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A story of love, obsession, and history’s most insane around-the-world adventure.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 20


James Nestor has written for OutsideDwellMen’s JournalNational Public RadioThe San Francisco ChronicleThe New York TimesSan Francisco Magazine, and more. He is currently working on a narrative nonfiction science and adventure book tentatively titled Deep: A Sea Odyssey.

Editor: Charles Homans

Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran

Research and Production: Nadia Wilson

Cover Illustration: Chris Gall

Photos: Courtesy of Guildford Grammar School Archives

Video and Music: From “Its A Small World,” El-Von Productions, Courtesy Guildford Grammar School Archives

Special Thanks: Alex Heard, for invaluable editing assistance; Rosemary Waller, Guildford Grammar School; and Deirdre Carlin, without whom this story could not have been told.

Fact-Checker: Thomas Stackpole

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Published in November 2012. Design updated in 2021.

One

The Atlantic Ocean

December 1950
December 1950

They had spent 14 days in darkness.

Late on the morning of the 15th day, December 2, 1950, light finally peeked through a crack in the curtain that hung over the passenger-side window. Ben lifted the curtain and looked outside. The sky was blue, and the sun, as big as a dinner plate, shone brightly. The storm clouds had retreated to the horizon. Ben took a dirty tissue from his shirt pocket, swabbed his eyes, and lifted himself from behind the steering wheel.

It had been four full months since Ben and his wife, Elinore, steered the tiny amphibious jeep they called Half-Safe into the frigid waters of Halifax Harbor and headed east toward Africa. It was the first time anyone had tried to circumnavigate the world by land and sea in a single vehicle, let alone one that was eight times smaller than any motorized boat that had ever crossed the Atlantic. It was a harebrained scheme, and the Carlins knew it. That was the point.

Adventure for its own sake had first attracted Ben, an engineer from rural Western Australia, to Elinore, an American Red Cross nurse, when the two met in India at the end of World War II. And there could be no more outlandish adventure than an attempt to “drive” across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans—and actually drive across the continents in between—in an automobile. Especially this automobile—a converted 1942 GPW (General Purpose Willys) amphibious jeep built by Ford for the U.S. Army. It looked like a cross between a 4×4 and a rowboat, with a stubby pointed front, a square rear end, and a five-by-ten steel box on top. It was half car, half boat, and entirely ridiculous. The GPW amphibious jeeps were designed to putter through shallow streams for a few minutes at a time and usually failed even at that; they had proved so useless in the field that the Army canceled production. They were never intended to be used on the ocean.

Helpless and lost in the middle of 41 million square miles of open water, Ben and Elinore realized that their comic little adventure was quickly becoming a suicide mission. Both were in their thirties but looked as though they had aged decades in just a few weeks. Elinore, famished and vomiting anchovies into a tin mug, had gone from voluptuous to skeletal. Ben looked worse. His skin was pale, a delta of stress lines spread across his forehead, and his eyes were baggy and bloodshot. His face was caked with exhaust soot, engine grease, and sweat.

But now, weeks into their Atlantic crossing, the Carlins had no choice but to suck it up and keep following the compass east, toward the coast of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara, toward solid ground and safety.

Ben squinted out Half-Safe’s back hatch and looked at the deck. The jeep was sitting dangerously low in the water. Waves washed over the windshield and side windows, threatening to swamp the cabin. The cloth sea anchor, designed to drag in the water to stabilize the vehicle, floated behind Half-Safe in tatters, shredded by the storm.

At least the fuel supply—a 10-foot-long floating steel container carrying 280 gallons of gasoline—was intact. As long as the weather stayed calm, Ben figured they had just enough gas to make it to Madeira, a speck of an island 400 miles off the coast of Africa. The only information Ben could get from the radio was that the worst of the storm was still ahead. But the antenna was broken, and he had trouble making voice contact with the world beyond the jeep’s cabin.

Ben returned to the driver’s seat, grabbed his sextant, and hoisted himself onto the roof. He paused to gulp the fresh air, a respite from the funk of mold, sweat, exhaust, and human sewage in the cabin below. He noted the angle of the sun on the horizon and checked his watch.

Above him something caught his eye. A whirlpool of wispy clouds, in the shape of a miniature hurricane, floated calmly above Half-Safe. Ben watched as they passed over him, then floated off. He crawled back into the jeep and steered east. The next half-hour was calm.

Then the rain came, followed by wind and waves. By afternoon, the swells had risen to 30, 40, even 50 feet. There was nothing miniature about the storm, Ben realized. This was a full-on hurricane—and the Carlins were in the middle of it.

The ocean looked as if it were smoldering. The jeep was flung up over the crests of the waves and down the other side so violently that Ben and Elinore were shot from their seats into midair. The fuel tank broke loose; Ben watched as it bobbed in the spindrift and then disappeared into the darkness. He had no other option but to gun the engine and try to run before the storm.

By evening the swells had gotten bigger. It was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed and the cabin flooded. Ben turned to Elinore and made her scream the escape procedure in his ear.

“You shout, ‘Out,’” she yelled, her voice straining above the rain and waves beating on the steel walls of the cabin. “I get out and wait. You follow and grab the gear. I follow you. Keep in contact!”

Ben steadied himself in the driver’s seat, lit a cigarette, and gripped the steering wheel. Too weak to move, too nervous to speak, Elinore sat silently on the back cot. They felt the sea below their feet inflate like a giant lung. They sat and waited and braced themselves for the next hit.

Around 3 a.m. the following day, the motor sputtered, then stopped. Gas vapor entered the engine compartment. Ben watched as an explosion of orange and red flame appeared through the windshield. He was sure it had blown a hole in the side of the jeep. That meant the next wave that hit would swamp the cabin and drown them. “This is it—out!” he shouted to Elinore.

Another wave hit, knocking Ben to the floor. He stumbled through the rear hatch. The jeep was somehow still afloat; there was no hole. He stood there on the roof, blasted by the wind and rain, dumbfounded. Had the days of sleeplessness finally caught up with him? Was he hallucinating? Elinore stuck her head through the hatch, but Ben shoved her back into the cabin. He returned to the driver’s seat and turned the engine over. It started. He drove blind for the next 24 hours.

The storm worsened. At first the big swells exploded against the jeep every half-hour. Soon they came every 15 minutes. Then every five. Ben turned on the radio above Elinore’s cot and tapped out a message in Morse code: XXX. It meant Important, please listen. The antenna was broken, he knew, but maybe by some miracle the signal would get through. He typed it again. And again.

Another wave hit, then another. Ben pulled the lighter from his shirt pocket and lit another cigarette. Elinore watched the cherry dance in the darkness, wondering which of the waves detonating against Half-Safe’s windshield would be the one to finally burst in. Through the passenger-side curtain, they watched the sky darken. They felt the ocean below them lift the jeep stories high, then launch it into the air. Ben tumbled, his cigarette arcing across the dashboard like a rescue flare shot into a moonless night. The window went black. Half-Safe climbed another wave.

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Ben and Elinore Carlin inside Half-Safe, 1950. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Two

Perth

November 2011
November 2011

A patchwork of sun-bleached stucco walls, wandering roads, and corrugated-steel roofs flashed past the passenger-car windows along the TransPerth rail line. Soon the train came to a stop and the conductor called out East Guildford Station. I grabbed my bag and followed a group of boys in navy jackets, shorts, and red ties across the pedestrian overpass that led to the back gate of Guildford Grammar School. Behind a white picket fence stood a small brick cottage that housed the school’s archives.

The archive librarian, Rosemary Waller, welcomed me in. Along the back wall of the main reading room were shelves overflowing with antique books, bottles of wine, and a few framed photographs. A hat rack held old pith helmets, cricket jerseys, and army hats festooned with medals. The opposite wall was covered with century-old newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and photos. One clipping caught my eye. It showed a black-and-white photograph of Ben and Elinore’s amphibious jeep.

