The Sunday Times
A CRAZY BRAVE WEST AUSSIE v THE WORLD
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