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Road/Sea Warrior

Global circumnavigation attracts obsessed people, none more so than Ben Carlin.

Would you want to accompany even a sane person in a claustrophobic half jeep/half boat designed to ford shallow streams on an around the world journey in the early 1950s?  If this suicide mission wasn’t bad enough, you would be cooped up with Carlin in a tiny cabin for parts of a decade. The carbon monoxide fumes are making the hyperactive Carlin delirious clouding his already questionable judgment. His increasing sense of paranoia is fueled by on shore binge drinking. He calls you a son-of-bitch at your every slightest perceived screw-up.

Those unlucky enough to accompany Carlin describe him as part monster, part maniac, but a master mechanic and navigator. His seafaring and car/boat fixing skills saved his life on numerous occasions, but it was his prickly personality that was as memorable as his land/sea navigational skills.

“I had learned in advance he was a foul mouthed, inconsiderate SOB whose behavior toward people was often outrageous and that the only time he was polite, kind and considerate toward people was when he needed something from them,”wrote Boye De Mente who accompanied Carlin across the Pacific in the mid-1950s and authored, “Once a Fool! From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep.” DeMente  authored over 100 books but none had a more compelling or combative main character than Carlin.

Carlin’s wife Elinore couldn’t’ take the non-stop obscenities and invective, abandoning ship after making it across the Atlantic through Hurricane Charlie. The marriage sunk soon thereafter. Several others couldn’t sail/motor through it either, but to Carlin’s credit, he persevered on -alone- after the press and the world lost interest in his odyssey.

To this day’s era of extreme sports and exploration, he remains the only person to have circumnavigated the globe by land and sea in the same vehicle. It took only a decade, costing Carlin his health – and just about everything else. But his reputation as a fearless adventurer, master mechanic and never-say-die pain-in-the-ass is forever logged in the travel archives.

A Bit of Titivation

Carlin was born to be the ultimate road warrior partially to escape his native Western Australia and the pain of losing his mother when he was four.  He never knew his father.  After studying mining engineering, he went to work in a Chinese coal mine for a British company in 1939.  When WW II broke out he enlisted in the Indian Army serving in its corps of engineers, seeing action in the Middle East and Italy, and rising to the rank of major. His life took a left turn in 1946 while walking through a naval yard when he spotted an amphibious jeep.

“With a bit of titivation, you could go around the world in those things,” he told his army mates. They howled at the suggestion knowing how unseaworthy the vehicles were.  Ford Motor Co. made nearly 13,000 of these modified GPA jeeps for the war effort, but ceased manufacture after the war. Carlin saw it as a challenge; a chance to prove the experts wrong and his vehicle to fame and fortune.

Carlin approached Ford asking to sponsor him on an around the world journey and got a quick no. The company had no confidence in its Frankensteinian vehicle. So he bought a 1942 model in a government auction for $900.  Carlin and his new wife Elinore, a Bostonian and a Red Cross nurse he romanced during the war, decided to spend their honeymoon traveling across the Atlantic in the contraption.

They dubbed it “Half-Safe” after a popular jingle by deodorant maker, ARRID, which inferred if you weren’t wearing their product you were not totally safe.  Inside the cabin of Half-Safe, the temperature was 170 degrees as they traveled through North Africa and no amount of Arrid would have kept Carlin from melting down.

Ice in his Veins 

No one has told Carlin’s story better than writer James Nestor whose 2012 Kindle e-book,  ”Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession and History’s Most Insane Around-the-world Adventure,” puts you in the cabin with Ben and Elinore, as well as De Mente. Nestor depicts both Carlin’s heroism and his self-destructive behavior, especially when it came to dealing with publishers. He disrespected them professionally and personally.  This eventually backfired when he couldn’t get his books published. His accusatory letters to his publisher sabotaged any chance of a future publishing deal when he called the publisher an “unbridled egotist with no taste.”

Carlin could be charming and a ham with the press. He once jumped off a dock into Half-Safe to satisfy photographers even though it damaged the vessel causing further delays. He understood the fine points of PR when his temper was under control, but deeper into the journey the carbon monoxide and booze took their toll and he offended nearly everyone he came in contact with.

Perhaps Carlin’s most courageous efforts came in the icy Pacific when he jumped overboard without a wet suit in 30 degree waters three times to untangle rope and fishing nets that wrapped around the propeller and fuel tanks.

Losing sensation in his extremities, Carlin’s fingernails got caught in the rope and he bit them off at the quick. His body was covered with red and blue splotches. A week later Japanese fishing nets entangled the propeller and he found himself caught in their salmon nets and being hauled aboard. His body was frozen and slick with fish blood. The fishermen revived him with sake and galley stove embers. After they slapped his naked body awake, Ben drank a liter of sake and he dove back in the water, finally freeing the propeller. By the time he got back aboard Half-Safe he shook as if electrocuted. Four hours later when he awoke he blamed De Mente for pissing in a can beside the driver’s seat that he had used hours before. Carlin was back to his irascible hot tempered self.

