The reincarnation of Felicity Ann

It was a sparkling spring day in Port Hadlock, Washington, about two hours northwest of Seattle. This place is not exactly the epicenter of cool, but it’s good for retirees and people who are smitten with wooden boats.

The latter gravitate toward the town’s Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, where they learn to build, repair and restore such vessels. And where there are shipwrights, needy boats are not far off.

One of those needy boats — a diminutive but stout sloop with a long keel and canoe stern — is stripped to the bones on jack stands in the school’s boat shed, undergoing restorative surgery. Jon Ferguson and Gordon McGill, two middle-aged students, are fitting new planks with Tatyana Faledo-Nolan and Jo Abeli, two young women intent on pursuing careers in boatbuilding. “The kids don’t know how cool all this is,” Ferguson says with mock desperation.

But, of course, they do know how cool it is because this 23-footer is the reincarnation of Felicity Ann, the boat with which British sailor Ann Davison became the first woman to single-hand across the Atlantic, in 1952. The daring voyage from Plymouth, England, to New York — via France, Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco, the Canary Islands and the Caribbean — secured Davison’s place in history.

She lived outside the norm. Davison was uneasy and courageous, and lucky and resourceful enough to get out of trouble that often was of her own making. She was one of the first licensed female pilots in England, so she knew aerodynamics, but sailing? Not really. However, what might have deterred timid souls was but a bump in the road to her.

SPECIFICATIONS LOA: 23 feet LWL: 19 feet BEAM: 7 feet, 6 inches DRAFT: 4 feet, 6 inches BALLAST: 2,200 pounds SAIL AREA: 237 square feet BUILDER: Mashford Brothers, Cremyll, England YEARS BUILT: 1939-1949 DESIGNER: Sid Mashford

Davison became a heroine, not just to sailors but also to regular folks, who read the papers and magazines that carried her introspective and honest dispatches about her voyage. She loved uncertainty and the essence of adventure, and she loathed conventions. More important, by going alone and going small, she put a big dent in the stubborn cliché that relegated women aboard to the role of passenger or galley slave. Davison became an inspiration for generations of female sailors — solo skippers such as Jeanne Socrates, Tania Aebi and Donna Lange, and solo ocean racers such as Ellen MacArthur, Isabelle Autissier and Dee Caffari.

For Davison, disappearing over the horizon also was a therapy of sorts, an attempt to confront a deep-seated anxiety, which she thought was rooted in ignorance and the death of her equally adventurous husband, Frank. A few years before her voyage, the couple was shipwrecked on their first outing aboard Reliance, a 70-foot ketch they had restored to sail around the world. Marshals were about to impound Reliance when the couple — who had a boatload of debt — left port and sailed into the teeth of an approaching gale, which blew them to bits. Ann washed ashore; Frank went down with the ship.

“Gradually it seemed to me that a single-handed passage across the Atlantic represented life in essence,” Davison wrote in her book, My Ship Is So Small. “It could be that I was afraid of life, and that wind and sea were just symbolic. If I could navigate a ship across the ocean on my own, it might be that I would be well on the way to learning how to live.”

To relieve her debt, she worked as an author while she toiled to save for a boat. Davison got tutoring on navigation and sailed with an experienced instructor, who also advised her on the purchase of the sloop Peter Piper, which was under construction at the Mashford yard in Cremyll. The project had started in 1939 to a design by Sid Mashford, one of the six brothers in charge of the shipyard. World War II interfered, and the boat wasn’t finished until 1949, when a sailor bought her as Felicity Ann and planned to take her to Norway. The deal unraveled, and the boat sat. In February 1952, Davison bought Felicity Ann and declared that she intended to sail across the Atlantic, alone.

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FA, as Davison called her boat, had a folding mast, which would later come in handy on the Intracoastal Waterway. The deck beams were reinforced for the trip, and a 5-hp Coventry Victor diesel was installed. The cabin layout was simple and functional, although more than a tad claustrophobic. Shortened to reduce sail area, the rig had a roller-furling boom and double forestays for flying two poled-out jibs when running before the trade winds. Higher coamings, safety lines and a larger freshwater tank also were installed.

Shortly after departing Plymouth for Madeira on May 18, 1952, Davison suffered her first calamity in a storm: FA made water, and both bilge pumps choked. To top it off, the skipper wasn’t entirely sure of her whereabouts. She flagged down a fishing vessel and took a tow to Douarnenez, France.

With her ability to make lemonade out of lemons, Davison decided to cut her itinerary into smaller stages with more stops — Vigo, Gibraltar, Casablanca and Las Palmas — which proved fortuitous. She got to know her little ship and the big ocean, the shorter passages alleviated the solitude she often felt on board, and the itinerary generated more revenue because she could write more stories about the people and places she saw. That made her editors happy as they scrambled to satisfy readers’ appetites for Davison’s Atlantic adventures.

