Creekstone Press

Northern BC's publisher


Review of Oar & Sail: An Odyssey of the West Coast

Fresh out of Aberdeen University, Kenneth Macrae Leighton arrived at Alert Bay to begin a distinguished medical career in 1952. Smitten by the BC coastline, he resolved to one day explore it under his own steam, slowly.

Some 39 years later his wife Nancy saw him off from Jericho Beach in the Morag Anne, a hand-built cedar rowing boat that was named for a daughter who never arrived. In the summer of 1991 Leighton rowed north to Cape Caution, across from Port Hardy, and rowed back home again; in the summer of 1993 he rowed from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert.

From the launch of his boat to the launch of Leighton’s book took most of the decade. Oar & Sail is Leighton’s account of his 859-kilometre adventure averaging two knots per hour. He stayed out of shipping lanes, bucked wind and tides, and mainly ate Japanese noodles, biscuits and Cream of Wheat.

‘It’s a long way to Alert Bay and twice as far to Prince Rupert’, says Leighton, ‘but time and distance are not worth thinking about. The sun is coming out. I have no deadlines. It’s great to be alive.’

Other mariners weren’t sure what to make of the lone figure bent over the oars. Typically a cabin cruiser would pull up to make sure Leighton wasn’t having a heart attack, then speed away again.

Full days of rowing left him knackered but in good spirits. He could always dig into his ‘emergency only’ parcel supplied by a friend. It contained his favourite Royal Navy chocolate, sardines, and joy upon joy, a bottle of Glenlivet malt whiskey no less. Which has been known to raise the dead on more than one occasion, or so I have been told.

Leighton points out landmarks and provides historical notes behind place names such as Broughton, Johnstone and Chatham. In Surge Narrows the good doctor gets the scare of his life, becoming trapped in a whirlpool for five frightening hours. This teaches him to scrutinize his charts and tide tables with extra rigour.

Sometimes during his first voyage our not-so-ancient mariner pushed himself too hard, always in the grip of determination to reach the next beckoning island. I have few regrets but, as I write, I can see a constant error threading its way throughout. The goal appears to have been everything. This is foolish and very short-sighted. I must live with my mistake.

Leighton heeded his own counsel on the second journey and took more time for new friendships on the water, accepting a tow when badly needed or a bag of freshly baked oatmeal cookies. With calloused hands and Gaelic wit, he propelled Morag Anne all the way to Prince Rupert’s harbour.

The former head of anaesthesia at UBC Hospital, Ken Leighton died suddenly in June, 1998 of complications related to hepatitis C.