A self-deprecating sense of humour, a comical hat and a tin whistle – these three things sum up Australian writer AJ ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon perfectly.
The author visited the Corowa Library last week to talk about his two novels which recount past expeditions, one in a small dinghy which was attacked by a band of brigands and the other to find the key to eternal youth on a mystical isle of Scotland.
Sandy was born in Australia in 1963 and spent his childhood between England and Australia and has the ‘dubious’ distinction of travelling with his family on the last P&O liners to sail between the two countries and according to his internet bio has interests including painting, philosophy, writing, conjuring and home-made fireworks.
He is currently a teacher of English, Drama, Mathematics and Philosophy at the prestigious Timbertop, Geelong Grammar’s Year 9 campus in the Victorian high country.
His novel The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow was written in 2002 book which Sandy also illustrated and recounts his 1997 journey from North Shropshire to the Black Sea in a small dinghy.
In 2010, he published a second work in a similar vein, The Well at the World's End, describing his travels from Australia to Iona, Scotland without flying.
During his library visit Sandy recounted his adventures in Jack de Crow, the name of the little dingy from his first novel, and had the audience in stitches, laughing over wrong turns and the comical advice he received along the way.
“After six years of teaching in England I decided it was time for a change however being a drama teacher I of course wanted to leave in style,” he said.
“I found a small boat with a little sail and some oars and thought how wonderful it would be to throw a party in the woods and then row off down the River Severn into the sunset.
“So that is what I did, but I got somewhat carried away – 14 months later I ended up in the Black Sea.
“I found once I started rowing I wanted to see what was around the bend and then I rowed a little more and another bend came up so I kept rowing to see what was around that bend and then eventually there were no more bends and I was in Dover looking at the English Channel.”
Before his journey Sandy auctioned everything he owned and donated the proceeds to charity, everything except a couple of changes of clothes, a pith helmet given to him by a friend and his beloved tin whistle.
“The pith helmet became very useful during this trip,” he said.
“Firstly it was great protection when I would forget about the boom on the mast which would swing around periodically; I also used it to bail out the dinghy during particularly rough weather.
“Secondly, it holds an amazing amount of blackberries which grow along the banks of the rivers in England and Europe and which I picked for food.
“And thirdly when I wear it I come across as someone in very much need of help – slightly mad, but not dangerous.”
According to Sandy his sole piece of maritime advice came when he was tossing up crossing the English Channel and spoke with the coast guard on the best course to take.
“The guard told me I had to stick to the starboard of the buoys and then when I saw the entrance to Calais I would see a jetty with a two storey white building on it.
“I was then told in no uncertain terms never to eat at the seafood restaurant which was housed inside the two storey white building as the food had made this particular guard sick the week before – that was my advice which I stuck to, to the letter.”
The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow and The Well at the World's End are now available to borrow from the Corowa Library.