact and counted the heavy hours to dawn, knowing it would bring us mysterious strength to carry on.

As the gale reached its height an incident occurred which gave me the fright of my life.

The wheel suddenly locked solid. The rudder was operated by a chain from the wheel to rudder bar. The chain had slackened off, slipped off the pulley on the rudder bar, and jammed beneath it. Frank went on to the counter with a crowbar and I stayed in the wheelhouse to turn the wheel as he eased the chain back into place. I tried to watch him through the window aft but it was too high. Out of control and uncontrollable, Reliance drifted helplessly before the savage onslaught of mountainous waves. Suddenly she was swept upwards, as if caught in the grip of a giant hand, and flung down . . . down. . . . There was a flashlight impression of the ship on her beam ends, starboard bulwarks buried in a white smother— I clawed to the door, staggered out as she came up, water boiling along her decks, swirling round the counter. Not a sign of Frank. I yelled for him, terrified, and looked wildly at the towering gray walls of water. Then to my indescribable relief he got up, dazedly shaking his head, dripping. As I stumbled towards him he motioned me back.

“Who did that ?” he grinned, in the shelter of the wheclhouse again, taking the wheel and giving it a turn. “Good—she’s okay now. Fixed it before that big fellow got us. What a party!”

But I kept saying, “I thought you’d gone, I thought you’d gone,” and knew I was babbling but found it extremely difficult to stop. Fear for oneself is nothing. Fear for another reduces one to driveling idiocy.


THE dawn of the third day revealed minor havoc wrought about the ship. The masthead lamp, wrenched from its steel platform by a force sufficient to cause the shearing of massive bolts (which ought to have held down a tram, said Frank), swung by ils electric cable 40 feet in the air. The riding light on the port trestletree leaned at a drunken angle with its 9-inch holding bolts bent over like copper wire. Its electric cable, torn loose from fastenings to the shrouds, bellied furiously in the wind. The main halyard was down. The log line was gone. Ropes and halyards were white with chafing. Blocks swung to and fro, barging into the mast, the forecastle hatch, winding round the shrouds and off again.

Below, of course, it looked as if Pandora had been opening up that box of hers — in a very great hurry.

“As if we hadn’t enough on our plate,” said Frank. “Still, we can fix all this when the weather lets up a bit. We’ve got all the gear — it might be worse.”

He frowned thoughtfully. “For all I know, it might well be worse,” he added. “All this is nothing in itself, but it is a warning. The sensible thing to do would be to put in somewhere when we get the chance. This isn’t good enough, you know. Unknown ship, untried gear. Damn it all, I don’t know the ship. She’s taking a hell of a pasting. I have no idea how much she can stand. But it will certainly be more than we can.” He looked out of the wheelhouse windows, peering up at the sky. “No sign of it abating yet,” he said. “If we nip into a quiet French port, we’ll be able to straighten the ship in comparative ease, rest, which is most important, and be off again before anything catches up on us.”

“All the same, I think we’ll stir up a lot of trouble for ourselves going into port,” I said doubtfully,

1 he idea of a night’s sleep — only one night’s sleep —being as alluring as the smell of cooking to a starving man.

We were both dead-beat, and I had not the wit to realize it. Frank did, though; he said, “We’ll maybe stir up a whole lot more if we go on as we are.”

Between the devil and the deep sea, in fact, we decided to turn back when opportunity offered, for there is always a chance of bluffing the devil, but none whatever of fooling the deep, dark sea.

We had no idea of our position. All we knew was that we had been going round and round in the depression, traveling with it in a northeasterly direction whence we came. The sky was as solidly overcast as ever and there was not a hope ol getting a sight. Resorting to the slap-happy navigation of earlv aviation practice, we put Reliance on to a back bearing “with a bit of east in it,” gave her the merest breath of engine, and plowed off on a search for a good pull-up for pirates.

Darkness approached with torrents of rain. A large steamer, looking indefinably French, surged across our track ahead and disappeared in the halflight to the west. A scattering of twinkling ship lights and a change in the character of the sea suggested we were near the entrance to the English Channel. Altering course to follow more or less the direction taken by the east bound traffic, we shrugged off the inevitable drowsiness which accompanied nightfall, and went cautiously towards what we hoped would prove a quiet haven in due course. After making landfall we would have time to choose our port; meantime, sustained by the promise of rest to come, we kept wary watch, with Frank at the wheel and me standing by as an extra pair of eyes.

