The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by A. J. Mackinnon 2007 Seafarer Books
Sometimes you come across a book that is such a good read, you wonder why on earth you have not come across it before. This recently happened to me whilst browsing some other topic on the Dutch Barge Association (DBA) forum. The book mentioned was The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by A J Mackinnon, and I decided that a voyage in a 11 foot Mirror dingy from Shropshire to the Black Sea was indeed unlikely for all but the most adventurous among us. I duly ordered it to find out what sort of person would attempt this journey and how could they achieve it, not least how did they plan to cross English channel? A crossing which many, including myself had not dared to attempt in a motor powered Dutch Barge. At the time I had absolutely no idea what a Mirror dingy was and, more than that, I had no inkling of the reading pleasure that awaited me between the pages of this little known book.
I am now fully conversant with the possibilities and limitations (if there are any) of a Mirror dingy, and I have become well acquainted with the indomitable Mr Mackinnon; in fact I feel that I have travelled with him on his journey, enjoyed his nature notes, been thrilled at his refusal to be thwarted by almost any obstacle, and impressed by his sheer determination to continue against any odds and remain ever the cheerful optimist throughout!
If he has a failing it is perhaps a reluctance to plan further ahead than where his next meal is to be found. He appears to have a map of some sort but as it covers the entire route from Calais to the Black Sea one presumes it lacks the required detail. He communicates by telephone, not a mobile of course, and he writes a good many postcards. One suspects that if he had the use of modern day internet that he would be reluctant to use it. But then, if he had all the answers by simply pulling a smart phone from his pocket, he would avoid all the adventures that rely on not knowing what lies ahead.
Boaters will be all too familiar with many of the situations presented here, but perhaps not so eager to emulate the way our protagonist throws caution to the wind on almost every occasion. Most of us who contemplate a long journey by boat would do a fair amount of research to find out if this idea is feasible. Not the captain of little Jack de Crow; the idea of sailing into the unknown is part of the excitement of the voyage!
One of the things that make this book such an amusing read is that the idea of having a plan never seems to occur to Mr Mackinnon. From the very start we really are on a roller coaster ride as he tries to navigate waterways that are to a large extent uncharted, some are no more than ditches, never meant for navigation and one even having strands barbed wire strung across to deter farm animals from wandering of their land. Others are designed for motorised sea-going vessels and not a small dingy. I suspect that stopping to fully weigh up the dangers, research the likely consequences of proceeding on a given course, would make for far less exciting reading, so even if he has an inkling of what's in store, he doesn't let on!
As the author states at the beginning, he is more than happy to 'exaggerate for effect' and so it is perhaps with a largish pinch of salt that the reader can enjoy the progress of boat and captain/oarsman. At times (for him) frustratingly slow and at others terrifyingly fast through canals, rivers and seas powered by sail (yes sailing on a French canal in 1997) or by rowing, often against pretty ferocious tides. Once on the Rhine he just manages to row 700 metres upstream to a mooring, (the only mooring) in 2 hours. That after crossing the Rhine at Koblenz which, of course, took him the 700 metres downstream from his target. That superhuman rowing effort only possible because he had built up strength after rowing pretty continuously for the past few months.
Through thick and thin, good humour characterises his approach to every situation. Not only that, as befits a teacher of literature his prose is light, lively and down right hilarious on many occasions, and that is said by someone who is not easily moved to laugh out loud! Maybe it's his Aussie temperament that drives him to tackle any situation with an almost wanton disregard for his own safely, and to hilarious effect. But to me his joy in the simple pleasures of the river bank, his modesty, his unabashed willingness to fund his supper by busking on a tin whistle when the opportunity arises, his taste for the absurd and his optimism in the face of any danger mark him out in my mind as quintessentially English!