“Could you imagine living in that thing?” Waller said. “It must have been just horrible.” She directed me to a wooden desk piled with four stacks of photo albums, manila folders, and white envelopes. Numbering perhaps a thousand pages in all, these were the complete surviving records of Ben Carlin, who died in 1981. Carlin had kept careful notes and scrapbook materials about his circumnavigation attempt, convinced it would make him famous and wealthy. But outside of Guildford, Ben, Elinore, and their jeep were mostly forgotten. Few people had ever seen the photographs, letters, and clippings collected here. There was a stack of sealed envelopes at the edge of the pile that looked untouched.

I had first heard about Carlin and Half-Safe about a decade ago, after my own, less extraordinary misadventure at sea. I was sailing the Golden Gate, the strait spanned by the famous bridge, outside San Francisco with an old friend named Steve, a novice sailor who had just bought a 36-foot boat. We were barely out of the harbor before it became obvious that neither of us knew what we were doing. We had trouble tacking, steering, basically moving. Then the motor broke. Then raw sewage started gurgling up from the toilet belowdecks. “You don’t have to use it, do you?” Steve asked. (I did, but I didn’t say anything.) Then the backup engine went out. Soon we were drifting slowly west, toward the open ocean.

It was my first real taste of being adrift at sea, lost. For six hours, Steve and I felt alternately terrified and oddly bored. By nightfall, Steve had given up and called emergency rescue. As we waited to be towed back into the harbor, he told me about a story he had heard from an Australian traveler he met backpacking in Southeast Asia. It was about a guy named Ben Carlin who spent years in this kind of predicament—years stuck in the five-by-ten cabin of a tricked-out military jeep that was somehow also a boat, trying to make it around the world.

When I got home, I went online and read what I could. The Ben Carlin story seemed too ridiculous to be true—but if it was true, it was the most bizarre adventure tale I’d ever heard. Either way, I had to find out more. There wasn’t much to find, however: a one-line mention on a GeoCities page, a picture of the jeep on a site maintained by Army-vehicle enthusiasts. There was a photo of Carlin on the Guildford website. Undated, it showed him with a smug smile on his face and a cigarette in his mouth, leaning against Half-Safe’s prow, Elinore grinning at his side.

I soon discovered that Carlin had written a book, published in 1955, titled Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, but it had long since gone out of print. The publisher canceled plans for a sequel, but Carlin wrote a manuscript for it anyway, and he later bequeathed it to Guildford along with his life savings and all the records from his expedition. In 1989, Guildford published the book under the title The Other Half of Half-Safe but never bothered to sell it except at the school.

When the copy I requested arrived two months later, I found it almost unreadable: Carlin’s rambling technical descriptions went on for pages, his jokes were odd and forced, and his descriptions of himself were a laborious mash of muscle, misanthropy, and one-upmanship.

And yet, what Carlin had accomplished was undeniably extraordinary. Although his trip lacked the easy shorthand of Amelia Earhart’s attempted around-the-world flight or Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic survival saga, the Half-Safe voyage was in its own way a more remarkable feat: Carlin had pushed a rejected hunk of military surplus where no machine had ever gone before or would go again. Why had history ignored him? What happened to him?

All that seemed to be left of Carlin’s adventure was a few pictures, a few stories, and perhaps whatever remained of the thousand-odd empty soup cans he had tossed out the driver’s side window of the jeep, on the floors of three oceans and beneath the sand of half a dozen deserts. The more I thought about it, the more I had to know the answer. Which is why I had traveled 9,000 miles from San Francisco to Perth. If there were answers to my questions, they had to be in the Guildford archives. I wiped the dust from the photo album on top of the stack and turned the first page.


Even today, Perth is an isolated place. The nearest major city, Adelaide, is more than 1,600 miles to the southeast, making Perth one of the most remote metropolitan areas on earth. In the early 1900s, it had a population of 276,000, about a sixth of what it is today, much of it dispersed across 100 miles of surrounding desert. Ben was born near there in 1912, 60 miles northeast of the city, in a small town called Northam.

Nothing is known about Ben’s father; his mother died when he was 4, and her absence haunted him his entire life. From age 10 through 17, Ben attended Guildford. He went on to the University of Western Australia and the Kalgoorlie School of Mines, where he trained as a mining engineer. He spent much of his twenties eking out a living in the dust and dirt of Kalgoorlie, a tiny mining outpost some 300 miles east of Perth. Photographs from Kalgoorlie at the time show a desolate landscape of dry shrubs and gaunt men living in white tents.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Ben moved to China and took a job as a mining engineer for a British coal company operating in Beijing. A year later, he managed to enlist in the Indian army—then under British command—and served in the Middle East and Italy as a field engineer before being sent to India, where he was stationed at the Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal. It was there that Ben’s quest began.

One day in March 1946, Ben and his friend Mac Bunting, a squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force, were sweating off hangovers in a former U.S. Army Air Forces surplus yard at the base when a small vehicle caught Ben’s eye. It was a 1942 GPW Model Ford that had been converted so that its body looked like a boat hull: an amphibious jeep. Neither Ben nor Mac had seen anything like it.

At the start of the war, the Army had ordered the Ford Motor Company to build jeeps capable of negotiating short expanses of water—streams, lakes, and small bays. Ford engineers worked quickly, using parts from existing vehicles and improvising the rest. The result was one of the strangest-looking automobiles ever built.

It was a quarter-ton jeep, water sealed and wrapped in a thin sheet of metal for buoyancy. At the rear was a second driveshaft attached to a marine propeller and a nailed-on rudder that hung off the back bumper. It looked like a smaller and much sketchier version of the amphibious duck boats used by the Army and, in later years, by novelty-tour operators.

On land, the GPW amphibian worked fine, more or less like a regular jeep, but its performance in water was abysmal. It ran aground easily, was almost impossible to maneuver, and averaged a laughable 2.5 miles per hour at four miles per gallon. Within a year of production, the Army cancelled the line. By war’s end, only a fraction of the 12,978 GPW amphibians remained in service.

None of this deterred Ben. “You know, Mac,” he said. “With a bit of titivation you could go around the world in one of these things.”

Mac scoffed, but Ben persisted. “The more I thought about the idea—and within a few days I was thinking of little else—the more I liked it,” he later wrote. “Quite reasonably possible, it would be difficult enough to be interesting, a nice exercise in technology, masochism, and chance—a form of sport—and it might earn me a few bob.”

Ben thought he could complete the trip in a year, seeing the adventure as “a last flutter before the inevitable relapse into domesticity.” In 1947, when the army finally cut him loose, he went to the United States. He had to find a jeep, and he figured his best chances would be in a U.S.–based Army surplus yard.

During a layover in Hong Kong, Ben dropped in on a friend, Elinore Arone. They had met several months earlier in India, where Elinore, like Ben, had gone in search of a more interesting life. A 27-year-old brunette from Watertown, Massachusetts, she had been working as a bank teller in her hometown when the war broke out, and she joined the American Red Cross. She and Ben had had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship in India, and he was eager to see her.

Ben was more reluctant to explain why he was heading to America. Given Elinore’s appetite for adventure, it was likely she would jump at something as absurd as the amphibious jeep journey, and Ben was convinced that the trip “was no job for a woman.” But during the layover, he couldn’t resist telling her his plans, and Elinore insisted on joining. Ben relented, and the two agreed to meet on the East Coast.

On January 30, 1947, Ben handed $901 to the clerk at the Army surplus auction yard in Aberdeen, Maryland, and the next day drove his 1942 GPW amphibious jeep right off the lot. It was dented, dilapidated, and barely running, and it took Ben more than two days to make it 70 miles north to the Annapolis Yacht Yard, where he’d rented a slip. By the time he pulled in, the jeep was stalling from clogged fuel lines, the gas tank had fallen out, and the exhaust pipe was coughing noxious smoke. This was the craft Ben hoped would take him and Elinore around the world.