Night advanced and visibility deteriorated rapidly. Suddenly all signs of shipping vanished. Wiped clean off the slate. Hooded by night mist, with only the glint of dark waters visible either side of the ship, we crept ahead, feeling our way. Frank held a course for twenty minutes, then handed over to me and departed for the engine room, i plodded up and down that course, twenty minutes one way, twenty minutes back again, not taking any chances. He came back and said: “Can you stick it for another ten minutes? I’m all in. . . . Ten minutes — that’s all I want.”

Thus we spent yet another night of brief rests and watches waiting for dawn. There was quite a sea running in the wheelhouse, which slopped over the hatch coaming. We had to give up roosting beneath it, and used the bathroom instead, lying on the raised floor boards there, legs stretched across the alleyway, folded oilskins for a pillow. As usual I drowsed at the wheel and longed for my len minutes to come to an end, and then ached with anxious insomnia while Frank took over.

The dawn was chill and dreary, but the morning stretched with daylight, clouds lifted, sea settled, the horizon widened. Restored once again by break of day, we lengthened our watches to half an hour at a time. I began to feel so good I let mine tick on into two hours and watched a matchstick on the horizon, coming towards us, grow into the mast of a fishing boat, lt seemed an opportunity to find out where we were. I opened the throttle, but long before coming within hailing distance the fishing boat turned off and sped away too fast for Reliance to overtake her, I swore, and Frank, coming up full of apologies for having overslept, looked after her and said, “Never mind, we’ll make landfall before morning’s out.”There was a long, low bolster of cloud on the horizon over to the northeast. The sort of cloud that hangs over a coast. We made towards it.

Below for a two-hour spell, 1 dropped on the bathroom floor and went out like a lamp.


A BEAM of light shone full on my face and woke me up. Sunlight. I stared at the golden beam and thought how wonderful it was to see sunshine again. Reliance moved steadily, with a sibilant hiss instead of the turbulent rush and roar of the past few days. I sat up yawning, and stretched.

What a difference the sun made! Fverything so peaceful. I could hear Frank clattering in the galley. I could hear Frank clattering in the galley! No engine? No engine? What goes on?

I went to find out.

He was shuffling pots on the stove and looked round gaily as I entered the galley. “Hullo,” he said. “(’offee just coming up. Had a good sleep? You were out — I walked over you several times and you never stirred.”

At the end of a thoroughly enjoyable and inelegant meal — for me the breaking of a five-dav fast — eaten by spoons from basins, sitting on deck with the ship heaving gently beneath us, we lit cigareltes and grinned blissfully at each other.

“By the way,” I said, “what is the matter with the engine?”

“That I must find out.” Frank explained it had stopped quite suddenly when he was in the engine room attending to the fuel. At first he thought he might have inadvertently knocked the fuel switch off while refilling the lubricator box, which was just by the switch, but on trying to lever the flywheel round to starting position he found it was immovably solid.

“Why didn’t you call me to give you a hand?”

“No need. And you were dead-beat.”

It took the better part of three days to get the motor running again. The nights we spent timing flashing lights, taking bearings, and poring over charts, bewildered at our inability to locate our position. The third night we nearly piled up on a bluff that looked like a blockhouse.

We spent another intolerably weary night steaming back and forth across the mouth of the bay, waiting for dawn. A course beset by steamer traffic and bounded at either end by a light, which remained maddeningly anonymous. We were frightfully tired, but so tightly wound up it was impossible to sleep, and our watches were spent below in the galley drinking coffee and making a fresh brew for the next one.

Dawn came at last, cold, gray, and very angry, with a new storm. It was a mighty wind that blew that day. Great gray perpendicular walls of water reared up and rushed the ship relentlessly, with spray blowing off their crests in hard horizontal streams. So there was not much visibility ancl no horizon to speak of — only the top of the next wave, and the next, and the next.

Between blackouts, of which I made no mention to Frank, I was comparatively alert, i read, aloud, the Channel tide book, all its warnings and portents, and was immeasurably depressed.

