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Reliving the Transglobe Expedition: the first and only attempt to circumnavigate the globe via both poles

  • Written by  Anton Bowring
  • Published in Explorers
Reliving the Transglobe Expedition: the first and only attempt to circumnavigate the globe via both poles
15 Aug
2019
The Transglobe Expedition entered the history books by becoming the first (and still only) successful attempt to circumnavigate the globe via both poles. As the team members celebrate the journey’s 40th anniversary, crew member Anton Bowring relives the heroic, of less than straightforward attempts to bring it all together

On 2 September 1979, a small ice-strengthened ship, the MV Benjamin Bowring, set off from Greenwich at the start of one of the most ambitious private expeditions of modern times. The brain child of Virginia Fiennes (Ginny), the expedition team, led by her husband Sir Ranulph Fiennes, was embarking on a three-year mission to complete a longitudinal circumnavigation of the world via both North and South Poles. They called it the Transglobe Expedition. The aim was to traverse both polar icecaps, navigate the oceans and cross the land masses in between by surface travel in one continuous, un-broken journey. Such was the magnitude of the task, it took seven long years to plan and equip. By the expedition’s return to London in August 1982, a number of the un-paid volunteers who gave their time and effort to the project had spent a staggering ten years committed to the venture.

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When Ran left the army he had little, by way of qualification, with which to earn a livelihood in civilian life. Indeed, with just two ‘O’ Levels (in Woodwork and Divinity), his school’s career advisor had been perplexed when considering employment opportunities and, it is said, recommended that the young Ranulph might possibly find gainful employment as an undertaker. It was Ginny who encouraged him to consider expeditions as a way of paying the bills by writing books and giving lectures.

Unloading Benjamin Bowring at Sanae Buchte Antarctica photo Bryn CampbellUnloading Benjamin Bowring at Sanae Buchte, Antarctica

While serving in the army, Ran had led a number of ‘adventure training’ expeditions, but none as ambitious as the one conceived by Ginny who traced a suggested route by drawing a rough line with a red, felt-tip pen on her ancient 6-inch, school globe (now an exhibit in the ‘Polar Worlds’ gallery at the National Maritime Museum). Maybe, it was because the ink was indelible or perhaps, because, as a soldier, Ran was good at doing what he was told, the eventual expedition route was exactly as Ginny had originally envisaged.

EXPEDITION DETAILS

• Distance travelled: 100,000 miles (total)
• Time taken: 3 years
• Transportation: Ship, Land Rovers, Inflatable Boat, Skidoo, Foot, Twin Otter
• Starting point: Greenwich
• End point: Greenwich
• Team size: 38 (3 Ice Group but only 2 in the Arctic, 6 Base camp and reserves, 16 ship’s crew, 2 scientists, 3 air crew and 8 in office + various committee members, advisors and volunteers)
• Sponsor companies: 1,900

ALL AT SEA

Prior to the Transglobe Expedition, the only Antarctic crossing had been completed in 1958 by Sir Vivian Fuchs whose Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition set out for the South Pole from Shackleton Base on the edge of the Weddell Sea using large Snow-Cat vehicles. Meanwhile, from Scott Base on the Ross Sea side, Sir Edmund Hillary led a depot laying team towards the Pole using modified Massey Ferguson tractors, so that Fuchs and his colleagues could re-supply while completing their crossing from the Pole to Scott Base. In the north, the Arctic Ocean had also been crossed only once before, by Wally Herbert and his British Trans-Arctic Expedition in 1968/69 using dog sledges. By the late 1970s it was clearly time for another record-breaking polar journey. But, for Ran and his team, with so little experience, the challenges of planning the expedition were almost as great as its eventual undertaking.

Transglobe expedition map

In early 1973, Ran and Ginny procured an office in a disused rifle range at the Duke of York’s Army barracks in London’s Kings Road. Recruiting for the so-called ‘Ice Team’ involved all applicants completing the ‘Welsh 3,000’, a gruelling 24-hour challenge to climb all 15 mountains over 3,000 feet in Wales. Oliver Shepard, a beer salesman for Whitbread and Charlie Burton, a security guard, were unlikely candidates and they were both clearly overweight but their good nature, commitment and hard graft resulted in them being chosen to spearhead the expedition with Ran.