Three

Annapolis

October 1947
October 1947

Ben spent nearly a year retooling the jeep, reinforcing the superstructure, replacing glass with plexiglass, installing a new hull to carry extra fuel, and coating the metal with neoprene, a synthetic rubber developed by DuPont that would later be used in everything from wetsuits to fan belts.

He also built a proper cabin, which made the jeep look like a miniature houseboat on wheels. The interior was a claustrophobic five by ten feet, with the jeep’s driver and passenger seats placed side-by-side in the front and a small cot wedged a few feet behind in the back. Above the cot were a pair of radios and a hatch, the only means of climbing in and out of the vehicle.

By October 1947, in spite of all Ben’s work, the jeep really wasn’t seaworthy—for one thing, he could hardly steer it. But time was running out, and Ben was down to his last $300. Elinore, who had arrived from China five months earlier, was working odd jobs and living with her parents in Boston to save money. Ben decided it was time for a test run from Annapolis to New York City.

A few days before Halloween, Ben climbed into the jeep, started the engine, and set out northeast across Chesapeake Bay. His plan was to drive up to the top of the bay, head east overland until he reached Delaware Bay, follow the bay southeast to the Atlantic, and then travel up the New Jersey coastline to New York. By the third day, Ben was about 50 miles into Delaware Bay when he was stopped cold by howling winds. He spent two nights and a day bouncing against the steel walls of the cabin, trying to keep the jeep from crashing into the rocks. So far, the vehicle was barely managing two miles per hour on the water. At that rate, it would be faster for him to walk to New York.

The morning of the fourth day, the winds died down just enough to proceed. As Ben drove out across the bay, he saw that he was aimed straight at an outcropping of rocks. He tried to steer right, toward open water, but the wheel wouldn’t move. His hands wouldn’t move, either—in fact, he couldn’t even feel them. Soon his arms, feet, and face were numb. Blinding white flashes appeared in front of his eyes. He felt nauseous, as if he was about to pass out.

Ben had felt this way before, 10 years earlier while working in the mine in China. Carbon monoxide was filling the cabin. It was killing him. He dragged himself out the rear hatch and threw himself onto the roof. He flopped onto his back, gasping for air. The jeep rumbled on beneath him; the steering wheel was pinned starboard, and the craft was making sweeping circles around the bay. Ben watched helplessly as each circuit took him closer and closer to the rocks.

Then, with a crash, the jeep jolted to a stop. Ben looked over and saw that he was rammed into a metal piling. The jeep’s hull was punctured, but the engine hadn’t stopped. Still paralyzed, he lay there wondering how big the hole was. If it was too large, the vehicle would sink before he could regain control of his limbs. If it was small, he might survive. He watched, helpless, and waited.

After half an hour, Ben felt tingling in his fingers and toes, then in his hands, feet, and limbs. He sat up, took a deep breath, shook his head clear, and hurried into the cabin to kill the engine. He looked over the side. A bolt from the piling had ripped a foot-long hole just below the waterline on the port side of the jeep’s main gas tank. If the bolt had hit just 18 inches away from where it did, it would have torn open the hull and sent the jeep to the bottom.

Between fits of vomiting—a side effect of carbon monoxide poisoning—Ben held his head in his hands. If he couldn’t make it 300 miles along a sheltered coast, how could he possibly make it across 3,000 miles of open ocean? How could he make it around the world?


The next month, he drove over land to New York. That winter, Ben lived alone in near poverty in a fleabag hotel in Manhattan, while Elinore took a temporary job in Mexico. Broke and without prospects for employment, Ben hounded the British Consul for back pay that he said the Indian army owed him. He had a glass of milk and a buttered roll for breakfast and skipped lunch. Dinner was canned spaghetti warmed in the bedroom washbasin and eaten with two toothbrush handles. He lived this way for four months.

In mid-April, a payment of $1,800 finally arrived from the Indian army, and Ben began prepping the jeep for a trans-Atlantic crossing. When Elinore returned to New York in May, she and Ben made their years-long affair official, marrying at City Hall over lunch. It was a formality that the press agent they’d hired to promote their forthcoming journey had suggested. In the late 1940s, a pair of adventurous newlyweds setting out on a honeymoon across the Atlantic in a jeep would be an easy story to sell.

There were many false starts in the years that followed. During their fourth launch attempt, in August 1948, the Carlins managed to make it roughly 300 miles out to sea from New York before a shaft bearing came loose and the engine died. Ben tried to jury-rig a quick fix while dangling upside down in the ocean. Nothing worked. As the jeep drifted helplessly in the Atlantic, Ben passed the time by stuffing notes inside empty beer bottles that read, “No beer!”

A week and a half later, they were rescued by an oil tanker headed to Montreal. They arrived three days later. Back on land, Ben prepared the jeep for the road while Elinore went out drinking with the ship’s crew. Soon they were on the road heading east to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ben was determined to give the Atlantic crossing another go that summer, but renovating the jeep was taking too long—winter storms were fast approaching. The Carlins had no choice but to delay another year. Elinore went back to New York while Ben took a job in a machine shop.

In his spare time, and using all of his spare money, Ben took the jeep apart again. He also gave it a name: Half-Safe, taken from a popular radio commercial for Arrid deodorant. Don’t be half-safe—use Arrid to be sure. One year became two, and then, in June 1950, Elinore returned. Ben quit his job. It was time to give their harebrained scheme one last try.

Four

Halifax

July 1950
July 1950

Ben pushed the hair out of his eyes with a greasy hand and climbed from the dock in Halifax Harbor onto the back of the jeep for a final look-over. Everything was ready. Even the weather had improved in the past 12 hours—a large high-pressure system was approaching from the west. Ben reckoned that if he and Elinore left immediately, they could ride into the Gulf Stream and make passage across 1,800 miles of the Atlantic to the Azores, a sparsely populated chain of islands 1,000 miles west of the Portuguese coast, in less than three weeks.

The final step before leaving was to clear customs. Waiting on the dock above the jeep were two corporals from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Because the jeep was amphibious, it existed in a legal gray area. There were no laws permitting such a craft to set out across Canadian waters—but then, there were no laws prohibiting it, either. The Mounties filled out the customs forms as best they could.

A small group of onlookers and friends cheered as Half-Safe motored out to sea. Among them was Richard Battey, an old friend and one of the few dedicated backers of Ben’s quest. Richard had loaned $1,200 for the jeep’s renovations, which Ben promised to repay once he and Elinore made it England. By that point, Ben and Elinore figured, they would be rich and famous. It seemed inevitable—their quest had already attracted the attention of the editors of Life magazine and Hollywood producers. They just needed to drive across 3,000 miles of ocean first.

As Ben pulled away from the dock, Elinore sat on the back cot and lit a cigarette, looking out the open rear hatch across the water. Behind her, Half-Safe was towing a tank filled with 280 gallons of fuel. Onboard, they carried 30 gallons of water, eight gallons of oil, and enough food for six weeks. A few feet in front of Elinore, Ben sat hunched behind the steering wheel, watching the spherical compass bobbing on the dashboard.

Half-Safe’s windshield and side windows were covered with black canvas to keep out seawater and rain. The canvas also blocked out most natural light. Inside, day was hardly distinguishable from night; Ben and Elinore lived a shadowy twilight of flickering electric bulbs and the occasional phosphorous flame of a struck match.

For Ben,  looking at a window at an unending ocean would have done little good anyway—there were no landmarks to follow. Every few days, when the weather permitted, he would confirm his position with a sextant reading. On overcast days, he had no choice but to drive on blind faith.

Half-Safe was a rough ride. When the engine was running—which was most of the time—the cabin rattled with teeth-chattering violence. The air was spiked with the noxious perfume of exhaust, gasoline, and, occasionally, raw sewage from the marine commode located beneath a cushion on the passenger seat. This was where Ben and Elinore had to relieve themselves, in plain sight of one another, two feet from the driver’s seat. Ben had installed electric fans on each side of the dashboard to combat the smell, but they mostly just distributed it around the cabin.

