1965, British fought to stabbing the channel by GPA

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1965, British fought to stabbing the channel by GPA

Post by bobassel » Wed Jul 17, 2013 6:37 pm

A letter to Autocar magazine, sent in December 1965 but never published. It was in response to the article about Amphicars crossing the English Channel that is available here:


The article by Capt. Peter Tappenden and Capt. M.B Bailey, (Autocar, 10 December 1965), put me in mind of a similar attempt made, some years ago, by three mad young men. I will tell the story in the first person as I was one of them.

The idea of “driving” my 4x4 amphibious Jeep across the channel materialised over an evening drink at the local pub. It was a good little vehicle with a fair road performance, 70 mph and up to 20 mpg!!! (streamlining) and a timed max, in calm water, of just over 7 knots. After all such a vehicle, “Halfsafe”, had driven across the angry Atlantic to the African coast and thence, via Europe and the Channel, to this country.

Unfortunately, our preparation was not as good as it should have been. Theoretically, the Jeep should be more sea-worthy than the Amphicar as it has considerably more freeboard, more power, and a very efficient rudder (the Amphicar uses the front wheels as rudders). Our first big mistake was not fitting a top, thus leaving the whole thing open to the sea. Secondly, we did not arrange for an escort boat.

I remember that that morning, in August 1959, dawned bright at Dover and the prospects looked good. However, we soon experienced our first problem; the customs authorities. Although they were trying to be as helpful as possible no one could decide which form to use, one for a boat or one for a car. Anyway, after considerable delay it was suggested that we should just go and forget the normal formalities.

So, at about 9.30, my red and blue Jeep drove down the ramp into the calm waters of Dover Harbour. As Capt. Tappenden suggested in his article, these conditions gave no indication of those to be encountered outside the walls.

Never the less, our initial progress in a fairly choppy sea, was good, about 5 ½ knots. I recall over taking a large yacht and asking the surprised helms-woman if we were on the right road for Calais, we were. About a couple of hours out the passing of the car ferry confirmed our navigation.

It was not long after this that conditions began to deteriorate. The sea was increasing and haze had reduced visibility to about a mile even though the sun was still shining; as the forecast had suggested. Not only were conditions outside getting worse, but also those inside (inside our stomachs that is). In fact one of crew was already convinced that it would be better to drown. By mid afternoon it was obvious that the initial delay and the slower progress latterly, had left us battling against both wind and tide.

The little craft fought bravely against mounting seas and considering that we had no top or even side windows, shipped very little water. Directional stability was good thanks to accurate steering. However, in order to prevent the water breaking over the side , it was necessary to keep swinging the bows (bonnet) in to the waves. This made navigation very difficult. Our compass was ex-aircraft and heavily damped, consequently before it had corrected after a yaw one way, we were already going to the other and the poor instrument became somewhat confused. So did we!

The fact that we had now reached the “past caring and wanting to die” stage didn’t help. Even the smallest task had become painful and most of our time was spent leaning over the side.

About this time we realised that there was an increase of watery sounds from the bilges. A glance at the outlet of the bilge pump revealed that no water was being ejected. Standing on my head, in a craft bobbing like a cork, to remove the floor section and inhale oily fumes, when my stomach was already dancing the “Horn-Pipe”, is still one of my most unpleasant memories.

Unfortunately the antics only confirmed the failure of the bilge pump. The filter had become blocked and as the unit was water-cooled it had ceased. Slowly the intake of water, some shipped, some through the prop-shaft seals which were never 100%, overtook our efforts at bailing. Eventually, at about 5pm water reached the ignition. With no steerage way matters worsened. All loose equipment was jettisoned. Still the water level rose, so we decided to leave.

The next few hours taught me a lesson that will make any further sea adventures much safer.

We were very lucky. The survival precautions that we had taken may well have saved our lives. As members of a Sub Aqua club it was second nature to bring all our swimming equipment, including dry rubber suits. These were put over our clothes. Mask and snorkel were added to protect the eyes and ease breathing, swim fins and CO2 inflatable life jackets completed the outfit. Clad thus the crew stepped overboard to a “K” type one man dinghy which proved to be too small to be of much value.

Late afternoon turned to evening and night fell. We were tired, very sick and a little cold. Darkness revealed the light beacon of Calais; So near and yet so far. Gradually the wind and tide took us back into the Channel.

The possibility of swimming, as we had equipment, did occur to us but we decided this was to be a last resort if not picked up by morning.

