top of page

Great Drives 02 - Half Safe, the Ben Carlin Story

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

So, you think you're adventurous? Unless your idea of a honeymoon is crossing the Atlantic in an amphibious truck, you're not even on the same page as this guy.

I keep trying to imagine the conversation, attempting to picture the facial expressions as the successful marriage proposal drifted to history, to be replaced with talk of the honeymoon...

'So what have you been dreaming of for our honeymoon, my soon-to-be wife?'

'Oh, the vineyards of California are just delightful in the summer! Let's...'

'I don't know. I kinda had something else in mind.'

'Oh really? How romantic! What might it be?

'Well, you know those little old amphibious Ford jeeps that were two-a-penny in the war? Well I thought we'd pack our bags, drive one into the Atlantic Ocean near New York, and keep heading east through some of the roughest sea swells on the planet, until we get to Africa...'

'Oh. Erm...right.'

However the conversation went, the die was cast, and this actually happened. From first encountering the Ford GPA while serving in India during the Second World War, Australian Ben Carlin had nurtured the dream of driving around the world in one - wheels for land, hull for ocean. And following his marriage to Elinore, he set about making his preposterous dream a reality.

Ford GPA Amphibious Truck Ben Carlin amphibious car
Unmodified Ford GPA amphibious truck - a distant relative of the WW2 Jeep - copyright Wikipedia.

The couple were't completely harebrained in their preparations, however. Modifications were made. Modifications which would have the A-Team blushing at their cumulative lack of vision. Improvements in seaworthiness, accommodation and weatherproofing were carried out. The fuel capacity was increased 11-fold. Radios and instrumentation were installed. And within a fortnight of getting hitched in June 1948, the indefatigable couple were driving their Ford - now christened 'Half-Safe' - down a slipway into the Atlantic Ocean.

You're probably now expecting to hear about how they sailed clean across the Atlantic without so much as breaking a sweat, before I end the article with some well-worn moral referring to how 'fortune favours the brave.'

Well, that's not quite what happened.

During testing, they experienced problems with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Their first attempt initially saw them being washed back up a river, unable to make headway, before finally getting out to sea. Where they promptly lost radio contact and bobbed about for five days before being washed back ashore 40 miles down the coast.

Their second attempt lasted two days before they returned to shore, nearly asphyxiated by exhaust fumes.

Attempt number three saw the Carlins beaten by seasickness and mechanical problems. But still they kept trying.

Their fourth attempt was in early August and saw them set a new record, making it 270 miles from the coast before they were rescued, having spent 10 days drifting aimlessly, thanks to a faulty propeller.

Four failures in two months called for a break, and another year passed before attempt number five took place. Which promptly ended 35 miles offshore, with the loss of two of the fuel tanks, and a major rethink called for.

Six months of frenzied activity had Half-Safe ready for its sixth attempt. And six must have been the couple's lucky number, because on attempt number six, their stars aligned, with a 32 day voyage seeing them sail from Halifax, Canada, to The Azores, with only a couple of head gasket failures and a dodgy radio providing the drama. I imagine they were almost disappointed with such a straightforward passage...

From the Azores, the happy couple carried on to Morocco, then drove their unlikely contraption up to Europe, where they decided to settle for a while in Birmingham, England, of all places. After three years of rest, recuperation, repairs and writing, they set off again, casually driving their boat-jeep overland from England to Calcutta, India, from where they popped down to Australasia for further fundraising.

After Ben returned to Calcutta with Half-Safe, a swift voyage across the Bay of Bengal was undertaken, before wheels rolled east once again, across the muddy jungles of Burma and Siam to the coast of Indochina, where Half-Safe once again wetted its hull by sailing up the Chinese Coast to Hong Kong, then on to Taiwan, then Japan.

One final, epic sea crossing saw the modified Jeep reach the Aleutian Islands, then bob onward to Anchorage, where it regained the US road network and was able to continue on to complete its circumnavigation of the globe.

Carlin's ten-year journey ended on the 10th May 1958, having covered 11,050 miles by sea and 38,987 miles on land. It's a feat which has never been repeated. And it's a feat which gives new meaning to the phrase, 'never give up'.

Ben Carlin, Half Safe.
Ben Carlin - Copyright Wikipedia.

Ben Carlin. What an absolutely single-minded legend.

Photos copyright Wikipedia. For more info on Ben and the trip, see the very detailed article on said website, by clicking here.



bottom of page