Then there was the endless back-and-forth roll over the ocean’s swells, the tiny jeep frame bouncing over waves and slamming through wind slop. Through the cracks in the black canvas, occasional flickers and flashes would show the water just below waist level, sometimes above shoulder level.  

In some ways, riding in Half-Safe was like traveling in a motorboat or sailboat, but without any of the benefits—the gusts of wind, the panoramic horizons, the liberating feeling of fast motion. In other ways, it was similar to riding in a car, but one that the driver could never pull over, never stop. It was a claustrophobic and abusive environment, an experience wholly other: at best difficult, at worst miserable. Most of the time, it was somewhere in between.

Half-Safe crept along at its usual four miles per hour. Nevertheless, closing in on the second week at sea, Ben and Elinore had somehow traveled nearly 400 miles, almost a quarter of the way to the Azores. That distance put Half-Safe beyond reach of the thunderstorms that often raked the Atlantic seaboard in late summer. What Ben didn’t take into account, however, were the hurricanes heading into the Gulf Stream from the south. The summer of 1950 was particularly warm, and by July a number of storms were already gestating off the Caribbean. The Carlins, inching toward the Azores, were headed right into their path.

Five

The Atlantic Ocean

August 1950
August 1950

Ben and Elinore landed on Flores Island in the Azores on August 19, 1950. What Ben had thought would be a two-week journey from Halifax had taken 32 miserable days. Still, the Carlins had managed to avoid hitting any major storms during the crossing, and they were happy to have most of the Atlantic behind them.

They spent the week in Flores, refueled, and, on August 27, set off again on a 160-mile run to the island of Horta. Approaching the breakwater outside the harbor there, they were surprised to see a small armada of local boats coming out to greet them. In her diary that day, Elinore would claim that half the island’s population of 10,000 turned out to celebrate them in town. “Long apprised of our coming,” she wrote, “Horta had simply closed down for the day, proclaiming a ‘Festa do Jeep.’”

For the next three months, Ben and Elinore island-hopped, exhibiting Half-Safe to earn money for repairs and the fuel they would need for the last 1,200-mile leg of the Atlantic crossing. A Life article that appeared in November called their Atlantic crossing “certainly the most foolhardy and possibly the most difficult transatlantic voyage ever made.”

The plan now was to head to Madeira, an island halfway between the Azores and the African coast, where they would refuel before continuing on to Western Sahara. Ben thought the 600-mile trip from the Azores’ São Miguel Island to Madeira would be a “downhill run,” taking a week and a half at most. But by the time they left port, the weather had already gone sour. Northwest winds battered the jeep; Ben continued pushing east, trying to outrun the storm. But after six days, the conditions had become dire. Eleanor became violently seasick. Ben had trouble steering the jeep in the rising swells. Most nights he’d cut the motor and watch as Half-Safe drifted anchorless, deeper into the storm.

Nine days later, things had gone from bad to worse. Everything inside the cabin was wet — the bedroll, blankets, clothes, and pillows — and had been for days. By Saturday, December 2, the seas had risen to 40, even 50 feet. Elinore described their grim daily routine in her journal:

0900: Watched a most beautiful sky at sunrise—seemingly a good omen but has brought nothing but rain & wind.

1000: This is serious. Pitching very badly. Rain beats down. Hope it stops at 1100 when I go topside for a radio transmission…. It’s rather cold in the jeep—getting colder all the time…. Moreover, the bed-roll is so wet that the blanket is too—& my head—& it’s coming thru all my sweaters. Constant headaches.

1530: I’m freezing now so what shall I be tonight? We go up, up, up &—smack, down, down, down.

1700: Used to think it was a exaggeration when people talked of seas 30, 40 & 50 ft. high. I’ve now seen them—when I went topside for [Ben’s] 1600 transmission to Madeira. Bloody huge waves—& the wind she blew like hell.

It seemed impossible that the storm could go on like this, but there was no sign of it letting up.

The next morning, Ben heard a sound that startled him: the engine. For the first time in days, he could actually hear it running. Barely conscious after 67 straight sleepless hours, he peeked outside. The wind had abated to about 50 miles per hour, though the waves were still enormous. He fumbled with the radio—it had been useless during the storm, but perhaps now it would be working again. He tapped out the distress call: XXX.

To his astonishment, an operator from Madeira replied. The man was shocked to get Ben’s signal. The Portuguese navy had given up Ben and Elinore for dead days earlier—nobody, they thought, could survive at sea in a hurricane of that magnitude, especially in a floating jeep. Ben took coordinates for the spot where a Portuguese naval vessel, the Flores, would drop off two tanks of fuel, enough to get Half-Safe to Madeira.

The Flores arrived at 8 a.m. the next morning. Ben hitched Half-Safe to the stern, and he and Elinore were whisked aboard and welcomed by the crew. They ate, drank wine, and took much-needed showers. The Carlins made land in Madeira on December 12. What should have been a 10-day hop ended up an insufferable three-week slog.

Back on land, the Carlins licked their wounds and sold the movie camera Ben had brought along for the money they needed for food and repairs. They hung around Madeira for the next two months before deciding to give the crossing another go. This time the sea was more forgiving, and on February 21—seven months after setting off from Canada—Half-Safe reached Western Sahara. The Carlins had finally crossed the Atlantic.

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Half-Safe crossing the Sahara Desert, March 1951. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Six

Cape Juby

February 1951
February 1951

The roads were a challenge from the beginning. Ragged in the best of circumstances, they had a tendency to vanish into 50-foot sand dunes. Half-Safe had lost its only spare wheel on the transatlantic crossing, and there were no replacement parts for Ford jeeps in Morocco. To be cautious, Ben drove at a snail’s pace. Elinore sat on the back cot, watching through the port-side window as nomadic shepherds drove their sheep toward the storm clouds to the north. Shepherds in the Sahara were known to chase the rain for hundreds of miles in search of grass. The Carlins followed them.

A week earlier, Ben and Elinore had made landfall in the small Western Sahara port town of Cape Juby. They were elated. After three years of toil, they had done the impossible: They had beaten the Atlantic. But now there was much more to think about, and on their first night back on land, Ben lay awake and pondered the challenges ahead. If Half-Safe broke down in the Sahara, the trip would be over.

Three days later, on March 4, after some quick repairs to make Half-Safe road ready, Ben and Elinore were finally granted papers and sent on their way, creeping along at less than two miles per hour towards Casablanca, 700 miles to the north. Days were spent driving and occasionally stopping at villages for peppermint tea; nights were spent beneath the stars of the Saharan sky.

Ten days later, they hit Casablanca in a blaze of publicity. Ticket sales from exhibitions of the jeep, plus a $100 advance for Life’s second article on the Half-Safe journey, gave Ben enough money to once again refit the jeep. With few spare parts or materials, he replaced the neoprene seals around the steering wheel with goatskin. But the attention around the Carlins, enormous at first, died as quickly as it started. Ben and Elinore and their journey across the Atlantic proved a fleeting curiosity to the few French colons who paid to see the jeep and meet the Crazy Carlins. Their feat seemed to inspire as much confusion as wonderment: They had made the journey, but why? What was the point?

On April 21, 1951, Ben backed Half-Safe into the Strait of Gibraltar. The jeep, chugging against the incoming tide, took six hours to make the 15-mile crossing to Europa Point, on the southern tip of Gibraltar. Nine months and 4,500 miles after they’d left Montreal, Ben and Elinore had landed on their third continent.

The Carlins’ four-month tour of Western Europe proved a welcome rest from the grueling journey so far. Ben and Elinore motored across Portugal, up through central Spain, and across southern France. Paris, still recovering from the war, turned out to be an unprofitable city for exhibitions, but the English were more interested. While staying in Paris in June, Ben and Elinore were flown to London to meet with editors at The Clarion newspaper, who agreed to pay them a hefty 500 pounds for a monthlong promotional tour in August. Ben and Elinore enthusiastically agreed, and for the first time in nearly a year they rested, soaking in the Parisian sights.