Looking back, I am glad this step was not necessary but I think it might have been possible. It is much easier and more comfortable to swim 20ft down, away from the buffeting of the waves, than it is on the surface. Due to the smoother conditions, compass navigation is also much easier. Several friends and I have managed + - 12ins. Over 200 yds. In still water. Under the existing conditions the aqua-lungs would have lasted nearly two hours which may have enabled us to reach calmer water.

However our thoughts of swimming were still far off. Shortly after darkness fell, the sound of an engine could be heard. After a few moments the lights of what appeared to be the ferry, came in to view; at about a mile or less. At last a chance! We fired a “two star red”. Two bright red balls of fire soared into the night sky. To us the entire area seemed to be illuminated. We watched the electric lights of comfort fade into the distance.

Time passed, the sea calmed and the poor old Jeep was still with us but only just. For a while we climbed back in where it was a little warmer, in fact we even slept, but soon reverted to the safety of the sea in case she capsized.

When conditions improved a little more we made a last effort on the bilges. In fact, at one stage the engine actually fired but that 6v starting system was never much good and wouldn’t rally to the task.

Several more ships passed fairly closely. Again the red stars had echoed our cries for help; all to no avail. There was only one distress signal left. At about 11:30 pm the ever increasing roar of engines heralded the approach of a large vessel. The lights seemed to be heading straight for us.

We switched on the Jeep lights, fearful of a collision. It was not quite as close as it had originally appeared but was certainly no more than 200 yds when our last signal lit the sky. “Did that engine slow or was it imagination” we argued as the tanker disappeared west.

About 1.00 am we were aroused from the depths of despair by the sound of many diesel motors. A galaxy of navigation lights approached from the east. There was still enough life in the battery to work our lights. I wrenched the spot from the bonnet and turned it towards the nearest boat. This time the beam actually reached the little wooden trawler. Her engine slowed she came round and drew along side. The French crew gazed down amazed; after all, even a fisherman imagination doesn’t stretch to finding a road vehicle parked in the channel.

What remained of our equipment was passed on board including a fair amount of tinned food. As the Jeep was still floating the Captain decided to try a tow. After only few yards the poor old tub was swamped, there it hung still on the rope its headlights like green eyes gazing up helplessly. We suggested it should be left dangling and dropped in shallow water were we could salvage it. The captain did not agree, or perhaps understand and insisted on trying to get it into the trawling gear. The tow rope stretched from the winch on the bows of the trawler along the deck and through an eye in the stern. All the crew held the rope but somehow, amidst much shouting and waving of arms, it was released from the winch. The pull was too much for them and gradually the hawser began to accelerate along the deck until it flashed through the eye, the last man having let go just in time. Well that was the end of my amphibian.

We were still feeling very ill so you can imagine our response when the cook produced an enormous frying pan swimming in oil and suggested chips and fried meat!
Never the less we accepted his offer of coffee. The ¼ litre mugs of steaming black liquid warmed our hands the effect of this liquid on our stomachs was outstanding. He offered another cup; put the pan on the stove filled it from an enormous bottle of Cognac boiled it and poured this onto the coffee grounds. Obviously water is to have outside ships but never inside. The brew proved to be a wonderful tonic to such an extent that the three of us even ate the pan of chips. Feeling better but very tired we slept on the crews bunks below deck around a roaring stove.

The trawler was docked in Boulogne and the catch landed before the Captain woke us. Following a bit of a clean up we went with him to the British Consul who showed great interest and was very helpful. The French crew could have claimed for the rescue but declined to do so and would only accept a few Francs to part cover the loss of their hawser.

We were sadder but wiser. The main lesson I learned, besides the need for unlimited preparation, was the advantage of a rubber diving suit in the case of an emergency. A life jacket may hold ones head above the water but if it is cold one may give up the ghost. The three of us were in the water for about seven hours; two days later following a collision in the same area a man was picked up after only two hours almost frozen stiff. The suit, mask, snorkel and fins make one more at home in the water and therefore boosts morale. Of course a good life jacket (too many are useless) is still a must. Although the suit is very buoyant it may float an unconscious person face down. If the sea is not too choppy it is possible to sleep wearing such equipment.

Of the various vehicles I have driven I miss the old Jeep most, it was great fun and a reasonable road car.

Many thanks to Bob Skinner for sharing.
Please don't try to contact the captains because of their age!

Bob Asselbergs
Ford GPA 12350, april 4th 1943
Author of GPA book,
Willys MD M38A1, A13817 1952

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