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Bookends: It’s a wild ride across the Atlantic Ocean November 25, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: It’s a wild ride across the Atlantic Ocean

By Dan Davidson

April 14, 2014

– 848 words –


Little Ship of Fools

By Charles WilkinsLittle Ship

Greystone Books

305 pages



I met Charlie Wilkins in 2005, when he spent part of a chilly winter at Berton House as writer-in-residence. Charlie writes several different kinds of books and articles, one of the ones I’ve read since I met him was The Wild Ride: a History of the North West Mounted Police 1873-1904. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he’d chosen to write about the really early years, stopping at the point where the word Royal was first added to the NWMP name.

Charlie has also produced a book about the summer he spent working in a graveyard (In the Land of Long Fingernails), but what he does most is take strange travel adventures and write about those.

Walk to New York kind of describes itself; so does Paddle to the Amazon. The Circus at the Edge of the Earth chronicles his time with the Great Wallenda Circus.

In 2012, at the age of 63, Charlie decided to paddle across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados. He’d heard about this possibility from some friends and had decided it would make a really neat book.

He wasn’t going alone and the boat wasn’t any old craft. As the subtitle for the book says: 16 rowers, 1 improbable boat; 7 tumultuous weeks on the Atlantic”.

Charlie’s a healthy fellow by my estimation. He hiked all around Dawson when he was here, and just look at those trips he’s taken. He has, on the other hand, what might called an ectomorphic body type: thin muscles, low body fat storage. He writes that he trained for a year and a half to get ready for this trip – lifting weights, eating to put on weight, working out for hours each day on a rowing machine – and that by the end of the trip he had lost one-fifth of his body mass and was told by other people that he looked fragile and haunted.

When he arrives in Dawson this week to do a reading from his book and show the film that one of his crewmates made from the trip, I expect I’ll still recognize him, but he will probably be somewhat changed from the fellow I’ve spoken with and interviewed in the past.

Charlie’s going to be one of the mentors at next week’s Young Authors’ Conference (my profile of him for that event has either been in print or will soon be).

Little Ship of Fools is a very engaging travel narrative. We learn about the trip itself, with all its high and low points. We learn the history of the voyage and some of the lore of trans-oceanic rowing. We learn about the good and not so good points of each of the crew members, and of the inevitable frictions that must develop among 16 individuals trapped in uncomfortably close quarters with no hope of getting any respite from each other, rowing in shifts two hours or and two off in all kinds of weather.

Big Blue, as their craft was called, was a remarkable craft, constructed catamaran-style with two sets of rowing stations separated by a cabin amidships and a little bit of deck space on either side of the cabin. The photos in the book give some idea of the layout, but the colour shots on Charlie’s website do it more justice.

The crew’s intention as to row down the coast of Africa from Agadir an out into the Atlantic until they could catch the Trade Winds, which would help to speed them on their way. They had a lot of trouble finding the Trades in the first place, and when they did, it was nowhere near the smooth ride they thought it would be. There were waves. There was rain. There was blazing sun. There was first the monotony and then the shortage of food, as the trip took substantially longer than what they had provisioned for.

There was the constant annoyance of loosing irreplaceable things overboard with no way to get them – coupled with the eventual realization that if one of them were to fall overboard, none of their retrieval options would work worth a damn.

You’ve got to wonder about writing this kind of a book. How personally will your subjects take your observations when it’s done? If they decide, part way, that they want out of the deal, what’s to stop them from pitched your notes overboard (and what did happen to all those pens anyway?)?

The only thing you can do is to be as hard on yourself as on everyone else, and even that may not be enough. I think Charlie pretty much did that. Any time he records a negative about any member of the crew, he backs it with something positive and he is merciless on his own failings as a member of the crew.

It’s a fascinating read and I’m looking forward to seeing the film.








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