Around the World in a 'Seep' - 1948 to 1958
The little told story of Western Australian adventurer Ben Carlin and the WW2 amphibious Jeep – a 'Seep' – he took around the world; seems almost incredulous, but it is true!
Often when Ben Carlin tried to detail his trip around the world, he was met with unbelieving looks and at times, almost scorn. Close to the very end of the journey as he was crossing the United States to his start point in Nova Scotia he paid a visit to the Ford plant. The then boss of Ford refused to see him, while the public relations chief refused to acknowledge the little Ford built Jeep that sat outside in the car park. Goodyear tyres were in Ben's words, 'faintly interested, but mainly faint', while some so called experts referred to Half-Safe's crossing of the Atlantic with, 'If indeed, the voyage really was accomplished, it rates as the most astonishing circus-act ever staged on the high seas.'
In our own newspapers of the time Ben and his exploits rated just a brief entry of just a few lines, more often than not on page three or five, and very rarely with a photograph. Even when they arrived in Canberra in November 1955, half way through their world journey, the page 2 headline read, 'Crazy Calins’ drive into Canberra in their Amphibious Jeep'.
But Ben Carlin allowed nothing to put him off. Not scorn, being broke, public ridicule, mechanic problems, sponsorship knockbacks, breakdowns and subsequent rescues, the threat of bandits, or even hurricanes.
The story began when Ben Carlin, a past student of Perth's Guildford Grammar School, was demobbed from the Indian Army after the end of WW2. In March 1946, still in India, he saw his first amphibious Jeep and casually said to his mate, 'You know Mac, with a bit of titivation you could go around the world in one of these things."
The amphibious Jeep, or more correctly, the Ford GPA Seep, 'Seep' being an acronym for 'seagoing Jeep', was hardly a successful design being heavy and slow on land with a low water line and a small cargo capacity. Many reportedly sank in even a minor chop and of the original order of around 10,000 only about 5,000 were built during WW2. Most were relegated to crossing the placid streams of Europe and Russia, and personally having seen a couple, and even gone for a paddle in the Murray River at the annual Corowa Swim-In (see: http://corowaswim-in.org) in one, I could think of nothing further from Carlin's thoughts and ideas.
By late 1946 and now in the USA, Ben Carlin found and bought a Seep and started to modify it, adding a bow, a superstructure with an enclosed cabin and a belly tank for the estimated 500 gallons (2273 litres) of fuel required for the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
His first attempt in 1948, the Jeep now named, 'Half-Safe', came to grief just days out from New York and nearly 500km offshore. He and his wife, Elinore, and a drifting Half-Safe, were picked up by a oil tanker. They tried again the following Spring, this time from Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada, without a belly tank but towing two tanks made from war surplus wing tanks from an aircraft. The tanks broke free and Ben and his wife had to chug back to Halifax.
Designing and building a new tow-tank the intrepid two set off once more from Halifax on the 19th July 1950. This time they had 730 gallons of fuel, 30 gallons of water, 8 gallons of oil and food for six weeks. Setting watches through the day and night the two alternated driving the craft south and east towards the distant Azore Islands. The conditions were cramped and the cabin was swimming with exhaust and petrol fumes; no wonder Elinore was sea-sick for days on end.
Every three days fuel had to be transferred from the tow-tank to the little Jeep and its bow tank, which was always a tricky operation. Servicing and oil changes were also a common necessity, but on Day 11 the engine broke down and Ben was forced to remove the head, regrind the valves and put it back together again – all in pounding waves as Half-Safe drifted broadside on to the ever increasing seas. Still after a few more dramas, mechanical issues and stormy seas they arrived, after 32 days, at Flores, the most westernmost of the Azore Islands. They thought their biggest hurdle was over – it wasn't!
They wandered through the islands, resting and repairing Half-Safe and after two months and two false starts they set off for Africa, estimated to be an easy 9 to 10 days away. Ten days into the trip, with only a hand bilge pump working, they ran into a hurricane which pounded them and swept them off course, but somehow the little craft survived and on the 11th December they came into Funchal, the capital of the Madeira Islands and still some 600km or more from Africa.
