'Half safe' amphibious jeep - Blackbourn 439

By: Rob Blackbourn

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amphibious jeep 2 amphibious jeep 2

Two people crammed into an amphibious Jeep at sea for weeks on end – what could possibly go wrong?

In these troubled times let’s see what can be learned from one couple’s approach to self-isolation. We’ll consider the efforts of Ben Carlin originally from Perth and his Boston-born partner Elinore Arone.

They won a permanent place on my ‘Remarkable People’ list when I read their story in a secondhand book I picked up at a jumble-sale years ago. Written by Carlin, it was called Half-Safe – Across the Atlantic by Jeep.

Carlin, an Aussie mining engineer before his military service in India in WWII, picked up an amphibious Jeep (a Ford GPA) at a disposals sale in the US after the war with the intention of circumnavigating the globe in it (Yes, you read that correctly…). Inspired by a line from a catchy deodorant advertisement ("Don’t be half safe. Use Arrid to be sure."), he named his little craft Half-Safe.

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Carlin clearly lacked the doubts and fears that hold most of us back from taking a giant leap. He just jumped in and got on with it, modifying the little Jeep extensively including constructing a closed cabin over its open hull using marine ply and Perspex. Then he fabricated a bunch of auxiliary petrol tanks to provide sufficient fuel for the first leg of the journey – the Atlantic crossing. Finally after a number of set-backs and false starts Carlin had Half-Safe fit for purpose and ready to launch at Halifax, Nova Scotia in July 1950.

Seated beside him as Half-Safe entered the harbour was his fellow self-isolationist and wife, Elinore, an American nurse. Chugging into waters that had claimed the Titanic the plucky pair pointed Half-Safe east and settled in for a challenging journey.

Regarding the apparent lunacy of this undertaking, a quote in Carlin’s book, from HG Wells The first man in the moon gives some insight into his attitude. It includes: "…man is not made to simply go about being safe and comfortable and well fed and amused." Not much of any of that was happening during the 32 days it took for Half-Safe to complete the crossing from Canada to the Portugese Azores archipelago in the north Atlantic.

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During those days and weeks a blocked fuel line and Elinore’s constant seasickness were probably the lesser issues (along with meals becoming a lucky dip after the labels washed off their stocks of tinned foods). While occasional spark-plug changes were challenging with limited access to the engine, a new problem raised the stakes mid-Atlantic. Running at constant rpm and temperature on leaded fuel caused a lead-residue build-up on valves and seats to the point that the engine was losing power because the valves were not seating. So, it was off with its head! – for a full de-coke! And he managed it lying on his belly over the dash as Half-Safe pitched and rolled. And if he didn’t do it perfectly first time, he got two more chances to polish his technique before they reached the Azores.

With the Atlantic crossing completed at Cap Juby, Morocco, our intrepid travellers then journeyed mainly on terra firma into Europe, ultimately taking a two-year break in Birmingham, UK, where Carlin thoroughly re-coed the travel-weary little Jeep. The drama and challenges to this point were a mere sample of what lay ahead as Half-Safe ultimately chugged on resolutely through Europe to Asia, then Australia, South-East Asia, Hong Kong, Japan and Alaska, before finally completing the global lap in Canada in 1958 – as Carlin recalled: "…to the roars of my own applause."

As a lesson in self-isolation for couples, this turned out to be a cautionary tale. While the relationship survived the 32-day self-isolation of the Atlantic crossing, some five further years into the trip, in Australia, Elinore packed it in and headed home to the USA. Was it something he said, I wonder?

 

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