An Extraordinary and Fortunate Journey of a Tasmanian On The Canals of France
By Mike Jennings
Just as the sun was starting to set somewhere on the French river Seine, a lanky 18 year-old from Hobart pulled his three metre dinghy up onto the roots of the only island he could find, the only one that had potential to house him for the night anyway. It was a small island, the size of a modest suburban front yard, but it would do. The light was fading quickly and he needed to sleep somewhere. It had a large tree that would provide ample cover from the rain that was starting to fall. He dragged the boat further up and out of the river and discovered the island was thick with bright green poison ivy. Everywhere. His next discovery was more disturbing. That the crunch under his bare feet, the stony floor of the island, was made from skulls of hundreds of goats – a graveyard for the little island’s sole living population. The rain got heavier and heavier and heavier as the lanky young sailor pulled planks from his boat and laid them over the poison ivy, making his bed for the night. Bugs crawled over him as he laid down, and the ghosts of French goats lingered in the air. The scene was creepy, but he fell asleep quickly and easily. He was tired. He was alone. And the rain bounced off the tree above him and into the Seine. It was the very first night in the unlikely voyage of young Digby Ayton.
Digby was on a peculiar journey, its origins in a book he’d read while in high school, The Unlikely Voyage of Max de Crow, about an Australian’s journey sailing a Mirror dinghy from north Wales to the Black Sea “perfecting the art of slow travel”, the book’s blurb will tell you. Digby had planned his own unlikely voyage before he’d even started his Year 12 exams, and it wasn’t a Contiki tour or a pub and nightclub binge for schoolies you might expect of an 18-year-old Australian lad in 2014.
Digby is a talented photographer and keen surfer who often spends his weekends hiking to Tasmania’s southernmost surf beaches with his friends, camping and surfing and taking photos with no-one else around, their sense of adventure far outweighing the screen heavy and outdoor-poor stereotypes of Gen Y. He delayed university studies, instead opting to head to Europe and sail the canals and row through the locks of France, funded by his part-time work at a local Hobart grocer. “I always had it in my head that it’d be a good thing to do,” explains Digby today, in Sydney en route home to Tasmania. “I thought it would be cheap and I thought it would be a good way to meet people. I wanted to actually spend some time in a country and get to know it, to go through all the little towns and talk to people. To see all the little towns and the history in them and their canals.” Digby talks with a casual goofiness, a shrug of the shoulders sort of charm. There’s no ego involved with the trip he’s done, there’s not even a sense of accomplishment, just a wide-eyed enthusiasm for absolutely everything – this was basically just something he wanted to do. So he did.
“I Google searched the European canals and looked at which countries had good canal systems. France has one that goes all the way from the northwest coast through Paris and then down, through the middle and back across through the Swiss water and then all the way to the Mediterranean. And you can go back up the Mediterranean to Hossegor. So I thought, ‘Sweet, I can sail to the surf.’ But that’s about 2,000 kilometres, and kind out of the realms of possibility. I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. If it all falls apart, I’ll be in Europe and that will be good anyway.’”
The hardest part, he says, was just leaving the front door. This was his first trip on his own to anywhere, really, “If you don’t count the mainland,” he says, referring to the occasional trip from Hobart to Melbourne.
Digby’s boat was a Mirror, just like in the book that inspired his voyage. Good for rowing and a popular sailing boat all over the world. The French man he’d offered to buy one from, the only Mirror Digby could find for sale on the internet in France at all, decided that Digby should have it for free, a tribute to the man’s passing father who had built it. “I think he just wanted a home for it, and he kept saying that his dad would have loved my trip,” says Digby. It was a precedent for the theme of the journey, the kindness of strangers on the French canals.
Digby never got around to naming it, “I liked calling it ‘My boat’ though. ‘Cause I’d never really owned anything big before. I hadn’t owned a car. I had never had a place to myself, so it was one of the first things I’d ever had that was really mine. I could do anything I wanted with it, if I wanted to sell it, if I wanted to paint it, I didn’t have to ask anyone. If I wanted to go in this direction, I just could.”
And so he did. After a few days working on his boat, he set off. At the beginning of August from the town of Rouen, 150km west of Paris, he started sailing and rowing up the River Siene.Not knowing how far he’d go, or how long he’d be on the water, but knowing that he was going going going.
“I was nervous, and scared for most of that first day, even though I wouldn’t be scared ordinarily. But I was in another country, a place I’d never been before. And it wasn’t town anymore, it was all, cliffs and forests.”
The voyage began in the Normandy area, which, he learned firsthand, is the rainiest part of the country. And it just so happened that in his first five days sailing, it bore the heaviest rains for the month of August in recent memory. At that stage he didn’t even have a tent, opting instead for a simple tarp and a sleeping bag.
