A cross-Europe adventure in a 10ft dinghy sees Sandy Mackinnon nearly come a cropper off Whitstable’s mud flats. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow

When the Great Seamanship column put out to sea 20 years ago, the extracts were drawn from classic sailing literature, much of it written before World War II. As years went by, we realised we were missing a trick and that a stream of eclectic new material was being published.

Mining this rich vein has been a source of continued delight. A fine example arrived this month and I confess it has been a struggle to put it down. The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by AJ (Sandy) Mackinnon tells the tale of his solo voyage from Shropshire to the Black Sea in, of all things, a Mirror dinghy.

The tale begins with Mackinnon, a teacher at a small public school, discovering the dinghy upside down under a pile of leaves by the local lake. He rescues the boat, names it after a pet raven, and decides to use it to take his departure from what might be described as ‘life so far’. Once underway, the book is a wild helter-skelter of experiences, people and narrow squeaks with disaster.

We join him beating into a rising north-east gale towards Whitstable out of the Swale on the Thames estuary. It’s noon and he has already been underway since 0515 but matters rapidly deteriorate from the tough to the bizarre.

Extract from The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow

1200 – Noon I have reached the end of the Isle, and the Swale has bent north­-east to join the sea. My destination of Whitstable lies visible across a wide expanse of lumpy grey and white water directly east, but now, at low tide, this is barred and broken by the oyster beds of Whitstable Flats.

I must continue in the main channel as it runs straight into the nor’easter for several miles until I can finally bear away to starboard and head directly to the shelter of the harbour. The wind, now that I have emerged from the shelter of the Isle, has become stronger. It is an iron bar ruled straight across the sea from Holland, thrashing the waves to a savage chop of white horses.

1230 – This is dreadful. The waves are too big. Without a jib I am having a hard time tacking into the wind. Each time I try to change tack I lose way, am slapped sideways by the next grey fist of water and blown back down the channel a hundred yards before I can regain control.

Another problem is that the vast triangular acres of Whitstable Flats are too shallow to allow me to sail directly across them to shore, but not yet so dry that they do not allow the vicious combers to come sweeping across them, driven before the wind like grey Furies. I am suffering the double disadvantage of being out on an exposed body of sea and yet hemmed in a narrow channel… and I am not coping.

After half an hour of weeping frustration I learn a trick when going about. At the very moment of changing course, I release the tiller for a perilous few seconds, grab an oar and haul Jack bodily around onto the next tack. There are a few seconds of jolting and sloshing and the frenzied flogging of the mainsheet, then the brave little dinghy kicks off towards the further bank of the channel. I then have a minute or two to bail the boat like a madman with my plastic half-milk-bottle, before repeating the process.

Even this bailing is a precarious task. To balance the force of the wind in the sail, I must sit out as far as I dare, my bottom on the windward gunwale, my torso leaning out over the sea and clinging onto the mainsheet for dear life. To bail, however, I must lean right in, stooping to scoop the water from the bilges, and then the dinghy threatens to tip right over. On two occasions the lee gunwale sluices right under and Jack is suddenly awash with the briny flood. I decide that bailing is perhaps something that can wait.

Having said all this, I am, incredibly, enjoying myself. I’m wet through, bone-cold and my tiller hand is cramped painfully to its task. I am also making a bare mile in the hour. But, filled with adrenaline, I am singing ‘When the Foeman Bares his Steel’ defiantly to the storm winds, and besides, I’m nearly to the open stretch and will soon be able to turn and reach smoothly down to Whitstable. Tee-hee and Taran-taraaa!

1323 – I stop singing Gilbert and Sullivan and start singing ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’. My boom has just broken.

Well, no, not my entire boom, just the bit where the mainsheet is attached. The boom-end pulley suddenly decides that our chances of survival are actually not that high, and decides to make a break for it. One moment it is there – the next it has vanished with a splash overboard. The sail flogs uncontrollably. The loose mainsheet convulses into knots. I coolly reattach sheet to boom with a special knot invented on the spot, and continue to sail. We have blown back half a mile in the interval.

Sandy Mackinnon and his trusty Jack de Crow heading off east. Photo: AJ Mackinnon

1327 – I discover that my new knot is a rather clever sort of self-jamming knot. Although I can still haul the sail in, I cannot let it out again, it seems. I can no longer spill wind to balance the blow, but must instead lean out even further. This is only possible by actually standing on the gunwale, a stunt that Mirrors were not really designed for. I am now riding Jack like a windsurfer, and the rigging is emitting strange moanings and hummings. I am going to die.

1352 – Bailer blows overboard.

1353 – I turn sharply to retrieve it, a feat of utter stupidity for I run straight onto the eastern mudbank that here lurks a foot below the water. There is an almighty CRRA-A-CK from beneath the keel. Centreboard? Possibly…

1359 – Bailer is back in Sittingbourne by now. Boat still sailing into the wind, oddly enough, so it can’t have been the centreboard after all. Boat horribly full of water, so I use the pith helmet to bail. Marvellous! Much better than the old bailer, can’t think why I didn’t think of that before. Am beginning to get really rather cold and tired. Make slow but steady progress towards the spit just 500 yards ahead, sloosh, slap, wallop, splash, thud, plash, clunk. Thank God I don’t get seasick.