By mid-August, Ben and Elinore were ready for their triumphant sail to England, but The Clarion was not. At the last minute, the newspaper canceled their contract for no apparent reason. The Carlins’ holiday in Paris now looked like a waste of precious time. Their money spent, they would have to get to England on their own to find a new sponsor.

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Ben and Elinore Carlin with Half-Safe in Casablanca, March 1951. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Seven

Kent

August 1951
August 1951

The summer night sky exploded with flashbulbs and cheers as Half-Safe lunged up Goodwin Sands on the east coast of Kent  the same landing that Julius Caesar had stormed 2,000 years earlier. Ben and Elinore climbed from the back hatch in front of the crowd of hundreds, who had been awaiting the Carlins for the past few hours. At the corner pub, they were met with a deafening round of applause.

A few days later, Ben called Mac Bunting, the Army buddy who had first helped conceive of the circumnavigation in India in 1947. They hadn’t seen each other in five years and in the past two years hadn’t even exchanged letters. When Mac arrived in Kent and saw the jeep, he was flabbergasted. “By Jove, old boy,” he exclaimed, “you were right!”


Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, which Ben wrote shortly after arriving in England, ends on that triumphant note. Back at the Guildford archives, I closed the cover of the second photo album and reshelved it. There were dozens of photographs Ben had taken during the journey, copies of letters he’d sent from the Azores and throughout Africa, a few receipts. But nothing I found shed light on what kept pushing Ben and Elinore to continue on through failure after failure, year after year—and I couldn’t find anything about what had happened to them after the journey was over.

One possible source of new information was Ben’s only daughter, Deirdre Carlin. I’d heard about her from Rosemary Waller months earlier, when I was arranging my visit to Perth. I knew nothing about her, except that she lived in Perth. I had been trying to reach her for months and finally heard back from her a week and a half before I arrived. Certainly she would know what had happened to Ben, but it would be a few days before I could ask her.


Ben and Elinore believed they’d have it made once they reached England, but by the second day in Kent, reporters stopped calling. There were no new offers to exhibit the jeep and no word from Hollywood. After a few days, the Carlins left for London. Within a week, their savings had dwindled to 50 pounds. They retired to a run-down hostel in the West End and reviewed their options.

After five years, they were just one-fifth of the way around the world, and the worst of the journey was ahead of them: war-ravaged Eastern Europe, roadless expanses of Middle Eastern desert, bandit-ridden Asia, and then the Pacific, the world’s largest ocean. Their plan of making money through exhibitions, magazine articles, and books had failed, and what little funds did trickle in went right back into keeping the jeep running.

Ben was starting to resent the exhibitions in particular and the people who attended them. Nobody really seemed to understand the journey. Many people simply thought the whole thing was a hoax. Meanwhile, Half-Safe had sentenced Ben and Elinore to a life of poverty, and they were growing weary of it.

“Now aged 39,” Ben wrote in August 1951, “I had lived from suitcase or kit-bag for 13 years; the travel urge was long satisfied and I yearned for a permanent hat-peg; a lawnmower, the pit-a-pat of footsies. If beforehand I had been persuaded that the trip would take longer than a year, I would have dropped it; now 5 years later I had barely started.”

If the Carlins were to continue, Ben would have to overhaul Half-Safe yet again—the jeep was literally falling to pieces. The metal superstructure had corroded from months of saltwater exposure, the frame was buckling, and the engine needed to be completely rebuilt.

Ben and Elinore’s marriage wasn’t in much better shape. Two weeks after landing in England, they separated. Whether they were drifting apart for personal or financial reasons isn’t clear. Elinore took a secretarial job with the U.S. Air Force in London, while Ben left for Birmingham to try to raise money. He moved into a boardinghouse room and took a job as a garage mechanic. He made plans to sell Half-Safe. The joke wasn’t funny anymore; the impossible journey seemed to be over.

But it wasn’t.

Ben tried but simply could not quit. In his time off from the garage, he continued plotting, thinking, tinkering. In the garage, he added larger fuel tanks to the jeep, refitted its brakes, and replaced the windshield with tougher tempered glass. The overhaul took two years.

In his letters and The Other Half, Ben gave plenty of reasons not to continue: debt, exhaustion, the near certainty that the jeep would give out entirely before journey’s end. He offered only one justification for trudging on, writing in typically overwrought prose:

Although a sweet-enough aria, Half-Safe’s Atlantic feat was no opera. There’s something peculiarly complete and satisfying about a circumnavigation; a magnum of champagne is manifestly more acceptable than glasses.

It was a psycho-facto that counter-tipped the imbalance: Of my past imbecilities the omissions rankled longer and stronger than the commissions: “If only I had grabbed that opportunity … taken a chance that time in … given that parboiled redhead one more break! Those are the pangs that gnaw in the night. Such an opportunity could never recur, and I’d kick holes in my coffin if I passed it up.

And so on the afternoon of April 20, 1955, Ben and Elinore climbed through Half-Safe’s back hatch once again. Elinore took her place on the cot, and with Ben behind the wheel they set off across the English Channel, past the White Cliffs of Dover toward France, back to the open sea and the open road.

Eight

Calcutta

August 1955
August 1955

It had been four years since Ben and Elinore were last cooped up inside Half-Safe’s tiny cabin. By the time they landed on the beach at Calais, France, they both knew that four years probably wasn’t long enough. Richard Kaplan, a young documentary filmmaker from California, and John Simmons, a photographer for a London weekly newspaper, had joined them on the trip across the English Channel. Kaplan, who went on to become an Oscar-winning documentarian, told me that even that short trip with the couple was absolute hell. “It was miserable,” he said. “They were arguing the whole time, just yelling at each other. It was so bad, we sat on the roof to get away from them.” The next day, Kaplan and Simmons jumped ship.

Half-Safe rolled through Switzerland, then down to Verona, Italy, and on to Venice, where Ben and Elinore met with a throng of reporters. One asked if the Atlantic crossing had really happened and asked Ben to prove it. Others simply didn’t believe them. The journey was just too long, arduous, and insane to fathom. Half-Safe chugged on through Yugoslavia, and by mid-May the Carlins were in Turkey. This put them on track to cross the deserts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran at the start of summer—another miscalculation by Ben. Soon temperatures inside the cabin were reaching a sauna-like 150 degrees.

Ben pushed on, hoping somehow to outrun the heat, but it only got worse. Cabin temperatures reached 170 and 180 degrees, hot enough that the plastic boxes that held tools and spare parts softened and buckled. Nevertheless, by mid-August the Carlins had traveled 8,550 miles in 86 days. They had made it to India—though at a debilitating cost.

Elinore had lost 30 pounds, her hair was falling out, and she was constantly bedridden with stomach infections. As Half-Safe rolled through Jalandhar in India’s Punjab state, en route to Calcutta, she wrote in her journal, “Everything completely wet from humidity. … Yesterday’s wasp bite has swollen right arm … skin all round lips completely burned away—now peeling—mouth still ugly sight.”

In Calcutta, they settled into a friend of a friend’s apartment. In The Other Half, Ben describes this period of the trip as relatively enjoyable, but the correspondence in the Guildford archives suggests otherwise. Ben had contracted dengue fever and was bedridden for weeks. Elinore had a stomach flu that lasted a month. Broke again, Ben tried to sell the same Half-Safe story to two different magazines. The plan backfired when both editors realized what he had done and voided their contracts with him. In desperation, Ben sold the rights to Half-Safe to an American publisher, in violation of his contract with his English publisher, Andre Deutsch. Deutsch found out and threatened to kill their deal; Ben countered by accusing Deutsch of holding back advance payments for the book.

The Guildford archives contain a number of carbon-copied letters between Ben and a London lawyer named L. A. Morrow that suggest that Ben’s eccentricity was now turning into something darker. Perhaps the stress of the journey was wearing on him; perhaps it was the financial duress or simply the fever. Or perhaps it was a side of him that had been there all along.