“That first night,” he says about his time on what we’ll call Goat Ghost Island. “I didn’t feel lonely but that first week it rained a lot and I got lonely, every now and again. But seeing all these things I’d never seen before, the big white chalk cliffs and the trees and rivers. You get into a rhythm, you row or you sit back and sail and it’s beautiful. And you get overwhelmed by the feeling that you can go do anything. I just kept thinking to myself, “I can do whatever I want!”
“And every time I got lonely something would happen. I’d go around the corner and meet some people and they’d give me dinner. Or there’d be a really nice sunset. Or one time this massive flock of birds just started flying all around me. Something would always happen that would make me think, ‘This is nice, I’m glad I’m here.’”
A few days in to the voyage, amongst heavy heavy rain, “so heavy I couldn’t even take a photo,” says Digby, it was almost all over. Stopping in the town of Oisielle for a coffee and a break from the downpour, he got back onto his boat. “I wasn’t really looking forward to this next leg, but I kind of thought, ‘Well I can’t stay here.’” He jumped in and rowed away, but a minute later his foot broke clean through the hull and into the Seine below. The hole in the base of his boat the size of a dinner plate. “It was a rotten floor, the whole time I was trying not to press on it but I didn’t even press hard and my foot went straight through.”
Digby rowed, battling wind and tide, back to where he’d stopped. Frantically throwing all his worldly belongings out of the boat. A passerby helped him drag the boat out of the water so it wouldn’t sink and be lost forever. Digby showed him the hole and they tried to discuss it in broken Frenglish.
“Then he left. And I was like, ‘Oh, great. This is the end of my trip. Three days in. I’m just going to do something else now, y’know, this is done.”
Digby sat in the wet and thought about what he’d have to do next. Wade through poison ivy to a local farmer’s and ask for help? Leave the boat for good? Hitch a ride to the nearest town with a hostel?
But the man came back with tar and roof tiling equipment and a handheld flamethrower. He patched up the boat, all while getting soaking wet. And while Digby was grateful, he worried he’d risk losing everything if he set out again.
“I asked, ‘Are there any hotels around here? Because I’m not that keen to go out today. And he said, ‘No there’s no hotels.’ ‘Camping?’ ‘Nup, no camping.’ ‘Can I sleep on the side here?’ ‘Nup, there’s some weird people about.’ He said all this in French but I kind of got it. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you come with me and my family, we live ten minutes up the road.’ So they put my boat on a little carry trailer, took it to their house, got me a shower, got me hot food and coffees, and then he took my boat into his shed and started fixing my boat completely. Making it better than it was originally.”
The next day was tough too, the weather was bad, and places to sleep in the coming days seemed sketchy at best. Digby wasn’t keen to go on. But with nowhere to stay, and the hard work and generosity of a stranger at the front of his mind, he had to.
“And then it slowly got better. Day by day the weather improved, it was easier to find spots to camp. I put another hole in my boat but it wasn’t as bad, I duct taped it up, and every 15 minutes I’d bail out all the water. And then I made the lock, the first lock, and that was the hardest part kind of over.”
Slowly and surely, routine set in. The weather turned pleasant, and so did the people and countryside. Apart from one terrifying night hiding in bushes for a few hours, while hoodlums rummaged through his boat and his camp where he’d been sleeping while Digby held an oar tight to his wildly beating heart (“my weapon of choice, and a good one because it meant they couldn’t row away with my boat”), the unlikely voyage of Digby Ayton turned into the Huck Finn does France canal journey he’d dreamed of.
He hitched on boats and barges past Paris. He slept in cargo holds and nice houses of families he met along the way. He traded with other canal people photos he’d take of them and their boats for good French food, wine and coffee. He bought himself a tent, an improvement on the tarp and foam mattress set up he’d been been using prior, and spent his afternoons jumping off trees into the French rivers he’d been rowing down, swimming, and sailing and rowing and camping every day.
He rowed into the town of St Mammes and down the River Yonne. He travelled through the Canal du Nivernais and the Canal du Lateral du Loire. And after 50 days of sailing and sleeping on the sides of rivers, 700 kilometres travelled, 160 locks navigated, and a life lived in a rotting three metre dinghy in a foreign country, it was time call an end to the trip. His hand forced by the lock at the beginning of the Canal du Centre refusing let anyone through due to a lack of water.
With a heavy heart, Digby sold his boat without a name to two brothers who wanted to sail it on a lake with their daughters and nieces.
“It was super sad. I was so attached to my boat, it had been so tough and held together. It had all these holes and I’d come such a long way with it, I had rowed and sailed with it every single day. My only constant friend for the whole trip. But I was glad it was going to a good home.”
As Digby tells his story, he is in Sydney stopping on the way to Tasmania to check out a couple of universities he might go to in 2015. “I’ll probably study Industrial design, but hopefully photography as well,” he says. Tomorrow he flies back home to Tasmania, and straight into a surfing/camping trip at his local secret right pointbreak. He reflects on his trip, and whatever’s to come next, “I reckon you can do most things if you really want to do them. Just give it a go,” he shrugs and chuckles. “Yeah… I think so anyway…”