Fantastic voyage - crossing the Atlantic on a raft

Saga's 2011 interview with an 85-year-old London grandfather and his crew of mature adventurers who successfully crossed the Atlantic on their plastic raft.
Anthony Smith on the An-TikiAnthony Smith on the An-Tiki

In 2011, grandfather, writer and adventurer Anthony Smith and his three-man crew – aged from 56 to 61 years old – arrived at St Martin in the Caribbean, having safely sailed 3,000 miles across the second largest ocean in the world. Anthony spoke to Saga Magazine before he set off on his Atlantic odyssey. Here is another chance to read the interview:

Their raft, An-Tiki, is made of polyethylene pipes and a pig shelter, and her intrepid crew of four mature adventurers have defied sceptics by successfully mastering the Atlantic.

During their 66 days at sea the crew battled bad weather, a broken rudder and lumbers of freight boats sailing too close for comfort. They also baked fresh bread every day, studied plankton with their onboard microscope and last week celebrated Anthony’s 85th birthday with a chocolate cake and a tin of pineapple chunks.

The crew have also raised thousands of pounds for the international charity WaterAid, which works with some of the world’s poorest communities to improve access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.

Anthony, a former BBC Tomorrow's World presenter and science correspondent, who developed the An-Tiki project, said: “We are looking forward to eating fresh food and enjoying some of life’s little luxuries again. But the excitement is tinged with some sadness as the arrival means saying goodbye to our trusty partner, the good raft An-Tiki, who has so steadfastly looked after us on this journey.

“We’ll also miss the incredible sights and sounds of life at sea, sunrises and sunsets, incredible wildlife, the camaraderie and that special space and solitude that ocean goers come to love.”

John Russell, 61, from Gloucestershire, wrote on the An-tiki blog: “I have to admit that I did have some concerns before setting out, but am really glad that I came on the adventure, and it has been absolutely mind-blowing and wonderful. I cannot use enough superlatives, and would not hesitate to do the same again.”

When they departed from the Canaries in January, the team hoped to make it to the Bahamas, but bad weather mid-Ocean slowed progress and time constraints meant they had to choose a new location to complete their adventure.

Anthony and crew hope to raise £50,000 for WaterAid. Rebecca Poyntz, Events Fundraising Manager, said: “We’re so grateful to the crew of the An-Tiki for their support, and for helping spread the message of clean water and sanitation across the globe. They have already raised enough for WaterAid to transform the lives of hundreds of people by improving access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Anthony and crew are keeping the spirit of adventure alive and they are a great inspiration to fundraisers too – old or young.”

Saga Magazine: James Delingpole talks to adventurer Anthony Smith

"Well, the sharks aren't going to be a problem because none of us is going to swim. And the storms and big waves shouldn’t be too bad because we’re going at the best time of year. And the reefs the other side will be treacherous, but we’ll be famous by then and there’ll be welcoming parties helping to guide us through the channels..."

In his tiny flat in west London, Anthony Smith is racking his brain as to what might possibly go wrong with his next big adventure. But try as he might, he can’t think of any, other than to observe that "the most dangerous things are the ones you haven’t thought of."

You and I might beg to differ. In fact, if you weren’t lucky enough to have met him, you’d probably think he was off his rocker. He is, after all, 84 years old, with a gammy leg and still recovering from a near-fatal car accident. And he is planning to sail nearly 3,000 miles across the Atlantic with three other men in their later years. On a raft made of gas pipes.

"Why a raft? Because it’s interesting and it’s safe and it’s easy," he says. Rafts, he says, are stable, impossible to overturn, surprisingly easy to steer and have a remarkable safety record. "On the 50 or so big rafting expeditions I know of, only one person has died. But he was 64 and he was depressed and his expedition had failed." In other words, Smith seems gently to be implying, the poor fellow had it coming to him.

Smith doesn’t have much time for infirmity or – his bête noir – "chronological age". He’s aghast at contemporaries who boast about how marvellous it is to shop at the supermarket on Tuesday mornings when it’s not crowded, and how they’ve “never been so busy” since they began fundraising for the church roof. "I say to myself: 'Hell! Is that all there is that’s left?'"

Once, he was infuriated to read some whippersnapper author in a book called The Body observe: "No one knows when old age begins but let’s say 50."

Luckily, he could amend the mistake in later editions because he’d written the book himself, in his mid-thirties, when he didn’t know any better. He increased the figure to 70, but even that, he thinks, is arbitrary.

"People age at different rates. In Europe they won’t hire you a car if you’re over 80. But I have friends in their sixties I wouldn’t trust to drive a car, and others in their late eighties who can still sprint 60 yards."

So that’s one reason for Smith’s adventure: a defiant two fingers up at convention. But it’s not the only one. He has at least half a dozen more, ranging from the need to fund his second divorce (besides two ex-wives he has five children), to his obsession with a story he read at the beginning of the war called Two Survived, about the epic, 70-day transatlantic voyage made in a tiny boat by seven surviving merchant navy victims of a German surface raider.