On the next leg they lost their tow-tank and had to divert to the Canary Islands for fuel, but as Carlin reports in his book, 'This 295-mile run was a catwalk.' So was the remaining 75 miles to Africa, where they drove Half-Safe up the hard-packed sands of the small Spanish town of Cap Juby on the often fought over region of then, Spanish Morocco.
They left Cap Juby and headed north across what was then a trackless section of the Sahara. Five days later they arrived at the Spanish fort of Tantan where an earth road whisked them north at an unprecedented 10mph to the border and the French colony of Morocco.
On the 2nd April 1951 they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to arrive in Europe and a big dose of British bureaucracy.
Next Leg Asia
Over the next few years they worked, often apart, scraping together enough money to repair and modify Half-Safe for the next leg of the journey.
In April 1955, they crossed the English Channel and headed across Europe and in the middle of May crossed into Asia.
Heading across the Middle East, Persia, Pakistan and then India the couple were plagued by heat and humidity, border guards and police harassment, but apart from vapour locks stopping the engine on a regular basis, the little Jeep's engine – the standard 4-cylinder 2.2-litre petrol – kept chugging away and they attained speeds of up to 55mph – on flat bitumised roads!
In October 1955 they shipped both themselves and the Jeep from Calcutta to Perth and travelled across the Nullarbor to Melbourne and Canberra (the deadest city they had ever visited, by Ben's account) to Sydney and back again.
Elinore decided to leave Ben at this stage and while they were divorced some years later, they remained good friends all their lives. Ben went in search of a travelling companion and Barry Hanley, another Perth local, took up the challenge.
In February 1956, Ben's trip around the world recommenced in Calcutta and he immediately set sail down the river and across the Bay of Bengal to Rangoon, where Hanley joined Ben and Half-Safe.
For the next 9-months the two sweated and strained to get Half-Safe through some of the most demanding country it had tackled. In fact, the crossing of the mountains from Moulmein in Burma (now Myanmar) to Siam (now Thailand) was so tough that Carlin commented he would rather recross the Atlantic twice than tackle those mountains again.
Becoming bogged was a common occurrence in the swamps and jungles that they travelled through on their way north through Thailand and the relative new independent countries of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Bandits were a problem on land, while at sea or on the rivers they had pirates to contend with. Then in Saigon, Carlin's story of his repeated brush with a French prostitute displays the humour that punctuates both the books published on Half-Safe and makes them eminently readable.
Steaming across the South China Sea the engine valves again needed regrinding, which was done with a double dose of sea sickness tablets to help overcome the nausea of working head down in a petrol and oil filled engine compartment while bobbing around in a tropical sea in a hot and humid environment.
On the 5th May they arrived in Hong Kong and from there they sailed to Taiwan and onto Okinawa where the Jeep almost ran onto a jagged coral reef. On the evening of the 24th July 1956 they arrived in the southern Japanese port of Kagoshima.
As they drove and island hopped north, the little Jeep again needed major maintenance but in Japan at that time, sale of Jeep parts to a civilian were banned! But as is the ways of bureaucracy, swapping a gearbox was allowed ... and gratis!
In January 1957 Barry left Half-Case to live in Japan and Ben advertised for a companion for the last sea crossing. This time an American, Boye Lafayette De Mente, or 'Jingo', who wanted to escape from two Japanese girlfriends, filled the void.
On the 3rd May they left Tokyo for Wakkanai, the northern most port on the island of Hokkaido. By now the press were taking a keen interest and Carlin was kept busy guest speaking at many different venues. But the Jeep was feeling the pressure of its odyssey and if things broke down before, they became more common on this leg, burning more fuel than normal and the bilge requiring pumping every 20 minutes, just for starters.
Still on the 12th June they set sail from northern Japan, towing once more a large tank of fuel and headed towards the Aleutians Islands that stretch like a string of beads from Alaska and divide the north Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea.
Battling wind, huge seas and the intimidating cold of these northern latitudes the Jeep paddled onwards but again mechanical problems – a fuel pump repair, and yet another valve grind – stymied their progress with an average speed much of the time of just over one knot! At one stage forced to go overboard to cut a rope free from the prop, Carlin was dragged from the near freezing water almost unconscious. Still, they arrived at Dutch Harbour, a major outpost of civilisation on the island chain on the 8th August.
