A Review of Great Voyages in Small Boats: Solo Transatlantic

For someone who has spent a good amount of time reading up on the adventures of various solo pilots, I suppose it’s perfectly natural that I would eventually become interested in learning all that I could about solo sailors!

Last year a friend reached out to ask if I had heard of Ann Davison, the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic. I had not. Shortly thereafter I picked up the book Great Voyages in Small Boats: Solo Transatlantic, which recounts not only the tale of Ann Davison’s 1952 voyage across the Atlantic, but David Lewis’s 1960 experience of crossing the Atlantic during the first single-handed trans-Atlantic yacht race, as well as the story of German doctor Hannes Lindemann’s dual adventures across the Atlantic, first in a canoe in 1955, and secondly in a kayak in 1956. Each of these stories was supremely fascinating. And can I just say now that one of my favorite things is coming across a good old-fashioned, out of print adventure book? 🙂

Before reading this book, I had never thought much about what goes into sailing solo across the ocean unassisted. Much like flying solo around the world, solo sailors must prepare far in advance for their excursion, beginning with selecting a course, choosing the appropriate vessel for their trip, modifying it accordingly, then thinking through what makes sense to bring along in terms of provisions. Are they making the trip for personal reasons, for money/fame, a challenge, or for research?

What’s incredible about these three particular stories is that they all took place before GPS and satellite communications. These solo sailors were literally out there in the middle of the ocean on their own, charting their own paths, battling the elements, all the while testing their survivability with rudimentary equipment, protection, and communications.

What’s fascinating about Ann’s story is that she was a pilot first. In 1937 she applied for a job at commercial airfield that was managed by pilot Frank Davison, who would soon become her future husband. Skipping ahead many years, after the war and time spent living on a sustainable farm, the two of them decided to purchase a boat to travel around the world together. Only, tragedy struck. After a rough start to their trip, storm conditions overpowered their boat in the English Channel, wrecking their boat. They launched their life raft, only they were washed off it again and again, and Frank lost his life. Needless to say, Ann was a novice who had survived against all odds. She went on to spend two years preparing a new boat and teaching herself to sail before embarking on her trip across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England in May of 1952.

David Lewis was another riveting character. After an adventurous childhood in New Zealand that included many mountaineering adventures and a legendary, hundreds of miles-long kayak journey, he traveled to England in 1938 and served in the British army as a medical officer. After the war, he worked as a doctor in London. After completing the race across the Atlantic solo single-handed in 1960, he also completed the first circumnavigation of the globe by catamaran accompanied by his wife and two small children. An author of 12 books, his dream was to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent single-handed, but after 13 weeks of not being heard from and capsizing twice, he aborted the mission, accomplishing a major feat in navigation. His book ICE BIRD: The Classic Story of the First Single-handed Voyage to Antarctica chronicles his 1972 trip from Australia to Antarctica aboard the sailboat ICE BIRD.

Not to be outdone, in 1957, German doctor and adventurer Hannes Lindemann published the book Alone At Sea – A Doctor’s Survival Experiments of Two Atlantic Crossings in a Dugout Canoe and a Folding Kayak. The title really does say it all: Lindemann sailed twice across the Atlantic in 1955 and 1956, respectively, once in a canoe and the second time in a kayak. He subsisted on cans of evaporated milk, honey, raw onions and garlic, red wine, fresh dolphin, triggerfish, and barnacles. He capsized twice on his second trip; survived bouts with delirium and was faced with a myriad of physical and mental challenges along his two journeys. His story really is fascinating and worth the read. Small Boats Magazine published a great article in April of 2021 summarizing his adventures and contributions, which you can read here.

In summary, while this book was over 600 pages long, I would highly recommend it because all three stories are written in first person and it’s really neat to compare and contrast the three journeys along the way. When taken together, these stories would make for an excellent book club pick and discussion. For example, while Ann couldn’t bring herself to eat a dolphin, Hannes speared and ate multiple. While Hannes toughed it out in a canoe, David sailed in a small yacht. Each of the sailors had a distinct outlook when faced with hardship, and their personalities shined through in different ways. How would you manage in one of these situations if sailing across the Atlantic alone?

While there have been many stories written about survival at sea, or journeys across the ocean and around the world (and I’m only just getting started), there is one bonus book I wanted to mention for those interested in stories of extreme hardship or survival sea. Last year I happened across the book Sole Survivor: A True Account of 133 Days Adrift by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, which is the true story of Poon Lim’s survival on a life raft during WWII for 133 days. Just when you didn’t think survival could be pushed any further, Poon found a way to survive against all odds and his story is fascinating. I was even surprised to see Poon’s story mentioned by Hannes Lindemann while reading Great Voyages in Small Boats (I love it when that happens). Part of what inspired Hannes to undertake his expeditions was to help people like Poon find the will to survive.

Next up? Great Voyages in Small Boats: Solo Circumnavigations!