Although Ben’s letters began professionally enough, within days they turned delirious and strange. He wrote that Deutsch was “an ambitious, unbridled egotist” with “little or no taste” and threatened him with numerous lawsuits. And this was all two months before Deutsch was to release Ben’s book. Meanwhile, Ben was spending his days obsessively taking apart Half-Safe’s engine and rebuilding it, though he knew it was in fine condition.

It was Deutsch, in fact, who bailed out the Carlins, suggesting that they ship Half-Safe to Australia for a book tour. Ten thousand copies of Half-Safe—a print run that suggested Deutsch’s hopes for a bestseller—were scheduled to hit Australian bookstores in October 1955, with 5,000 more to follow. A promotional tour, in addition to being good for sales, might be just the break that Ben and Elinore needed. Ben agreed, Deutsch sent expense money, and on September 19, Half-Safe set sail for Perth aboard the MS Carpentaria. For the first time in 16 years, Ben was going home.


The Australia tour was a disaster. Ben, Elinore, and Half-Safe made it to Perth in October, but the book did not—as it turned out, most of the bookstores where Ben and Elinore had planned to exhibit the jeep and sign copies never received their shipments. The few reviews that appeared were not favorable.

Ben accused Deutsch of plotting against him. In retaliation, he began charging exorbitant prices for viewings of the jeep and refused to cooperate with booksellers. In an effort to spite his publisher, Ben was sabotaging his own book, in the process throwing away his only real chance at profiting from the Half-Safe trip. His relationship with Elinore, meanwhile, was disintegrating again. By the end of the tour, she announced that she was leaving him. And this time she meant it.

On December 13, 1955, Ben rolled Half-Safe onto the MS Chakdina, a ship headed back to Calcutta. He would never see Elinore again.

Nine

Rangoon

February 1956
February 1956

According to the British district commissioner in Rangoon, the road between the Burmese capital and the border of Thailand was impassable. “Your famous vehicle has not the slightest chance of covering the road successfully,” the commissioner, a young man in immaculate uniform, told Ben as he sat before his desk in the consulate office. “In plain fact, there is no longer a road. What there was has been destroyed by four monsoons. When I myself covered it last November, I saw two-foot-high boulders in the track. The army does not permit its ordinary jeeps to make the run.… Please turn back.”

Ben stifled a yawn, stood, and thanked the commissioner for his time, then left the office to prepare Half-Safe for the journey. He had no intention of heeding the commissioner’s advice.

The alternate route would involve traversing hundreds of miles of open water across the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, at the southern end of Burma. From there, Half-Safe would have to travel up an uncharted river and cross the Kra Isthmus into Thailand, where Ben would find well-paved roads for the next 300 miles of coastline. But this itinerary would add 500 miles and three months to the trip, an extension Ben couldn’t afford.

Instead, he borrowed maps and began charting his own straight-line path to Thailand. He would sail up the Gyaing River to Kyondo, a British army post west of the border. He would then take a 40-mile military road—the route the commissioner had advised against—from Kyondo over Victoria Point, the southernmost tip of Burma, to the border.

After six years in Half-Safe, Ben had grown numb to the warnings of officials. Elinore might have made him listen to reason, but she’d been gone four months. Just a month earlier, Ben had set out on his first trip alone, from India across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The route required him to spend as many as 20 hours a day, for five days, behind the wheel. “Having done something the hard way (with a crewman), one looks for a still harder way,” he wrote in The Other Half. To stay awake, he took methedrine tablets—first one, then another, then another.

One afternoon during the trip, Ben was staring at the lubber lines on the compass when he saw them twisting, apparently melting in the stifling heat. The compass itself flattened, then formed a sphere again. At its center appeared an image of Saint George, the dragon-slaying Roman soldier of legend. Now the compass lines were twisting and turning into the shapes of animals. Ben saw the face of a Hindu holy man glaring fiercely into his eyes. The man’s face kept expanding until it filled the dashboard. Ben swatted at the air to fend him off. “Damn!” he yelled.

Saint George, the animals, and the holy man disappeared. The compass was once again just a compass. It was the methedrine, Ben realized—he’d taken five tablets the day before and was finishing his 17th straight hour at the wheel. In the thrall of his hallucinations, he’d steered Half-Safe wildly off course. He cut the engine, dropped anchor, and collapsed onto the cot, shivering and sweating.

The Andaman crossing marked an ominous change in Ben’s habits. So far, most of Half-Safe’s travels, however dangerous, had been well planned. But since Elinore left, his judgment had grown erratic and, at times, suicidal.

His financial prospects, meanwhile, had collapsed further. When he reached Rangoon, a letter from Deutsch’s office was waiting for him, informing him that Half-Safe was not selling. Deutsch had ordered an initial print run of 20,000 copies for the English market, but now the publisher projected that no more than 3,000 or 4,000 would be sold. The rest were being dumped to a book club. Ben would see no more royalties.


A few days after Half-Safe reached Rangoon, officials in the southeastern outpost town of Kawkareik invited Ben and his new shipmate, a fellow Australian named Barry Hanley, to a farewell party before they attempted the military road over Victoria Point. The atmosphere was that “of a joyous wake,” Ben later wrote. “[T]he officers’ feeling seemed to be, ‘These boys are real triers. They are about to die on the road tomorrow. We must give them a good send-off.’”

The next morning, 15 Burmese officers escorted Half-Safe to the road in a military truck and watched Ben and Barry head into the jungle. As the road ascended into the foothills, the pavement turned to dirt. Further up the mountain the dirt disappeared, leaving only potholed bedrock. Boulders measuring 30 inches across appeared in the middle of the trail. To get past them, Ben had to balance Half-Safe’s tires on the least-eroded sections of the road for fear of getting permanently stuck between them. In a half-hour he covered only 100 yards. “The going was far worse than anything I had ever seen,” he later wrote. Then it got worse. “[A]ll sense of comparison was gone: beyond hellish and superhellish one’s power of description breaks down.”

Fatigue took over. Ben felt nauseous and drunk; the road began to taunt him. The jungle on both sides was a sheer, impenetrable wall of bamboo, brush, and vines. By afternoon, the temperature inside the cabin had reached 145 degrees. This went on for 10 hours.

The next day, Ben and Barry finally made passage over Victoria Point. Half-Safe had left Burma, and with it the most grueling overland segment of its route. Ahead of them were miles of relatively good roads through Thailand and Vietnam, then an easy crossing of the South China Sea to Hong Kong and on to the southern shore of Japan. They made the 2,500-mile trip to Japan in under five months.

On July 25, Half-Safe pulled into Kagoshima harbor, on the southern tip of the Japanese island of Kyushu. The water was as still as glass, reflecting a sky full of stars and the smoking crater of the Shinmoedake volcano. For Ben, Japan meant he was one step closer to completion; for Barry, it meant he could escape. He jumped ship and went back to Australia. Alone again, Ben was now looking at what he knew was his most serious obstacle: the Pacific Ocean.

Ten

Tokyo

July 1956
July 1956

For the next nine months, Ben holed up in various cheap accommodations around Tokyo. Journalists would occasionally make pilgrimages to meet him there; among them were reporters from Time and Life, whose magazines had enthusiastically covered Half-Safe’s progress before. But the man they found barely resembled the swashbuckling adventurer who had thrilled their readers half a decade earlier. Ben had been drinking too much, and he seemed not just depressed and embittered but deeply broken.

Elinore was long gone, and she had taken much of the project’s appeal and innocence with her. Ben now seemed too eccentric, too crazy, too dangerously obsessed. Months later, Life canceled its article. The journey was taking too long, and the public, it seemed, had lost interest.

Ben, as always, was trying to scrape together the money for the next leg of the trip and refitting Half-Safe for its final sea voyage. He was back at it with Andre Deutsch, this time suing him for breach of contract over the dismal Australian book tour, during which only 6,149 copies of Half-Safe—barely a third of the 15,000 printed for the tour—had been sold. When Ben wasn’t writing angry letters, he was tinkering with the jeep, ripping its engine apart, rebuilding it over and over, and waiting.