But progress can be as sticky as molasses, with 24-hour runs that barely netted 40 nautical miles, about the pace of a motivated piece of driftwood. To be fair, Davison often hove-to at night, but there was also the issue of a dirty boat bottom making a mockery of copper paint.

At other times, the ocean bared its teeth. “A monster sea caught the ship and threw her on her beam ends,” she wrote. “The sound of the wave breaking was like an explosion, and it felt like FA was trying to do a barrel roll. Everything on the starboard side of the cabin broke loose and crashed over to port. … The entire galley, Primus stove, gimbals and all, came out by the roots.”

And there were close calls with ships. “Once I awoke to find a southbound steamer 25 yards astern of us.”

Storms, lulls and loneliness were the chief adversaries on the long haul across the pond to the Caribbean, which was made worse when she ran out of cigarettes and was forced to savor her last toddy of rum. Davison planned to make landfall in Barbados, but strong winds blew her past the island. She detoured to Dominica, where, on Jan. 24, 1953 — 65 days after departing Las Palmas — she dropped anchor in Prince Rupert Bay and became the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic.

Refusing to leave the confines of Felicity Ann, she noted in her logbook: “And tomorrow, or the day after maybe, I would go ashore and walk on solid earth, and talk to people and become one of them again, and revert to my problems, none of which had been solved by this preposterous voyage. But that was tomorrow. Tonight I was savoring an experience whose existence I had forgotten existed … tranquility.”

Her trip through the Bahamas to Florida was a bit more settled but still full of twists and turns. She folded down the rig and continued on the ICW to Chesapeake Bay, where she set sail again, braving the autumn chill until arriving at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Felicity Ann and her skipper took a tow up the Hudson River to safe port, and on Nov. 23, 1953, Davison tied up at the 79th Street Yacht Basin, officially ending the journey that netted her an induction into the Single-Handed Sailors’ Hall of Fame in 1988. She died four years later at 78, but FA survived, and an odyssey that lasted almost 60 years brought the boat eventually to the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding.

Little is known about the boat in the years immediately following Davison’s trip, but in the 1960s, Felicity Ann turned up in Southern California, where she was bought and restored by John Brookes, who had her hull glassed over.

Felicity Ann receives new planking. Among the students who have worked on the boat are (from left) Jo Abeli, instructor Jesse Long, Tatyana Faledo-Nolan and Gordon McGill.

“We called her Sweet FA because she was so cute,” says Phyllis Gottschall, who with Muriel Davis bought the boat from Brookes and used it for daysailing and cruises to Mexico and Catalina Island. “She wasn’t fast, but I was in love with the proportions and how she sat in the water.”

On a trip to England, Gottschall and Davis met designer Sid Mashford, who proudly showed them photos of the launch in 1952. He had kept them in a shoebox all those years.

In 1980 the boat was sold to someone in Alaska, where she passed through various owners but was rarely used. With her fate looking grim, Lady Luck stepped in. FA’s last owner, a magistrate, hired a graduate of the boatbuilding school in Port Hadlock to do some structural work, but the job was bigger than the available funds, so the owner donated Felicity Ann to the school, where she was declared a project boat.

The Lorber Family Foundation, which supports women in nontraditional careers, donated $30,000 to get the project on track. The boat was to be restored by women for use as a training vessel at the Community Boat Project, a local nonprofit foundation.

There were delays when the money ran out. Crowdfunding raised another $5,000, which triggered a matching grant — enough to finish the restoration. However, the boat had sat so long on the hard that the larch planks opened up and had to be replaced with cedar. The new keel and floorboards are robust purpleheart, and the frames are white oak. The new decking is plywood covered with epoxy and Dynel.

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So what parts of Felicity Ann are original? “We used the old ballast, one of the original deck beams and a few old fittings,” says Jesse Long, one of the instructors who oversaw the project. Youths from the Community Boat Project built a new mast of Sitka spruce under the tutelage of Capt. Wayne Chimenti, a schoonerman and educator who teaches kids how to maintain and operate the nonprofit’s wooden boats.

Felicity Ann’s launch is planned for the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in September, Chimenti says. And what a party it promises to be, 65 years after Davison set out on her adventure.

“I was discovering it is the hardest thing in the world to live for oneself,” Davison wrote. “If one’s achievements are of no benefit to anyone else, they are certainly not worth making into a life work.” 

Luckily, Felicity Ann’s restoration, and her mission as a training vessel to empower women, ensure that the life and work of her former owner will have value for generations to come.

The rotten remains of the old deck outside the workshop are a reminder of how far Felicity Ann has come.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.