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Bucking the waves

Author pulls his weight crossing Atlantic in rowboat

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Does Charles Wilkins have a death wish?

At 60-plus years of age, the Ontario-based author and journalist decided to join an international crew of 16 fit, able, accomplished rowers attempting to set a record time for crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados.

Now let's be clear. Although the former Winnipegger gets credit for the 1989 bestseller Paddle to the Amazon, his job was to trim a Titanic-sized manuscript down to a canoe-sized tale as lived by the paddling-obsessed Winnipeg adventurer Don Starkell. Wilkins' callouses weren't on his hands from that labour.

In addition, several of his highly entertaining previous books, such as In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger's Memoir and Walk to New York, show him to be a loner, not a team player, suspicious of rules and authority.

What he does have in spades is determination and a way of convincing hesitant organizers of his worth. The used-car world lost a gem when Wilkins decided to become a writer.

Although most of Little Ship of Fools (the title is a hint of things to come) is devoted to the arduous seven-week crossing in 2011, the task was years in the planning and arranging.

The fights over who, what, where and when were on top of money woes. The advantage of all that was that it gave Wilkins time to improve his conditioning. Indeed, he may have rowed the equivalent distance across his floor as he strained at his rowing machine to get in shape.

Man proposes, as the saying goes, and the wind disposes. The likelihood of a record crossing vanished as the crew came to realize the special design of their craft, Big Blue, couldn't compensate for the great load of stuff they had on board, resulting in more wallowing ahead than skimming with the trade winds.

It was as if they had a jinxing Jonah onboard. Not Wilkins, who by his account pulled his weight (greatly reduced to skin and bone), although he would occasionally lean back and dream from his back-of-the-pack location on the oars.

A more likely reason was the trade winds, which shift enough to confound the best-laid plans.

Some sea-based adventure books make you want to rise from your La-Z-Boy and challenge your endurance and stamina. Robert Manry's Tinkerbelle for example, or Thor Heyerdahl's The KonTiki Expedition and Sir Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth Circles the World -- these are names to conjure with.

Little Ship of Fools, however, joins with Will Ferguson's Beyond Belfast, his memoir of his struggling attempt to walk the Ulster Way, as a book that reminds aging boomers how glad they are that someone else has undertaken this agonizing and painful quest.

In Wilkins' case, the salt-water sores, the near-starvation diet after seven weeks at sea, the chafing, the smell and discomfort, the oozing wounds and blazing disagreements among the crew leave the reader happy indeed to be called a cowardly landlubber.


Ron Robinson is a Winnipeg broadcaster and bibliophile.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

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