I joined the Transglobe team in early 1978. I had heard about the expedition and, having spent a few years at sea, I wrote to Ran seeking employment on his ship. In my letter I had given a brief outline of my working life and asked to be a deckhand. He replied that the expedition hadn’t yet got a ship. If I was prepared to acquire one, recruit all the crew and obtain all the supplies that would be needed for three years, he saw no reason why I shouldn’t sign on as a deckhand. However, he stressed that there was absolutely no money available and therefore everything must be done for free. I have to admit, from the moment I first met Ran I felt a niggling anxiety that I was making commitments without knowing what exactly I was letting myself into.

Virginia and Ranulph Fiennes in the overwinter basecamp hut at Ryvingen Antarctica Virginia and Ranulph Fiennes in the overwinter basecamp hut at Ryvingen, Antarctica

Simon Grimes, Anto Birkbeck and David Mason were to join Ginny at various stages as the basecamp team. I first met Simon when I attended my interview. He burst into the room while I was being bewildered by Ran and said in a North Country accent something like ‘Ran, I’ve put the tarps and the Landy spares with the mukluks, cagoules and crampons in the Tri-wall box by the Rolba’. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I thought it might be Esperanto. Luckily Ran seemed to understand and nodded in approval.

Essential item
One vital piece of equipment was the Sarbe personal locator beacon. This was a small, handheld transmitter which the ice team carried and turned on when the Twin Otter aircraft was on a supply run. It enabled the pilot to find them, particularly useful in the vastness of the Arctic Ocean where Ran Fiennes and Charlie Burton were stranded for 99 days on an ice floe, their position changing from day to day. The Sarbe beacon was a predecessor of the EPIRB now commonly used for location by Search & Rescue in emergencies.

BUYING BOATS

I started work immediately and was later joined by a young Dane, Poul Andersson, who barely spoke English but had the advantage of being the only person in the entire organisation who had briefly been to Antarctica. For one season, he had been a deckhand on a Danish polar ship. Poul was astonishing. Within weeks he learned enough English to phone companies and ask for sponsorship. He was only 23 but he was wise and thoughtful. Tragically, Poul was the only casualty of the expedition. He died of a heart attack after working on the ship in London, just a few weeks before we sailed from Greenwich.

Over the course of months Poul and I managed to recruit the finest professional seamen our lack of money could buy. They came from New Zealand, Canada, the USA, South Africa, Australia, India and Ireland (North and South), but my crowning achievement was to persuade our brilliant chief engineer, Ken Cameron, to forgo his salary like everyone else. (Although, on reflection, my truly crowning achievement was marrying Jill, the ship’s cook.)

WEBOliver Shepard with Bothie and Charlie Burton in basecamp hut Ryvingen Antarctica photo Ran FiennesOliver Shepard with Bothie and Charlie Burton in basecamp hut at Ryvingen, Antarctica

Getting a ship was altogether harder. Poul and I searched the world for an ice-strengthened vessel that could carry all the equipment and stores we needed for the three-year voyage. Eventually we found a small ship in Nova Scotia. With Captain Les Davis and a scratch crew we delivered the 1,200-ton, newly named Benjamin Bowring to London for the princely sum of $33 (Canadian). This fee only came about because, annoyingly, I hadn’t noticed that on arrival in Canada, 11 of us had to cross Montreal to another airport for a connecting flight to Halifax. It cost us $3 each. I had managed to get everything else sponsored. But, as the expedition mantra was ‘we have no money’, I had to pay all eleven bus fares myself.

Surprising moment
Fiennes and Burton had been crossing the Arctic via the North Pole towards Spitzbergen since February 1982. Our advisers were convinced that it was not possible for the ship and the Ice Team to rendezvous due to the unstable ice conditions. It was their view that the aircraft should ‘rescue’ Fiennes and Burton and fly them to Spitzbergen. This would have meant the expedition would have failed to complete a surface circumnavigation. Despite putting the Ice Team in extreme danger and possibly requiring them to sit out another winter on the ice, Ginny Fiennes and all those in the field felt that they should not be ‘rescued’. By the beginning of August 1982, after three failed attempts to reach Fiennes and Burton, the ice conditions suddenly changed in our favour and we got to a position that enabled them to walk up to the ship and climb aboard.