Much of my time was spent in the engine room. The header tank needed frequent attention, of course, and filling the lubricator box was a lengthy process. For some reason my blackouts were more persistent below, and I frequently came to in the very act of pouring the oil. The procedure was further complicated by my dismal discovery of water in the oil drum. How the water had got in I had no idea. I knew only that the oil had to be filtered to keep the engine running. But what really got me worried was the amount of water in the ship. And it was still coming in. Reliance was taking one hell of a pasting; she had sprung a leak somewhere under the counter, and water streamed down the alleyway. It rose in the engine bilges until the flywheel threw up a jet as it spun. Floor boards were afloat in the cabins.

Throughout the stormy voyage Reliance had been wholly admirable; the hammering she had withstood would have pulverized a lesser vessel long before. And although she had been a damned uncomfortable ship, she had been an exceptionally buoyant one, like a lifeboat. But now she was losing some of her buoyancy; there was a sluggishness in her movements. The bilge pump coupled to the main engine chose this moment to choke. I took it down and tried to clear it, but failed. I was running the auxiliary engine at the time, to charge the batteries, and thought I would turn it over to the auxiliary bilge pump, but it was such a complicated setup I went along to Frank to find out how it worked.

He was silent for a while and then said he was too tired to explain. I made to go on deck to the hand pump, my mind running along a single; track, whereat Frank roused himself in a fury and roared that under no circumstances was I to go on deck. I offered to take the wheel so that he could go down and sort out the bilge pump. But he would not have that either. “You couldn’t possibly hold her.”

“But the bloody ship’s half full of water, I said. “She must be pumped out.”

“Can’t be helped,” he spoke thickly, “have to put up with it, hope for the best.”

My God, I thought, he’s shot. The only useful thing I could think of to help him was a hot drink. I searched feverishly in the turmoil in the spare cabin wherein were stored oddments that would not stow in lockers. I found an old Primus and gimbals, and set them up in the galley. Inevitably, despite careful filtering, some water from the paraffin storage tank had found its way into the Primus. . . . It was dark by the time I took a mug of coffee, stiffly laced with rum, to the wheelhouse.

Frank downed it in one. “That’s good.” His voice was a croak. I offered to give him a break at the wheel, but he refused almost savagely. I had to go back to the engine room then — it was time to refuel again — and told him I would try and cook up a can of soup, He said, “ Good. Don’t be long coming back. I’m so goddamned tired. Can hardly keep my eyes open . . . helps to concentrate to have . . . someone; to . . . talk to.”

But it was two hours before I could get back. Two hours of juggling with the watered oil in the drum, with the watered paraffin, with the temperamental stove. And half the time it seemed that I was unconscious, blackouts followed so swiftly one upon another. Grown supersensitive to the movements of the ship, I noted a change in her antics:

they were wilder, more erratic. And laboring withal.

I had been working with the lights on below. By contrast the wheelhouse was pitch-dark.

“Soup.”I said, holding the mug out and touching the back of his hand with it.

“Soup?” said Frank.

“Hullo,” I said, “there’s a light . . . over there . . . port bow. . . .” A pale bluish light shone faintly through the salt-sprayed windows,

“Light?” said Frank.

He drank the soup, holding the mug in both hands, leaving the ship to herself; then, placing the mug carefully on the shelf, from which it promptly slid onto the floor, he took my hand. “Tell me,” he said gently, “there’s something wrong. What is it?”

“Something wrong?” I could hear my voice climbing. “I should say so. It’s blowing one hell of a gale.”

He caught my arm. “Tell me. What is it? What’s wrong? I . . . can’t remember . . . only darkness . . . and . . . the rain in my face.”

Shocked beyond belief or comprehension, torn by an overwhelming pity, sick with fear, I did not know what to do. I listened to my mind, accusing, “You left him too long, you left him too long. . . .”

“The header tank,” I said aloud, “needs filling. I must go and fill the header tank. Do you understand? The header tank ... I won’t be long.”

Under the shadow of horror I pumped up the header tank and hurried back to the wheelhouse. Frank was crouching in a corner and I gave him a cigarette, wanting an excuse to see his face by the light of a match. I had to know.

Reliance battled on alone, sluggishly. The match flared. I held it to the end of his cigarette and looked into his face.

I dropped the match. There was piteous blank unreason in his eyes.

(To be concluded)