The Sunday Times


When Ben Car­lin saw an am­phibi­ous jeep ly­ing idle af­ter WWII he thought it would make a good ve­hi­cle to take on the oceans ...


When West Aus­tralian ad­ven­turer Ben Car­lin and his pa­tient Amer­i­can wife Eli­nore Arone de­cided to cir­cle the world in an old am­phibi­ous army jeep, it cre­ated mas­sive head­lines. But af­ter three failed launches, me­dia in­ter­est waned. In this ex­tract from his new book, Gor­don Bass de­scribes the two lonely souls as they head out of Hal­i­fax, Canada in 1950 to take on the North At­lantic for the fourth time.

WHAT was Ben Car­lin think­ing, driv­ing across the At­lantic, four years gone since he’d first seen the am­phibi­ous jeep known as the GPA? Was there a grow­ing aware­ness that this thing was con­sum­ing his life?

He ex­pressed lit­tle in­tro­spec­tion or won­der, and by this third sum­mer, fi­nally at sea, the en­tire jour­ney it­self seemed some­thing to be en­dured rather than en­joyed, some­thing to fight, some­thing to get past. It had taken two years sim­ply to make a suc­cess­ful de­par­ture.

Nor did he say or write much about fear, but at times he must have been afraid.

As they sailed fur­ther into the wide ocean Ben and Eli­nore were as­tro­nauts, free climbers, fools stuffed into a bob­bing can, lives en­trusted en­tirely and ab­surdly to a ma­chine pur­pose-built to live a hard but short life, pow­ered by an en­gine pushed into run­ning for weeks on end across thou­sands of miles of salt­wa­ter.

Be­tween them and the rage of the sea was only thin, neo­prene-coated sheet metal, old rub­ber seals and a boxy cabin built by a man who’d taught him­self nav­i­ga­tion in a base­ment from a text­book, whose en­gi­neer­ing ex­pe­ri­ence leaned more to­wards dig­ging pits than draft­ing ves­sels.

For any­one who stopped to think about it, it was en­tirely crazy. Al­most un­be­liev­able. Later Ben claimed peo­ple of­ten re­fused to be­lieve him when he said he’d crossed oceans in the jeep. And if you ac­tu­ally saw the jeep bob­bing down the Seine, or parked by a Cal­cutta kerb, would you re­ally be­lieve? Or would you think it a stunt, a prac­ti­cal joke, the idea of this hard-drink­ing Aus­tralian and his sea­sick wife sail­ing the oceans in what a friend called an “ab­surd con­trap­tion”?

The press scram­bled to un­der­stand the mean­ing of the trip. Publi­cist Ware Lynch was out of the pic­ture so it was left to friends and rel­a­tives to ex­plain things. The news­pa­per ar­ti­cles were shorter now and the Car­lins no longer front-page news in this third sum­mer of at­tempted cross­ings.

Eli­nore’s brother Domenic, now an ed­i­tor for the CIA, told the Wash­ing­ton Star: “Ma­jor Car­lin said he wanted to go to In­dia to col­lect some army pay. I think he’s do­ing it the hard way. I don’t know much about the trip. They just wanted to go around the world, I guess.”

To­ward the end of July, near the 40th par­al­lel, the wind picked up and their am­phibi­ous ve­hi­cle they’d named Half-Safe rolled over a big sea. Ben hove to and streamed the sea an­chor and, with­out heat from the en­gine, the cabin grew chilly and damp. Never been so cold, wet and un­com­fort­able, Eli­nore wrote in one of the seven jour­nals she kept dur­ing her trav­els with Ben. Chilly, cheer­less, choppy as hell. Can’t read or eat or sleep. Damn the weather.

But by the be­gin­ning of Au­gust the sea calmed, and they sailed on.

Ev­ery four or five days the nose tank ran dry and had to be re­filled from “Til­lie the Tow-Tank”. It was a del­i­cate op­er­a­tion: first they hauled the cigar-shaped tank along­side the jeep, then Ben swam un­der­neath it and at­tached a hose that ran from its bot­tom to the nose tank, and then he climbed on top of Til­lie and pumped air into a valve on its top. The air pushed petrol from Til­lie down­ward through the hose into the nose tank.

And as Ben worked the hand pump he barked com­mands at Eli­nore, who made sure Til­lie didn’t smash into the jeep: ‘Watch the tank! Watch the line! Don’t let it get fouled out! Pull in the bloody slack!’ The op­er­a­tion would have been eas­ier with a boat hook but that was among the things they’d for­got­ten to bring.

Each time the process took hours.

On Au­gust 4 Til­lie ran dry, all 270 gal­lons gone. The plan had been to jet­ti­son it but now Ben thought it might make more sense to get rid of the jeep’s belly tank in­stead, and he spent seven hours man­u­ally pump­ing all the fuel in the belly tank back into Til­lie.