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1435 – Getting there. I am actually going to make it. Decide to experiment tentatively with the centreboard. Gingerly try pulling it up a little. Stuck. Tug harder. Still stuck. Another pull and… whoosh! Up she comes like half a cork from a bottle. I am left clutching just the top half of the bloody thing, broken off in a jagged line halfway down, while the lower half drops smoothly out of the bottom and reappears as a distant and useless bit of flotsam a hundred yards away. I am going to die.

1440 – I have allowed myself to drift onto a nearby mudbank. I am two miles out to sea. Consider myself lucky that I am in a flat-bottomed dinghy at present. I take my anchor, newly bought in London, wade ankle-deep to the end of its warp and proudly stamp it home in the mud. I shall simply have to sit out here and wait for the tide to come in, cover the flats, and then drift or sail straight to the nearest bit of dry land when I’m ready. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well…

1447 – No it won’t. I am quickly freezing to death. Being soaked to the skin and sitting fully exposed to the North Sea gale is rendering me inexpressibly miserable. I need to be cool and resourceful yet again. I decide to rig my blue awning up over the boom, which is immediately and surprisingly effective in keeping the wind out; then I make myself a brand new centreboard out of some matchsticks, a safety-pin and an old gull’s wing.

Well, no, sorry, carried away there a little by the whole Allan Quatermain-ish idea of it, not out of those materials, but, almost as ingeniously, out of one of the duckboards that I use for sleeping on at night. This is the right thickness, but needs trimming to size with my Leatherman multi-purpose handy saw attachment, and then a hole drilling through the top so that I can jam a stout bit of rope through to make a handle.

I also rig up a much better arrangement to allow the mainsheet to run freely to ease off the mainsail. By the time the tide comes in, my little ship will be properly equipped to sail to shore with dignity.

Those tasks done, I have nothing to do but wait. There is nothing else for it. The usual solution. Hauling out my mattress and my sleeping bag, I fall fast asleep.

1630 – I awake. Jack is fully afloat and there seems to be a clear run to the shore about two miles away to the south. In that direction I can just make out what seems to be a long line of cottages above a strip of shingle, but I am reluctant to trust the dinghy to the vagaries of an exposed beach. Besides, there will be no pubs or B&Bs so far out of Whitstable.

Mackinnon collected the flags of many nations during his adventure across Europe. Here Jack de Crow is moored to a pontoon in Vienna. Photo: AJ Mackinnon

I stow my sleeping bag (damp), my mattress (damp), put on heavy-duty clothes (soaking), pack away the awning (sodden) and take in the anchor (damp but it doesn’t matter). I then hoist the sail, and begin the four-mile skim to Whitstable Harbour.

1633 – Bugger Whitstable Harbour. In three minutes I have hit five oyster beds and my Admiralty chart says quite distinctly that vessels grounding are liable to pay damages. Cottages it is. I can get there without having to lower the centreboard, and more importantly, before I die of hypothermia. It has begun to rain.

1707 – I have made it. I ground on the shingle with a rushing crunch, carried the last few yards by a sudden swoop of scum-topped wave. I am numb, exhausted and want nothing more than to find a hot bath, a mug of Bovril and a warm dry bed. But I can’t, not yet. The sea has dumped me on the steeply sloping beach only halfway up the tidal reach.

I can’t leave the dinghy here, but nor can I lift it any further up the shingle unaided. There is nothing for it but to spend another weary hour crouched shivering by Jack’s side and with every wave that comes swirling in, to float her another foot or two uphill. An hour later, and it is nearly dark. Finally she settles with a weary creak and scrape onto the dry shingle above the tide.

AJ (Sandy) Mackinnon

1815 – I climb, bone-weary, out of my sodden clothes and find some relatively dry ones to wear. In doing so, I discover the final insult of the day. I have lost my wallet, in all probability at the bottom of the sea. Well, thank you very much, God. That is positively the last time I sing hymns to you, mate… I may as well just lie here and let the herring gulls finish me off.

1820 – An angel appears. It is not in the form of an elderly lady bearing brandy, dog leads and good advice, but an anthropology student called Arif. He takes me to his flat nearby, gives me two mugs of hot Bovril, loads up all my sodden luggage into his car and drives me into Whitstable. The B&B is utterly charming, but tonight I bitterly resent the fact that it is located right on the seafront, as I never want to see salt water again.

The human spirit is a funny old thing. The day has undeniably been a disaster. I am more tired than I knew it was possible to be. My left wrist, from 13 hours of gripping the mainsheet in icy conditions, is hurting abominably; my little ship is lying on a distant stretch of inhospitable shingle with a faulty main block, jury-rig centreboard and no bailer.

I’ve travelled all of seven miles. I have grown to loathe the sea. And as I lie between white linen sheets, and the rain drums on the windowpane and the old sea slap-slaps the wall beyond the darkness, I realise the oddest thing. I am happier than anybody else in the entire world.

You can buy a copy of The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow from Amazon

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