Honeymoon at Sea

Carlin’s biggest mistake was losing Elinore. She was a modifying influence and also softened his bravado that appealed to the press. The rigors of the road and sea took an immediate toll on her and she didn’t have the travel tolerance Carlin always had.  Nestor writes of the first year aboard Half-Safe in the Atlantic:

“Both were in their 30s but looked as though they had aged decades in just a few weeks. Elinore, famished and vomiting anchovies into a thin mug had gone from voluptuous to skeletal. Ben looked worse. His skin was pale, a delta of stress lines spread across his forehead. His eyes were baggy and bloodshot. His face covered with exhaust soot, engine grease and sweat.”

They had lost radio contact and for the next five days were in the eye and backside of Hurricane Charlie somewhere between the Azores and Madeira. Charlie would blow at 160 miles per hour and would eventually kill over 250 people in the Caribbean. For 67 sleepless hours the Carlins were hammered by 50 foot waves pushed by unmeasurable winds. Ben saw his reserve fuel tanks disappear into the night. They drifted for days until the storm abated and miraculously they were able to get an SOS read by the Portuguese Navy who had given up the Carlins for dead. They were saved when a Navy ship was dispatched. Seven months after setting off from Canada, Half-Safe made it across the Atlantic five months behind schedule.

Morocco’s roads in the 1950s weren’t exactly paved. Half-Safe dipped and disappeared into 50-foot sand dunes and without a spare wheel, Ben drove painfully slow. Shepherd, leading their flocks of sheep, overtook them. By the time they hit Casablanca going 2 miles an hour they were celebrities. Life Magazine’s second article on the journey had just hit and ticket sales to see the Jeep and meet the Carlins were in demand. But the publicity soon waned and Ben had put all its proceeds back into Half-Safe’s repairs. “Their feat seemed to inspire as much confusion as wonderment. They had made the journey, but why? What was the point?” Nestor ponders.

Journey to the Dark Side   

After five years they were just one fifth around the globe, their savings had dwindled to 50 pounds. Ben had published “Half-Safe Across the Atlantic by Jeep”, and it would go on to sell 32,000 copies in five languages, but it wasn’t enough to fund the upcoming journeys and take the pressure off the Carlin’s disintegrating marriage. Ben at 39 was having second thoughts about going on. His travel lust had been quenched and he now longed for “a permanent hat peg, a lawnmower, the pit-a-pat of footsies.”

Elinore convinced Ben to keep pushing, but it backfired. After relatively easy going through Europe, Ben’s miscalculation tackling the Middle East in summer led to cabin temperatures of 170 degrees. By the time they reached India, Ben had dengue fever and Elinore had lost 30 pounds. Her hair was falling out and she suffered from stomach infections.

By December 1955 Elinore bailed and Ben never saw her again. He tried to keep her from having any publishing rights to their Atlantic crossing.  He found new adventure seekers to accompany him but the stress of the journey led them to leave and badmouth Ben in articles and their own books. Plunging on undaunted, Ben was told he couldn’t get to Thailand through Burma.  Monsoons had destroyed the road that was studded with two foot high boulders. Somehow Ben got through. “All sense of comparison was gone; beyond hellish and super hellish one’s power of description breaks down,” Ben wrote of the Burmese roads.

Unhappy Ending

By land and sea Half-Safe finally got to Japan for the final leg across the Pacific. For nearly a year Ben stayed in Tokyo’s dive motels, drank nightly and slept with whores who he pushed on top of De Mente one night. In his diminished state he was desperate enough to plod on and the travel gods smiled on him as he got Half-Safe to Alaska. He motored to the lower 48 to complete the journey. At journey’s end in Montreal there were no bands or inquisitive press to greet him. He was all alone and instead of elation Ben was depressed. “With no more oceans to cross my life was ended, “he later wrote. De Mente said Carlin had become a slave to the jeep,”it had become his life.”

As he couldn’t make the compromises essential to making it in the 9 to 5 world, he never adjusted to a normal life.  Rejecting the idea of “learning to be polite to painful numbies and to either rhapsodize or lament over ever tiny thing,” Carlin was wired to live on the edge.

He married twice more and had a daughter he never met. In 1981 he died after a series of strokes, but left his trove of notes, photos and diaries to his grade school in Western Australia where Half-Safe remains on display. Ben Carlin died alone without any knowledge his daughter knew he was alive, although her letter to him arrived after he died.

A sad closing chapter for a man whose life should have been celebrated for crossing five continents and four oceans in a vehicle you and I would only step into in a museum.