At the end of the op­er­a­tion Half-Safe had a $1000 gal­vanised iron box of sea­wa­ter strapped to her belly, do­ing ab­so­lutely no good. And it was big. Four hun­dred pounds empty, three me­tres long, 1.5 me­tres wide and 36cm deep. It was a lot of un­nec­es­sary drag and, af­ter days of con­sid­er­a­tion, on 10 Au­gust Ben de­cided to cut it away from the jeep and let it drop into the deep.

A light rain was fall­ing, and it was cold, but Ben and Eli­nore stripped naked to un­der­take the del­i­cate op­er­a­tion so they could keep their clothes dry.

Six ny­lon straps con­nected the belly tank to Half-Safe, three on each side. Ben clung to the side of the jeep to be­gin un­fas­ten­ing the straps, one at a time, while Eli­nore stood shark watch and kept an eye on the tow-tank.

What­ever plan Ben may have had in mind to jet­ti­son the belly tank, it didn’t go the way he in­tended.

He’d re­leased three of the straps when a sud­den boom shook Half-Safe and she pitched vi­o­lently to the right, list­ing pre­car­i­ously at 30 de­grees.

When the jeep seemed to have sta­bilised, Ben dove to see what had gone wrong. The at­tach­ment points on the left side of the jeep had cor­roded and given way, and now the bulky belly tank hung ver­ti­cally from the right side of the jeep by its two re­main­ing straps, pulling down­ward with a force of sev­eral hun­dred pounds.

At least there was no vis­i­ble dam­age to the bot­tom of the jeep. Ben shouted for a knife and dove un­der the jeep to sever the re­main­ing straps, one af­ter the other.

As soon as he hacked through the sec­ond one the tank fell free and Half-Safe lurched back into a hor­i­zon­tal at­ti­tude.

He stayed un­der­wa­ter as long as he could, watch­ing in fas­ci­na­tion as the boxy tank knifed down­ward into the blue-black, fall­ing ver­ti­cally un­til it was the size of a match­box and then lev­el­ling out to plane off into the un­seen, leav­ing Ben struck by the ter­ri­fy­ing aw­ful fi­nal­ity of its dis­ap­pear­ance. The op­er­a­tion took eight hours.

When it was over Ben fixed their lo­ca­tion as 40°41’N, 41°50’W, or about half­way be­tween Hal­i­fax and the Azores. About as far from any­thing as you could be, sur­rounded by an im­men­sity of blue on even a world map, the Azores still 800km east-south-east. For only the sec­ond time since leav­ing Hal­i­fax, they broke out a bot­tle of Scotch.

The jeep was eas­ier to con­trol with­out the belly tank

Would you re­ally be­lieve it? The idea of this hard-drink­ing Aus­tralian and his sea­sick wife sail­ing the oceans in what a friend called an ‘ab­surd con­trap­tion’.

and its tyres, now more ex­posed, even served as crude fins to keep her on track. Oddly, how­ever, the loss of the tank didn’t make her any faster.

The weather here was un­pre­dictable, and they had no way of mak­ing a fore­cast be­cause, amaz­ingly, the jeep lacked a sim­ple barom­e­ter to mea­sure at­mo­spheric pres­sure.

Cold gave way to heat again. Mid-Au­gust brought hot, glassy days as the lit­tle jeep rum­bled slowly across a dead calm and the tem­per­a­ture rose to a hu­mid 37C in the hot­house cabin. Ben and Eli­nore be­gan to stink but some­how they’d ne­glected to pack soap. The toi­let be­neath the pas­sen­ger seat was ba­si­cally a tin cham­ber pot, so they hung over the back of the jeep in­stead.

As days and weeks passed, churn­ing slowly across the vast sea in the tiny jeep, Ben and Eli­nore fell into a rou­tine borne of two sum­mers of failed at­tempts, tak­ing turns at the wheel — two hours on and two hours off — star­ing at the com­pass un­til their eyes stung with salt. They in­haled an end­less chain of cig­a­rettes.

Ben shot their lo­ca­tion with a tiny pocket sex­tant he’d bought for $17.50 at a pawn­shop in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and when the sun was hid­den by clouds or fog he re­lied on dead reck­on­ing, which means es­ti­mat­ing your cur­rent po­si­tion based on where you started, how fast and far you’ve trav­elled, and in what di­rec­tion, tak­ing into ac­count things like wind and cur­rent.

They drove through day and night, rarely speak­ing, mad­dened by the monotony.

