Book Review – Island Race by John McCarthy and Sandi Toksvig

First published, 1995

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

John: Sandi and I made breakfast together. Cooking on board is a contact sport and we’re now in the premier league. With our extra layers of clothing we bounce against each other constantly while a wide strap keeps us within the confines of the galley.


‘Lovely. Sorry.’

‘No, my fault. Bacon’s nearly ready. Sorry.’



‘No problem. Oops! Sorry.’

Generally, we can now make the boat’s motion work for us. There’s a trick to it. If you want to collect something from  the other side of the saloon, you just wait for the right wave and then launch yourself with its motion. This way, you can arrive in one pace instead of six.

Sandi: I’ve taken to keeping packets of Stugeron concealed about the boat and have become a bit of a secret pill-popper. I want to test myself on this journey but not enough to give up the tablets. I’ve never been into drugs. I was always afraid if I tried something I might actually like it. I wonder if there are meetings for Stugeron addicts?

Now, I’m pretty sure I remember watching the TV series when it came out in the mid-nineties, but I just can’t find it online anywhere. Nor can I find a DVD. In a lovely nod to the time, there’s mention of the BBC Video in the back of the dust jacket of this hardback and that in itself makes me a little bit wistful, which is always a good thing on a rainy midweek afternoon.

So, the TV series, and this subsequent book, follows the seventy-five day adventure around the coast of Britain of two enthusiastic, but occasionally injured, amateur sailors on an eighty-year-old wooden sailing boat. Luckily, they’re not alone, and the skipper and mate seem mostly patient, occasionally moody, which adds to the tension no end. Our would-be seadogs are journalist, John McCarthy, at that time only four years free from being held captive in Beirut, and comedienne and national treasure, Sandi Toksvig, whose brother was at university with McCarthy. The book takes the form of journal entries by both parties, Sandi popping enough motion-sickness tablets to support a small branch of Boots, and John realising he’s wearing five or six layers of clothing and his cigarettes are in his innermost pocket. Aside from learning the various knots, ropes and lines of a sailing vessel, the two intrepid explorers get to know the sea, themselves, and the people of the UK as they speed along, and stop off from time to time to take shelter from the weather.

It seems like a mad and potentially dangerous voyage, but it is lightened by humour and grace throughout the narrative. As far as this reader is concerned, what one comes away with is the joy of possibility and the opportunities that would never come along without an occasional, dreamlike yes.

It’s worth noting, this voyage took place around the time of the opening of the Channel Tunnel linking England to France and, though we’d had a long-term relationship with Europe, it still seemed a rather distant place. I couldn’t help noting the concerns of the fishermen who were interviewed, and their fears about a growing bond with the mainland, which made me wonder what those communities would think of our current situation which, at least from my perspective, seems immeasurably worse. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the thought crossed my mind: Is it time for a sequel? It’s nearly thirty years later and probably neither party would particularly relish the idea of being stuck on a boat and risking decapitation by mainsail again, but there’s no denying it’s a thought.

If it happens, could I have a tiny credit, apportioning blame if necessary, at the end please?