Sandy Mackinnon sailed the 10.8ft Jack de Crow across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to fullfil his dream of sailing from Romania to Italy

A teacher who spent 171 days sailing the wooden Mirror dinghy, Jack de Crow from Romania to Italy has advised would-be adventurers following in his wake: “Don’t do it.”

Former Ellesmere College deputy housemaster Sandy Mackinnon, 60, who now teaches at Timbertop in Victoria, Australia, “nearly came to grief” a dozen times while coastal hopping from Sulina, in the Black Sea, to Venice via the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, Aegean, Ionian and Adriatic seas.

Sailing into the historic Italian waterside city on 22 September was every bit as fantastic as he had imagined, yet the amateur sailor said: “Once I started I was determined to finish but there were 11 or 12 times where I thought I’m actually lucky to have got through the day.

“Various people, like my sister, said early on, ‘It’s a lovely idea but I just don’t think a Mirror dinghy is suitable for coastal sailing in deep, unpredictable seas in unpredictable weather.’ And she was dead right.

A man sailing the yellow mirror dinghy Jack de Crow along the coast

Sandy’s best run sailing Jack de Crow was 68km on his first day when he was at sea for 13 hours. Credit: Sandy Mackinnon

“Although I can certainly recommend the Mirror for a long adventure in inland waterways, they’re relatively roomy, really stable and very buoyant. The Mirror is a superb cruising boat: you can ride up and over even the biggest waves and they’re the perfect size to pull up on any beach. When I was bailing water occasionally, I would duck into a lagoon to escape the weather. And I could sail along in literally four inches of water, and if I did ground it was then light enough to hop out and pull over the next mud bank.

“But I think my sister was right, I shouldn’t have been sailing out in really heavy seas, in places where the wind could come up very quickly and unpredictably.”

Sandy’s journey began in 1998, when he left the Shropshire college in a similar Mirror dinghy, intending to sail for a few days down the River Severn but “got carried away” and ended up in Sulina, Romania.

He left Jack de Crow with the harbour master and wrote a book called The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow.

Twenty-five years later, Sandy was daydreaming about whether the boat might still be there, and if he could sail it to Venice.

A friend in Romania checked and it wasn’t but Sandy said: “That very night, by sheer coincidence, a man in England contacted me and said: ‘Hi, you don’t know me. But I’ve read your book and loved it. I’ve just bought a bright yellow Mirror dinghy identical to your boat. Please can I call it Jack de Crow after your original boat?’

A man in the yellow dinghy Jack de Crow with Istanbul in the background

Coastguard chums in Istanbul snapped this shot of Sandy with Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the background. Credit: Sandy Mackinnon

“I’d had a few whiskies, so I said, ‘Let me borrow it for six months to journey to Venice, then I’ll give it back to you and it’ll have the right to be called Jack de Crow with a real adventure under its keel.

“Once I’d sobered up I immediately sent another message saying ‘Dear sir, please ignore that last email, that’s so unreasonable, call it what you like’ and he wrote straight back saying ‘No, no, I think it’s a wonderful idea. I’ll get it all ready for you and I’ll even drive you to the Black Sea.’ So I arrived in the UK in March from Australia and met my new friend Steve for the first time.

“He took a week off work, we put the 10.8ft (3.3m) Mirror dinghy on the top of his car and drove to Romania in four days flat to make this dream come true.”

Sandy, who wore a lifejacket with an EPIRB “unless it was dead calm” and he was rowing, used the Windy and PredictWind apps for weather, and maps.ME to see the shape of the coastline, until Croatia where he used a paper chart to navigate through the thousands of islands.

He packed light with two sets of clothes, a small tent, sleeping bag, camping stove, tin whistle and a bag of magic tricks.

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Sandy said “When you don’t speak the language magic tricks are a very good way of breaking the ice, or to repay people who won’t accept money for having mended your boat. You can do a little magic trick for them and their children.”

Sandy also packed a pith helmet – a gift he had taken on the original trip: “It’s actually a very good protector for when the boom comes over because it’s got a bit of solidity to it. And I used it for bailing, and for collecting blackberries in.”

Sandy, who set sail on 3 April, very nearly gave up six weeks before the finish in Croatia, but received many messages of support from his 3,000 followers on the ‘Another Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow’ Facebook page and pressed on after a “bit of a rest and a tow from a lovely yacht through some very flat dead calms”.

He added: “That broke the back of it and I’m so pleased that I did keep going and I got to Venice.”

Challenges included sailing through a heatwave in Greece, rowing on windless days in 35-40°C heat, and extremely strong afternoon winds throughout August and September.

Sandy’s best run was 68km on his first day when he was at sea for 13 hours.

He said: “That rather set me up badly for the rest of the trip because I thought ‘Oh, this is easy’. “The closest I came to it was quite an exciting time when I left a little harbour in Montenegro where the boat had been tied up in awful waves. I set off sailing and realised after half an hour that water was coming into the boat quite fast. I looked over the side and a hole had been punched right through the side of the boat. The problem was that I had a 55km stretch of sheer cliffs with not a single place to land.

A man on a boat in Venice

Arrival in Venice. Credit: Sandy Mackinnon

“Luckily, the wind was behind me so I was sailing along at a reasonable pace. But I had to keep bailing and bailing for 12 hours while sailing along until I could get to a port. So that was an exciting day.”

Sandy added: “I had the most astonishing luck on the five occasions when things broke in ways that I thought, ‘I’m not sure I have the expertise to mend that’. Within an hour of me landing on each occasion, somebody stepped off the beach and said, ‘I’m a boatbuilder’, or ‘I’ve got a bag of tools’ or ‘My son is a boatbuilder’ and the problems were fixed within an hour of me landing. Absolutely incredible. People were so kind, helpful and so generous.”

Sandy is now working on a follow-up book before resuming teaching in January.

Buy The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow at Amazon (UK)

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This article was updated to correct the size, in feet, of Jack de Crow. 

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