They had only a few books with them, in­clud­ing Thor Hey­er­dahl’s Kon-Tiki. Ben had be­come ob­sessed with Hey­er­dahl’s 1947 Pa­cific jour­ney on a balsa raft, which was sup­posed to prove long sea voy­ages could have con­nected dis­tant cul­tures with ba­sic tech­nol­ogy thou­sands of years ago. Though Hey­er­dahl did demon­strate that such voy­ages were pos­si­ble, his mi­gra­tion the­o­ries have lit­tle cre­dence to­day.

They saw ships ev­ery few days, some­times on the hori­zon, some­times only a short dis­tance away, but never tried to sig­nal them.

Mid­way across the At­lantic, Ben hal­lu­ci­nated that he was sail­ing over a Per­sian car­pet that stretched to the hori­zon. On the best days Half-Safe made 3.5 knots, around 6.4km/h, the speed of a brisk walk. Some­times Ben turned off the en­gine and they swam in the ocean to rinse the sweat and grime from their bod­ies, strangely obliv­i­ous to the ter­ri­fy­ing miles of water below.

The damp la­bels sloughed off all their cans of food, ren­der­ing the con­tents a mys­tery, and some days they ate syrupy fruit salad three times in a row. With blan­kets per­ma­nently wet and en­crusted with salt, they de­vel­oped raw sores from sit­ting so long in the same po­si­tion. The 1.5m bunk pro­vided lit­tle more com­fort than the front seats.

The jeep suf­fered too, and by Au­gust 17 it was show­ing the strain, its en­gine rapidly get­ting worse. As usual, it was the ex­haust valves.

In an en­gine like the Ford GPA’s four-cylin­der power plant, petrol is mixed with oxy­gen in a com­bus­tion cham­ber, and the re­sult­ing mix­ture is ig­nited by a spark plug. This cre­ates a gas that rapidly ex­pands, push­ing against a pis­ton in the cham­ber. The lin­ear mo­tion of the pis­ton is con­verted to ro­ta­tional mo­tion by the crank­shaft, which, to keep things sim­ple, is what turns the wheels — and, in the case of the GPA, the pro­pel­ler too.

When the pis­ton moves back up­ward to ex­pel the ex­haust from the burned petrol, an ex­haust valve opens to let it out. But the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment in which Half-Safe op­er­ated cre­ated chronic prob­lems. The en­gine ran for hours on end at a con­stant speed, which led to car­bon build-up that made en­gine valves stick, which made the en­gine run poorly.

Thus the en­tire trip was plagued by the need to open the en­gine to strip off the build-up, some­times as of­ten as ev­ery week or two. And it wasn’t as sim­ple as open­ing a hood. Af­ter the mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the jeep the en­gine could be ac­cessed only through a 76cm-square hatch, and each time the en­gine needed work Ben had to lean over the dash­board and con­tort him­self through this open­ing into the en­gine com­part­ment.

They had been at sea for 29 days. While work­ing on the en­gine, Ben ca­su­ally men­tioned that they should be see­ing Flores Is­land soon, as if they’d sim­ply taken a week­end drive and he ex­pected to see a land­mark over the next hill.

And when it ap­peared, a tiny dot in the vast­ness of the mid-At­lantic, it was ex­actly where Ben had ex­pected it would be. Eli­nore told a friend: “Even re­mem­ber­ing he’d learned his nav­i­ga­tion in one week’s read­ing out of a text­book, it never oc­curred to me to doubt it. Flores duly ap­peared the next af­ter­noon and fi­nally we’d com­pleted the first lap of the At­lantic, af­ter three years of ef­fort and frus­tra­tion. He re­acted sim­ply; he’d been ex­pect­ing to reach the Azores in an am­phibi­ous jeep; he wasn’t at all sur­prised. And, look­ing back, I can’t say I was par­tic­u­larly sur­prised. It had only taken longer than was orig­i­nally an­tic­i­pated.”

Ex­tract from The Last Great Aus­tralian Ad­ven­turer by Gor­don Bass pub­lished by Ebury Aus­tralia, RRP $34.99

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 ?? The Last Great Aus­tralian Ad­ven­turer ?? Ocean war­riors (clock­wise from far left): Ben Car­lin drives his am­phibi­ous jeep, Half-Safe, through Paris in 1955; Cross­ing the North At­lantic; Car­lin and his wife, Eli­nore, ar­rive in Calais in 1955; The jeep, pic­tured in 2015 at Guild­ford Gram­mar...
The Last Great Aus­tralian Ad­ven­turer Ocean war­riors (clock­wise from far left): Ben Car­lin drives his am­phibi­ous jeep, Half-Safe, through Paris in 1955; Cross­ing the North At­lantic; Car­lin and his wife, Eli­nore, ar­rive in Calais in 1955; The jeep, pic­tured in 2015 at Guild­ford Gram­mar...
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