Finally, in April 1957, he got a break: the Standard-Vacuum Oil Company agreed to fuel Half-Safe for the North Pacific crossing to Alaska in exchange for an 18-day promotional tour of Japan. Ben prepared to start his final overseas journey the following month, and he took on a new shipmate by the name of Boyé De Mente, an American magazine editor who had been living in Tokyo for several years.

De Mente later published his own book about his time aboard Half-Safe, called Once a Fool! From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep! His account, though not confirmed elsewhere, presents the most disturbing picture on record of Ben’s behavior. According to De Mente, Ben resented taking orders from his new oil-company sponsor. He started acting crazy, getting blind drunk and going on all-night rampages in the Japanese towns they visited.

De Mente recalled being awakened one night in a hotel room he shared with Ben. Someone was falling over him. The lights came on, and De Mente saw Ben, drunk, standing in the middle of the room wearing nothing but a kimono. Beside him was a woman in her late teens or early twenties, also in a kimono. Ben had thrown her on top of De Mente.

“It’s your turn now, mate!” Ben yelled, according to De Mente. De Mente begged off, saying the girl didn’t look like she was in the mood. Ben said that it didn’t matter, then opened the kimono to show off his bruised knees. The woman tried to run, but Ben pushed her back on the bed. Finally, hotel maids arrived and rescued her. De Mente looked over at Ben, who was passed out, dead to the world. Scenes like this played out every night for weeks.

Finally, on June 12, 1957, there were no more women, no more bars, no more hotel rooms—just Half-Safe’s little cabin, with Ben at the wheel, De Mente on the back cot, and the cold, gray Sea of Okhotsk ahead of them. They launched off the dock in Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan, and headed northeast. Half-Safe was at last underway across the Pacific.

It took only five days for the problems to begin. Half-Safe’s fuel supply was now kept in a large steel tank towed behind the jeep, and the rope connecting the two had become hopelessly knotted, pulling them close together. When the wind came up, the jeep and the tank began crashing into each other. Ben feared that if he didn’t unravel the rope, the tank might puncture Half-Safe’s belly and possibly sink the vehicle. The only way to clear the rope was to swim under the tank and remove it. So Ben dove overboard.

Even in summer, the water in the Sea of Okhotsk was about 30 degrees. Pawing at the rope, Ben quickly lost all sensation in his extremities. One of his fingernails caught on the rope, split, then peeled back entirely; he bit down on it and ripped it off at the quick. When he pulled himself onto the deck, his entire body was covered with red and blue splotches. He got back in the cabin, started the engine, and headed east.

Ten days later, in the middle of the North Pacific heading toward the Aleutian Islands, Half-Safe again stalled. Ben had driven the vehicle over a Japanese fishing boat’s net and knotted it around the propeller. The only way to free it was to once again jump in and do it by hand. Ben stripped and dove overboard, a knife clenched between his teeth. His hands went numb instantly, and he slashed wildly at the net, unable to feel whether he was connecting with his target. The fishing boat was about 100 yards away, hauling in a net full of salmon. Ben swam toward the vessel and climbed up the net. The crew lifted him out of the water with the day’s catch and deposited him on the deck, slick with fish blood.

Ben was naked and paralyzed by the cold. The fishermen tried to slap him back to life. They dumped more coal into the galley stove and poured diesel fuel over the embers, then pushed Ben toward the flames, wrapping him in a fur coat and urging him to warm himself with an enormous bottle of sake. Ben shivered and shook and slowly came to. Lifting his eyes, he saw Half-Safe in the distance, drifting away from him. The propeller was still not clear; to free it, Ben would have to swim back out and try again. He drank a liter of sake, grabbed one of the crewmen’s knives, and dove in. When he reached Half-Safe, he sawed everything in sight, finally cutting the propeller loose.

Ben pulled himself aboard and into the cabin. He sat on the cot, shaking as though he were electrified. He was unable to speak or move. Once he warmed up, he pulled his clothes on, urinated in a can beside the driver’s seat, shut his bloodshot eyes, and went to sleep. He woke up four hours later, yelled at De Mente for urinating in the can, kicked him out of the driver’s seat, and drove onward into the night toward Alaska.

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Half-Safe crossing the North Pacific Ocean, 1957. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives
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Ben Carlin aboard Half-Safe in the North Pacific Ocean, 1957. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Eleven

Anchorage

September 1957
September 1957

As far-fetched as the fishing-boat incident seems, it appears in both The Other Half and De Mente’s book. By this point, De Mente wrote, Ben had lost his hold on the world outside of Half-Safe, outside of the journey. He was imagining arguments that never took place, demanding that De Mente follow his orders and then chastising him when he did.

Half-Safe reached Anchorage on September 3. De Mente quit as soon as he was on dry land. Alone again, Ben set off across Alaska. At long last, he was conquering the fifth and final continent of his journey. Having waited years for this moment, he expected elation. Instead, he became terribly depressed. “With no more oceans to cross,” he later wrote, “my life was ended.”

The little world contained within Half-Safe’s steel walls had become a refuge from relationships, responsibilities, jobs, other people—and now it was on the verge of disappearing. If Ben made it back to Montreal, he’d have to start playing by other people’s rules again. “I faced return to the jungle of life as a civilian—servilisation; I would have to learn to be polite to painful numbies and to either rhapsodize or lament over the ever tiny thing,” he wrote. For years he had worried that he would never complete his odyssey; now he worried that he would.

For eight months, Ben traveled alone around the U.S., though there is little record of where he went. From his correspondence in the Guildford archives, I learned that he spent a month in Hollywood working on a film deal that never materialized, then crashed Half-Safe in a ditch after a night drinking at a friend’s house in San Francisco. He zigzagged from California to Texas to Missouri. One afternoon in Detroit, he stopped by the Ford Motor Company’s headquarters to show off what he called “the most extraordinary automobile (judged on performance) that Ford or any other manufacturer had ever produced.” The company’s public relations chief didn’t even bother to step outside and look at Half-Safe.

Ben wandered on, driving through Ohio and upstate New York. In Buffalo, an attendant at a service station became engrossed in the map of Half-Safe’s travels that Ben had painted on the jeep’s exterior. Had Ben actually been to any of those places? he wanted to know. Still, nobody seemed to believe him. He drove on, up to Canada, as if he couldn’t bring himself to finish the journey.

Finally, on May 13, 1958—seven years and 10 months after he set out across the Atlantic—Ben drove west toward Montreal, where he and Elinore had stopped in 1948. He was older now, 45, gray in the beard, and heavier. Over the past decade, Ben had traveled 39,000 miles over land and 11,000 miles over water. He had crossed four oceans and five continents to become the only person in history to circumnavigate the globe by both land and sea in the same vehicle—a distinction he still holds.

It had been a decade of planning, rebuilding, marriage, divorce, dysentery, dementia, abject poverty. Eight years of driving, breaking down, and driving some more, across sun-scorched deserts and hurricane-ripped seas, through bouts of insanity and back again. But Ben had somehow made it. He had lodged himself in one of the wilder corners of history.

As the jeep rumbled into town, there was no parade, no press, no applause to greet him. Not even the Batteys, Mac, or Elinore had shown up to welcome him. Ben was totally alone. He turned off the engine and started walking, with no particular place to go.

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Ben Carlin in the1960s. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Twelve

Perth

November 2011
November 2011

Although there were hundreds of photos from Ben’s circumnavigation in the Guildford archives, there were only a few of his life during the years that followed. It was as if he had simply stopped existing after he arrived back in Montreal. The picture on the last page of the last photo album showed a much older man, overweight, sitting in a chair with a pipe in his mouth, a forced smile on his face. It took me a moment to realize it was Ben.

Ben died in 1981, Elinore in 1996. The correspondence between them after the circumnavigation was nasty. In July 1961, Ben tried to convince her to give up all the rights to the Half-Safe story; her remaining share of them, he believed, was preventing him from selling his second book. In one letter to her lawyer, he rehashed romantic arguments from their earliest days in India, and he insisted that “never did I as much as tell her that I loved her.”

