Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 27, 2013

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow (2009), by A.J. Mackinnon

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de CrowThe Well at the World's EndYou know how sometimes you’re in the mood for some light reading, but you don’t want any dross that insults your intelligence?  After The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and a most disappointing foray into the first 50 pages of James Salter’s All That Is, I wanted something that would amuse me.  I predicted, on the basis of my reading of The Well at the World’s End in 2010, (see my review) that The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow was the perfect book – and I was right.

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow was A. J. Mackinnon’s first book, and it is a delight.  The story of his voyage from North Wales to the Black Sea in a mirror dinghy, it’s the most whimsical travel book I’ve ever read, written by a true eccentric.

The facts of the voyage are bizarre enough.   I have briefly sailed in a mirror dinghy – which I thought was great fun until we capsized it in the middle of Port Phillip Bay and then I remembered the sharks and decided that sailing was maybe not for me.   These boats are very small, and they lack refinements such as padded seats, outboard motors and any protection from wind and rain.  They don’t have any navigation equipment either, but Sandy Mackinnon eschewed such modern contrivances as a compass or GPS, not even when he was scampering across the Channel.  Even though the reader knows he must have survived this folly, it’s still pleasurably alarming to find him astray on the world’s busiest waterway, in real peril from its massive ferries and tankers, and he with no idea in which direction Calais lay.  Even his maps left a great deal to be desired, especially when he nonchalantly sailed into Yugoslavia just as it was dissolving and found himself in a river bordered by Croatia on one side and Serbia on the other…

But what makes Mackinnon’s story so utterly engaging is that it is written in the grand tradition of The Australian Tall Tale.

In the serious world of Slovakian industrial river transport, the locks are the size of hydro-electric schemes and the barges could sit squarely in the middle of two football pitches end to end and not leave a lot of room for players around the edge.  These iron giants have names like ‘Bratislava Hulk Haulage’ and are not to be trifled with.  They are captained and crewed by grim-eyed, unshaven Romanians in grimy overalls who live on vodka, deep-fried pig’s blood sausages and any dinghy sailors they can run down and gut.

This particular barge would fit into the Gabcikovo lock like a truncheon into a sheath.  There was barely any room between the iron precipice of the hull and the concrete precipice of the lock’s walls.  There was certainly no room for a wooden dinghy off on a bid for freedom.  In other words, in about three minutes’ time there was going to be a keel-crunching, hull-splitting collision between a two-thousand ton, unstoppable industrial barge the size of Wolverhampton, a small thirty-year-old plywood dinghy and the concrete mouth of a lock that had been there for the last thirty years and wasn’t going anywhere.  It was not hard to guess who was going to come off worst.  (p. 288)

The best thing about the book is that it reaffirms one’s faith in human nature.  Time and again when his boat is damaged, when he’s cold, hungry and tired, or when he’s run out of money or come up against apparently implacable officialdom, he meets up with like-minded souls who welcome him into their hearth and home and then send him back on his way, rested, refreshed and nourished by human kindness.

It’s a lovely book.  It was first published in 2002, and The Well at the World’s End followed in 2010 – so although Mackinnon may perhaps have settled down to sensible middle age by now, it’s possible that at this very moment he’s off on some new odyssey and another delightful book may eventually follow.

I just hope his luck holds!

Author: A.J. Mackinnon
Title: The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow
Publisher: Black Inc, 2009, reprinted 2010
ISBN: 9781863954259
Source: Loan from my dear friend, Lurline:)


Fishpond: The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow  and also The Well at the World’s End


  1. As usual, a perceptive review, thanks.
    I felt much the same way about this book, and include a link to my little review from some time ago;


    • Hello Robert, and welcome! Thanks for the link to your review – I love your thought that this book is the ‘Wind In The Willows on steroids’!


  2. I remember some discussion about this book some time ago, but I don’t think it was at our most recent meeting with Lurline.


    Sent from my iPad, odd punctuation and spelling is iPad s keyboard fault. Cheers Carol


    • Quite right, Carol, Lurline lent it to me ages ago and I’ve only just got round to reading it. *blush* Do you want to borrow it too? I’m sure Lurline will say yes if you ask her, let me know ASAP because otherwise I’ll be posting it back to her this week.


  3. […] Unlikely Voyage Of Jack De Crow – A. J. Mackinnon […]


  4. This is a great read. I am sure this man is really a Kiwi


    • HI John, LOL I think we’re claiming him as ours!


  5. I have just sent off my order for A.J. Mackinnon’s Unlikely Voyage. A friend of mine lent me his copy a few years back, but only now have I shelled out a few shekels for my own copy. When re-read, it will sit alongside my friend’s magnum opus, The Memoirs of a Minor Transgressor (Melrose). The author,Terence Long, sadly is now dead, which doesn’t alter the fact that it is a fool of a title for a cracking yarn, and the cover is abysmal! He wouldn’t listen! Like Mackinnon’s book, Long’s is another ‘hard to put down’, excellently written work.

    Michael S. Price, Western Australia.


    • Hello Michael, nice to ‘meet’ you!
      I’m intrigued to hear about your friend’s book… I tried searching for it on Goodreads, but it’s not there, but Google came up trumps, and yes, you are right, the cover isn’t very appealing and what with the title as well, it’s not one that would have encouraged me to pick up the book for a closer look.
      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed Unlikely Voyage. I’m still hoping we might one day get another book by Mackinnon…


      • Hello, Lisa – I could say, Hail, fellow-reader – well met! As to my chum’s magnum opus, notionally this is his autobiography, but in fact it is much, much more than that. It is, as I said, a ‘cracking yarn’. Melrose’s commissioning editor referred to it as a social history. In a nutshell, it is Long’s account of his rise from a totally uneducated childhood in India, via a serpentine career path to the concurrent positions of Commissioner of the (West Australian) Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Regional Director of the federal counterpart. His recollection of events, people, names, conversations going back to the 1920s is quite extraordinary. The book’s cover: ’nuff said. The title? I wanted him to have Calcutta to Canberra … an interrupted journey. One of these days, when my ship comes in, I shall arrange for a reprint but with my cover. I knocked up a ‘rough’ for that, which I happen to think is rather good! For good measure, had I your e-mail address, I would scan it through to you. Who knows, you may be tempted to do what presently I cannot!

        As a sort of postscript, I am now ancient – nine-tenths of a hundred years old – but still an inveterate correspondent. Words are my lifeblood.

        Keep well. I intend to.



        • Good for you, Michael, and all the best for your next decade!


  6. Hi everyone I am new here.

    It’s really nice to hear so many others enjoyed this book so much.

    I work in radio and after reading “The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow” I tracked Sandy down and interviewed him.

    In this first episode, we spoke about his passion for travel and the second book “The Well at The World’s End”.

    Next week we are releasing the episode on the voyage.

    Here is the link

    This interview is free to listen/download, no string’s attached.

    Hope you all enjoy

    Jesse Begley
    Life in Flux Podcast


    • Thanks for the link, Jesse, he’s a fascinating person, I agree.


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