“Crazy” is, without a doubt, one of the most complex words in the English language. While its meaning is somewhat consistent, I find that its use as a compliment or as a condemnation is often only determined by whether or not there is a smile on the face of the person that is calling you crazy. So it is possible to be crazy but in a good way, right?
More often than not, a person who is described as crazy has set themselves apart from society by abstaining from normal accepted behavior. Meet Frederick ‘Ben’ Carlin- born in Western Australia in 1912 and who, on more than one occasion, has established himself as one of the craziest adventurers to have ever left the paved roads behind. The fact that he chose to pursue his preposterous dreams in a crazy contraption based on a WWII Ford GPA “Seep” makes him more of a hero, in my opinion, than a loon but you can be the judge.
As an engineer in the Indian Army Corp of Engineers in World War II, Carlin observed an amphibious GPA vehicle while doing a routine inspection and commented to a fellow coworker that the vehicle would be a viable candidate to successfully circumnavigate the globe in. The intense laughter that erupted after his brash statement only reinforced his determination to prove that it could be done.
At the close of the Second World War, Carlin was able to acquire a surplus GPA for a measly $901 at auction and the process of adapting, modifying and equipping the chassis for such a monumental trek began. The body was extended by several feet to accommodate a larger fuel tank as well as an enclosed cabin scabbed on to the boat-like body. Much like Noah building the ark, Carlin was labelled as a buffoon- several sandwiches short of a picnic basket. Even his attempts to secure a sponsorship from Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer of the GPA, were met with skepticism and negativity. Ford seemed convinced that only a crazy person would take their amphibious vehicle into such treacherous waters.
Actually, only two crazy people would. Carlin enlisted the help of his wife Elinore to accompany him on his ill-advised adventure. By the spring of 1948, the couple was seemingly ready to set sail in a vehicle that, by all appearances, was not fit to float, much less sail, across the ocean. It was aptly given the name Half Safe – a tongue-in-cheek reference taken from a deodorant advertisement that joked about the risks involved with wearing a lesser brand of under-arm protection. Somehow treading water in the middle of the shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean seemed as comical a notion to Ben Carlin.
As with most innovators and pioneers, success was not found on the first attempt nor, for that matter, the second or third one. A handful of attempts in 1948 were plagued by mechanical failures of near-catastrophic proportions, including an exhaust system breakdown that had the confined cabin of the Half Safe vessel filling with lethal carbon monoxide gases, causing the trip to be quickly aborted and the boat returned to shore for repairs; each failure bringing more delays and exhausting more funds.
Finally, on July 19th of 1950, Carlin and his trusting bride set out from Halifax, Nova Scotia with enough food, fuel and provisions on board to tide them over for a little over 30 days. While the Fords fuel tank had been modified to increase the capacity to 200 gallons, Carlin had to transport extra containers of fuel ; keeping them secured to a towline that was being drug behind the vehicle while at sea. Any time a refueling was needed, the anchor was dropped to interrupt forward progress and the floating reserve tanks would be reeled up next to the boat so that fuel could be siphoned into the primary tanks. This process proved to be challenging, exhausting and dangerous as the likelihood of the heavy tanks battering the thin metal hull of the vessel threatened to bring the entire trip to a sinking, gurgling halt. Nonetheless, Carlin persevered and eventually arrived at the choppy shores of the Azores Islands. From there, the trip carried them northward on wheels into Europe, where cabin temperatures often climbed above 150 degrees without the coolness of the seas waters to tame the heat. This forced the duo to perform most of their driving at night when conditions were considerably less harsh.
Well into the second half of the journey, Elinore became convinced that this expedition might indeed be her last; overcome with exhaustion, sea sickness and oddly rational thoughts, she chose to abandon the mission as well as her husband while in Carlin’s homeland of Australia, while the pair was on a fund-raising tour in 1956.
Ben Carlin pressed onward, accompanied by anyone who could be convinced that this was a sane scheme. At first, a fellow Australian joined him for a period of 5 months before he was replaced by an American writer who worked for a Japanese newspaper. The journalist stayed with Carlin from early 1957 until Half Safe rolled into Anchorage, Alaska in late 1957. The writer profiled many of his Half Safe experiences in a book entitled, “Once a Fool: From Tokyo to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep”. If doing this for 6 months makes you a fool, what might 8 years make you? Certainly too tired to write a book with such a catchy title.
In all, Carlin’s incredible journey took a total of 7 years and 10 months to complete, arriving in Montreal in May 1958, unbelievably having covered 38,987 miles over land and another 11,000 at sea. While Carlin had dreamed that this impossible venture crossing 38 countries would bring him untold riches and unrivaled popularity, the truth is that his accomplishment did more to ruin him both financially and romantically than it did to improve his position. The fact that his tale is rarely even told only adds to the misfortune. Fortunately, the Half Safe was acquired by Carlin’s childhood grammar school where it is displayed proudly for anyone who can forego their perceptions of what is truly attainable long enough to believe what you can do when you set your mind to it. To this day, no one else has managed to circumnavigate the world in one single vehicle. I can’t imagine anyone even trying…you’d have to be crazy. OlllllllO