PROFESSIONAL HELP

Private Antarctic expeditions present a problem to the authorities (in our case the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society which was responsible for vetting all applications to visit the continent. Our submission had one major drawback. None of us had any polar experience. In order to impress the authorities, Ran used his powers of persuasion to draw together a very erudite committee of advisers and potential sponsors to oversee the planning and give veracity to the expedition in the eyes of those sitting in judgement of us. The Committee was chaired by Rear Admiral Sir Edmund Irving and comprised such luminaries as Sir Vivian Fuchs, Colonel Andrew Croft (a seasoned Arctic explorer), Captain Tom Woodfield (Britain’s foremost polar navigator), Sir Campbell Adamson (Director General of the CBI), a number of leading businessmen and, most importantly, Dr John Heap, head of the Polar Desk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Such a line-up was impressive and with HRH The Prince of Wales as our Patron (who described the expedition as ‘mad but marvellous’) we were indomitable.

WEBThick snow overnight blankets the expeditions camp photo Bryn CampbellThick snow blankets the expedition’s camp

During the years of planning, training expeditions were carried out to Greenland and north towards the pole across the Arctic Ocean. Having acquired experience, Ran and his ‘Ice Team’ succeeded in assuring the authorities that they were competent. Over 1,900 companies supported the expedition and everything from shoe laces to an 80ft radio mast was sponsored. The Chubb Group provided a De Havilland Twin Otter re-supply aircraft flown by Giles Kershaw and Karl Zberg with flight engineer, Gerry Nicholson. The Bowring Company and Marsh & McLennan donated the ship. Mobil Oil supplied all the fuel and lubricants. Racal provided the communications equipment. Land Rover, Dunlop, Bombardier and so many others gave generously of their products.

END TO END

The expedition story is brilliantly told by Ran in his books and lectures. Just as Ginny predicted, he has made a truly inspiring career out of his exploits. The expedition team crossed the Sahara in Land Rovers. In Antarctica Ran, Oliver and Charlie, with Ginny and her Jack Russell terrier, Bothie, over wintered 200 miles inland for eight months in cardboard huts in readiness for the Antarctic crossing. Likewise Simon Grimes and Anto Birkbeck over wintered on the coast.

The team used skidoos in Antarctica despite the pundits telling them that it was a crazy notion to use such lightweight vehicles. In the north, having completed the first transit of the Northwest Passage from west to east in an open boat, the expedition team over-wintered on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island before setting out on foot for the North Pole and Spitzbergen on the other side.

WEBAt journeys end Fiennes Burton with ships crew at the final rendezvous 4th August 1982 photo Bryn CampbellAt journeys end: Fiennes and Burton with the ship’s crew at the final rendezvous on 4th August 1982

Having reached the pole on Easter Day 1982, for 99 days Ran and Charlie drifted slowly south on an ice flow until by chance, rather than skill, we managed to drive the ship into the pack ice further north than any British ship had previously been. When we were just 17 miles from them, Ran and Charlie made a dash and finally clambered over the ship’s side to the cheers of the crew.

On 29 August, with our patron Prince Charles at the helm, the Transglobe Expedition completed its mission by returning to Greenwich and entering the history books. To this day it remains the only circumnavigation of the world via both poles.

At 7pm on Monday 2 September at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Ran, Oliver Shepard, Anton Bowring and members of the expedition will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the expedition’s departure from Greenwich with an evening of memories, hosted by Joanna Lumley.

Tickets for ‘Mad but Marvellous – tales from the Transglobe Expedition’ are obtainable online with a credit/debit card or via Paypal at geog.gr/tg-tickets or visit our website www.transglobe-trust.org and follow the links. Tickets are £35. For enquiries: email [email protected] phone 01728 604434.

There is an exhibition of photographs, paintings and artefacts from the Transglobe Expedition at the RGS-IBG from Monday 2 September to Friday 4 October from 10am–5pm. Admission is free.

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