On the 2nd September 1957 Half-Case made its final landfall as it came ashore at Kenai, south of Anchorage in Alaska. It should have been the pinnacle of his great adventure and an uplifting occasion but in Ben Carlin's words he was flatter than 'the bottom of the Grand Canyon. With no more oceans to cross my life was ended.'
Dragged quickly from his depression, it was while in Anchorage he met another great Australian adventurer, Sir Hubert Wilkins (for a fabulous read, see, The Last Explorer - Hubert Wilkins: Australia's Unknown Hero, by Simon Nasht) and seemingly went from party to party.
Jingo flew home from Anchorage, not totally enamored with Carlin's manner or temperament being quoted as saying, "he was a foul-mouthed, inconsiderate SOB whose behaviour toward people was often outrageous ... and that the only time he was polite, kind and considerate of people was when he needed something from them." Boye later wrote a book of his adventures - see below.
Ben, in the meantime, managed to tear himself away from the parties and dinners and on the 12th October he headed out onto the Alcan Highway. This route south is still considered by many travellers to be an adventure route, especially so in those days when little of the 2000 odd kilometres were bitumised; to Ben it was a 'doddle' and hardly rates a mention in his book!
On the 7th December Ben and Half-Safe drove into Los Angeles and Ben spent the next four months trying to get somebody interested in his exploits and the film he had shot; he gave up on the 16th April 1958 and headed east.
On the 13th May 1958 he drove into Montreal where the trip had begun 10 years previously, 'to the roars of my own applause', as Ben recalled.
It was the end of an incredible adventure ... and one that has NEVER been repeated, although some have tried!
The Jeep on Show
Ben Carlin was born in Northam in 1912 and went to Guildford Grammar School.
The little amphibious Jeep, Half-Safe, clocked up around 250,000km on the original engine.
On its Around-the-World jaunt Half-Safe travelled about 17,500km by sea and 63,000km overland and through 38 countries. Another 20,000km were added running around towns and the like. Incredibly Half-Safe only had four punctures for all those hard kilometres.
After WW2 and his around-the-world adventures Ben spent some time in North America before returning to Australia. He died in Perth in 1981.
In 1984 Half-Safe was bought by Guildford Grammar School where it was restored and placed on show. It remains there today as a monument to one of the school's finer sons, his indomitable spirit, and as an inspiration to all the students that followed.
If you want to see Half-Safe, the school is more than willing to arrange a suitable time for a visit.
Ben Carlin's book, Half-Safe, published in 1955 and detailing the exploits up till his arrival in the UK is often available in second-hand form, via the internet.
In 1989 Guildford Grammar School published, The Other Half of Half-Safe, which details all of Ben's adventures from his published and unpublished manuscripts. This book is readily available from the school, ph: (08) 9377 9222 for details, or to visit.
Boye Lafayette De Mente, wrote an account of his trip with Ben called, Once a fool: From Tokyo to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep, which is still available at Amazon.com. Boye died in May 2017 after writing more than 100 books mainly on Japan and Asia.
The latest book on Ben Carlin's adventure has just been published. Written by Gordon Bass 'The Last Great Australian Adventurer' can be found online and in book stores.
All Black & White Pictures are Courtesy of the GUILDFORD GRAMMAR SCHOOL ARCHIVES'.
A Modern Try at Circumnavigating the World in a Car
Mait Nilson is a mechanical engineer living in Estonia and over a few years built the 'Amphibear', which is set on a Prado 120 turbo diesel and incorporates a fairly sophisticated set of alloy pontoons. These pontoons fold up above the roof for travelling during the land content of a trip and then fold down and out to become the floating and stabilization system for when the Prado takes to the water. Maximum speed on water is eight knots (15kph).
Mait and his team left Estonia in Nov 2013 and headed south to northern Italy and then drove around the coast to Gibraltar where the Prado had its first real swim as it paddled across the Straits.
Once on African soil it stuck to the coast driving south to Senegal and the mouth of the Senegal River where it was successfully launched into the Atlantic Ocean.
Over the next four days in idyllic conditions, it made its way to the small island nation of Cape Verde.
However, it struck major problems on its crossing to South America and had to be rescued. It has now been shipped back to Europe and while Mait or the Prado probably wont head off on another trip soon, it was one hell of an adventure while it lasted. You can read more at: www.amphibear.com.
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon