The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for… maybe a decade? It was a gift, I’m pretty sure. I always intended to read it, but it just didn’t grab me. I maybe thought that it seemed a bit too… serious, perhaps. Although exactly why it would be serious with quite such a title, and a dinghy with a bright red sail on the cover, don’t ask me to explain. At any rate I thought I wasn’t going to love it, and I’d have to psych myself up to finally get through it. And I finally got to that point this week, as well as a desire to get through some of Mount ToBeRead.

And, of course, I loved it.

In 1997, the Australian author is an English teacher in England. After 6 years, he decides that it’s time to do something different, and to help figure out what that is he borrows the school’s Mirror dinghy – which has been sitting abandoned for some time – and sets out to sail for a few weeks, over to the border with Wales. Predictably, given it’s now a book (and quite a thick one – 348 pages), that’s not the end of it. In three stints, with a fair gap between the first two because of the weather, Mackinnon ends up at the Black Sea. Yes: he sails through England to Dover, across the Channel, and then via canals and rivers and many, many locks, he gets to the Black Sea. Yes, it’s incredible; it takes about a year of travel.

One of the things that really worked for me, here, is the prose. Mackinnon is an English and drama teacher and it absolutely shows because he’s got literary and musical references coming out of his pores. He sings hymns and musical numbers to while away the hours, he compares himself to Odysseus, and he decides to commit all of Keats to memory while sailing the dinghy. He describes the scenery he passes and his various adventures, mishaps, and joys with great humour and a great eye for detail.

Another thing that’s a great joy here is that Mackinnon balances the travel-as-place aspect with the travel-as-people part. There’s a lot of description of the natural and industrial landscape he moves through, and occasionally runs into (rapids, derelict ships, willows, etc). And it’s very evocative. At the same time, the people he meets are a huge part of the adventure. Mackinnon had the most outrageous luck the whole way along – something he himself acknowledges, and admits that he has to work to convince his friends back home that these things really happened. (Yes, I did stop to wonder whether this was all completely made up… and I guess that’s possible. But there’s no way to prove it, so I’m happy to take it on a little faith.) He meets people who feed him, give him a bed, give him directions, and – most importantly – help him to fix the boat when it’s in direst need. The journey would have been much, much shorter if serendipity hadn’t been on his side.

This was a delightful read; and selfishly I’m glad it happened when it did, because this would have been completely different with a mobile phone.

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