Elinore returned fire, writing in a letter later that month: “I don’t propose to have any correspondence with you. What little is necessary I trust you can take part in a sane and more polite manner. I do regret that you seem to have lost all sense of proportion and humor.” She would later marry an airline pilot she and Ben had met during their stopover in Madeira.

The only living link to the Carlins that I’d found was Deirdre, Ben’s daughter, who had agreed to meet on my last day in town. She was living in Perth, working downtown as an administrative assistant at an investment firm. If I stopped by her office, she said, she would be happy to talk.

When she stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby, I had no trouble recognizing her. She was tall, with Ben’s strong chin, brown eyes, and sardonic smile. I was full of questions. In particular, I was curious about Ben’s whereabouts from the end of his trip to his death. Deirdre smiled. “Oh, so am I,” she said. “The book is basically all I knew about my father.”

Deirdre was born in 1964, when Ben was 52 and her mother, a woman named Cynthia Henderson—Carlin’s third wife—was 21. The family was living in Arlington, Virginia, but Cynthia left Ben before Deirdre was born. As far as Deirdre could remember, he never visited. The first time Deirdre heard from him was in 1978, when she was 14 and studying at a boarding school in England, and received a letter from Perth. “Dear Deirdre,” it began:

This is a strange way for us to meet after so many years.

Five years ago I retired to Western Australia. A little under three years ago, when I was about to return to the States, I was hit by a stroke which paralyzed my left side. When I was in hospital a second stroke knocked out my ability to write with my right hand.

By Christmas 1976 I had just about recovered when a third stroke paralyzed my right side; this time there was to be no nearly complete recovery. In July 1967 [sic] I went to the States expecting to recover largely. But there was no more major recovery; nor will there ever be. I cannot talk intelligibly except to those who know me. I cannot walk without crutches. I cannot write or direct my hands properly. I cannot cook.

Ben tried moving into a nursing home, but “after two days there I decided it was no place for me; I returned to my still unsold flat.” He rarely left the apartment, living off of Meals on Wheels deliveries and food donations from a neighbor. The previous August, in 1977, he suffered a fourth stroke. “I am pretty useless,” he wrote.

Sweetheart, There is a great deal to tell you but I want to be sure that what I have to tell you reaches you; I SHALL NOT EMPLOY ANY TRICKS TO REACH YOU. Everything will be quite above board, and nobody can call me a liar. There is no way of your ever seeing me unless you come here or to the States. If your mother doubts my abilities or intentions she should write to me. Have the Social Security cheques been reaching you? I have two things connected with the registration of your birth that you should have and I have for you some photographs, the manuscript of a second book, and the names and addresses of two relatives.

And I shall not die penniless.

Your loving father,

Ben

Deirdre put the letter in a drawer. Every few months, she would unfold it, read it, and put it away again. In January 1981, when she was 17, she decided to write Ben back. She was about to leave boarding school; it was time to meet her father.

Three months later, she got a response from Perth. “Oh God, I was just so excited,” she told me, smiling at the memory. “Can you just imagine? I was going to meet him, I was finally going to see my father! I just had so many plans.”

The letter was written on Ben’s typewriter and stationery, but it wasn’t from him. It was from his neighbor, writing to inform her that Ben had died of a stroke a month earlier. He died alone, without any knowledge that his daughter knew he existed. After a decade of waiting to hear from her, Deirdre’s letter to him had arrived two weeks too late.

In 1987, David Malcolm, the president of Guildford, called to invite Deirdre, who was then living in London, to come to Perth. Guildford had decided to publish Ben’s manuscript for The Other Half of Half-Safe, and Malcolm wanted Deirdre’s help editing it.

On the Guildford campus, the headmaster led Deirdre to a curious machine—it appeared to be half jeep and half boat. In hand-painted script on the port side was a name: Half-Safe.

The vehicle had been rusting away in a barn in Ohio, where Ben had abandoned it 20 years earlier after reaching Montreal. Guildford had located the jeep in 1984 and had it brought back to the school, where it would be kept on permanent display.

This was the first that Deirdre had heard about her father’s extraordinary journey, and she was dumbfounded. Her mother had never mentioned it. Now she was surrounded by artifacts of a family history she’d never known.

Ben’s friends around Perth took Deirdre in. They told her stories of Ben’s wild sense of humor and his wilder sense of adventure. And they gave her one of his battered briefcases. In it she found a collection of visas he had gathered on the Half-Safe voyage. “Just gorgeous things,” she told me, “the way they used to do them back in those days, handwritten and elegant.”

Beneath the visas was a carbon copy of a letter that she recognized immediately: It was the letter he’d sent when she was 14. There were several others, too, all addressed to Deirdre, that she had never received. Ben had been sending her letters her entire life, since she was a baby. They’d never gotten to her, apparently intercepted by her mother until she left home for boarding school.

At the bottom of the briefcase was a photographer’s contact sheet, a grid of tiny portraits. Deirdre was shocked: They were photographs of herself, at age 4, posed in a green velvet party dress, holding a beach ball, with a broken front tooth. They had been taken at the request of a man whom she was told was her uncle Fred. They had spent a single day together in London, visiting the zoo and Selfridges department store. Though she didn’t know it, it was the only day she would ever spend with her father. Ben had carried the pictures with him for the rest of his life.


It seemed as if the two halves of Ben’s adult life were, in a way, sad reflections of each other: a failed quest for the world’s affection followed by a failed quest for his daughter’s. Although Deirdre had read Ben’s books and seen the jeep, she had never actually looked through the archives, never seen the photographs and letters I had just spent a week poring over. It was a strange feeling to be sitting there, telling her the details of his forgotten life. After an hour, we said good-bye. I walked out in the pouring rain back to my hotel room and mulled over what I had learned in the past week.

Ben never made it into the canon of the 20th century’s great adventurers; it wasn’t where he belonged anyway. His quest was a send-up of the earnest heroes of his age—the peak baggers, the continent explorers, the gender-barrier busters. “By nature I am an ornery SOB in that I cannot bear to follow the mob.” he wrote. “So, when men go to sea in ships, I take a vehicle; when they tackle continents in automobiles, I prefer a boat.”

Ben was weird, and his quest was weird, which is perhaps why it didn’t resonate in the 1950s and exactly why it resonated so strongly with me. He was a deeply flawed, obsessive contrarian—and a postmodern hero ahead of his time. He took a well-worn category of adventure—a circumnavigation—and subverted it so completely that it seemed new again. In this he was perhaps a grandfather to those of us who were born too late to discover the Arctic but might be the first to try surfing it.

Of all the discoveries I made in Guildford, none baffled me more than a letter I found from 1968, sent to Ben by a woman in Perth named Gwen Hall. In it Hall related that her husband had been on a fishing trip with a friend along the north coast of Perth when they found “half a cuttlefish with some printing on it” on the beach. On the shell was written “1948 Ben Carlin Half-Safe.”

Ben, then living in Washington, D.C., wrote back almost immediately. He recalled drifting helplessly 300 miles off the coast of New York in the summer of 1948, during Half-Safe’s fourth failed attempt to cross the Atlantic. He admitted having no recollection of writing his name on a cuttlefish shell, but if it happened, he recalled, it would have happened at this time. That would mean the shell had traveled some 20,000 miles across two oceans, in defiance of their currents, over two decades, to land 200 miles from Ben’s birthplace of Northam. A totally implausible journey—but, then again, so was driving a jeep around the world.

Ben never shied away from his own mythmaking; he relished it. Despite his jokes and self-mockery, there was little doubt that he, too, wanted to matter the way the great explorers mattered—to make his mark on history. Digging through the archives, it was clear that he took this dream to his deathbed. He had scrupulously catalogued his letters, photographs, even receipts from his years aboard the jeep. It was as if he was stuffing his whole story into a bottle and casting it out to sea, hoping that it might reach someone someday who would care.