Mackinnon’s story starts mildly enough. In 1998, aged 35, he had been teaching for six years at a “Hogwarts-like” private college in Shropshire. Here he distinguished himself in his first year as the owner of Jack, a mischievous crow.
The college had a sailing school and included among its vessels an ancient Mirror-class dinghy. Inspired by Narnia, Doctor Dolittle and similar ripping yarns, Mackinnon had the idea of leaving the college by sailing away in this dinghy, just to “see where I got to – Gloucester near the mouth of the Severn, I thought”.
Buoyed by optimism but unprepared and ill-equipped, Mackinnon set off in his craft, dubbed “Jack de Crow”, bumbling his way along rivers, creeks, canals, and through locks. Passing his initial destination, he decided to attempt a crossing of the English Channel and continue through the Continent. After more than a year, he completed his journey, having sailed all the way across Europe from a small river in Shropshire to Romania and the Black Sea.
Mackinnon’s charms, both as a person and a writer, probably owe something to a childhood spent in Australia and England. He has the relaxed openness of an Australian combined with two things the English do best – humour and eccentricity. It also helps that he is very accomplished at some things and hopelessly ignorant of others, some of the latter being vital to his enterprise.
Mackinnon, for example, is obviously well educated and his writing (and indeed the voyage itself) is enlivened by literary quotations and references. He is also a reasonably experienced sailor. On the other hand, his map reading (and his choice of maps) leaves a lot to be desired. At the beginning of his adventure, he did not know how to row, problematic considering he couldn’t use the boat’s sail for the first few days.
Despite and because of these contradictions, Mackinnon managed somehow to keep going, along the way overcoming an almost complete lack of planning, streams that turned into unpassable bogs, torrential currents, unpredictable tides, broken keels, hulls, rowlocks and masts, lack of food and money – even pirates
PB 350 pages