As the title hints, only two made it: the others, starving and dehydrated, committed suicide by jumping over the side. What fascinated Smith as a 14-year-old and still does today is the narrowness of the margin between survival and death.

"When you’re that age you think war is a terribly glamorous and exciting thing. I have a letter from that time from a friend saying, ‘We haven’t been bombed yet – worse luck – have you?’ What I realised from the book is that life can be much uglier than that."

But it didn’t put him off danger. Possibly the biggest frustration of Smith’s rollicking life is that he never fought in the Second World War. He trained as an RAF pilot at bases where he was surrounded by dashing Battle of Britain aces, but the war ended and like so many RAF personnel he was "re-mustered" as a clerk.

The disappointment was immense. After the war he remembers being posted to an airfield in Northumberland and "slobbering" over the Typhoon and Tempest fighter-bombers he would now never fly in anger.

On being released from the RAF in 1948, Anthony gained a degree in zoology from Oxford before embarking on a footloose career of travel, adventure and near-death scrapes, funded through journalism, publishing and TV, including a stint on Tomorrow’s World. In 1962 he read his own obituary in The Daily Telegraph, after the balloon he was flying over East Africa was reported to have exploded in mid-air.

In fact all it had done was crash into a forest, the trees cushioning its fall. But there were many hairier moments. Probably the worst was when the balloon was sandwiched perilously between a storm cloud and a lake of caustic soda. All it needed was a strong updraft or down current to carry Smith and his fellow crewman to certain death: "Either we would have died of cold, lack of air and the balloon being torn to shreds, or we’d have been dissolved in the lake." In the nick of time, a friendly breeze carried them out of danger.

How does one cope with such moments of extreme terror? "Well, you don’t talk a lot. There’s none of that 'Joe, this looks like it’s got our number on it.' It’s more just a series of grunts as you try to do whatever you can to stay alive. It wouldn’t make a very good film."

Last year, Smith’s luck very nearly ran out while he was nowhere more exotic than his own doorstep. A van driver ran him over and – having stayed just long enough to drag him from beneath the vehicle – left him drifting in and out of consciousness.

Astonishingly, despite his injuries, Smith was able to remember the number plate. The police found the van parked at the owner’s home, with hair from Smith’s distinctively bushy eyebrows still stuck to the axle.

The accident left Smith disabled, with a 5in metal plate in a leg (he has to walk with a stick), but with just enough compensation to act as a seed fund for his raft expedition. The idea was inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition. Because of the age of the participants, Smith has called his the An Tiki expedition.

When he began recruiting for the expedition five years ago he asked for candidates of pensionable age only. But he has since relented and chosen a slightly younger crew, largely on the grounds of character and eccentricity. Usefully, one happens to be a GP.

As to risk, Smith is clearly torn between talking it down (so that he can get the necessary insurance) and talking it up (so he can get sponsorship and press coverage). In all honesty, he thinks dangers have been greatly exaggerated by people who just "don’t know".

"People say, 'Why not take a bus to Timbuctoo, instead?' But that really would be dangerous and I wouldn’t even be driving. This journey I intend to be as easy as possible. I’m going to invest in the nicest, most comfortable chair I can find."

He says having an older crew should prevent any unnecessary risk-taking. "Older people are more cautious about themselves. They’re not as stupid as young people. On the Kon-Tiki expedition, some of them went swimming and almost died because the raft drifted off faster than they could swim. Well, we’re going to be more sensible. Swimming’s banned."

And in the unlikely event that something does go wrong – will there be any kind of support vessel? "Good God, no, that would castrate the whole thing! In fact we’d probably end up rescuing them."

An adventurous life

Anthony Smith was born in 1926, and brought up on the Astor estate at Cliveden, Berkshire, where his father was estate manager...

His first expedition was to Persia, exploring the Qanat underground irrigation tunnels, which he documented in his first book, Blind White Fish in Persia. A species of fish he discovered is named after him.

After a stint as a journalist in Manchester, he headed to Africa for a series of adventures travelling overland by motorbike to Cape Town. It took five months and shook his kidneys out of place.

Between 1957 and 1963 he was science correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, taking time off for the first balloon crossing of East Africa. When, eventually, he recovered his nerve he became the first Briton to fly in a balloon over the Alps.

His biggest financial success was The Body (1968) – later updated as The Human Body and in 1998 screened as a seven-part BBC series presented by Professor Robert Winston. The book sold 800,000 copies.

He has worked on many television programmes, including Tomorrow’s World. The An Tiki expedition is due to set out from the Canary Islands in January 2011, when the trade winds are settled and the chances of storms are smallest. The voyage will end in the Bahamas on the island of Eleuthera – chosen because it was the spot where the heroes of Smith’s favourite true-adventure book, Two Survived, landed in 1940. (Smith was responsible for bringing their boat from the USA to the Imperial War Museum, where it is now on permanent display.) To find out more, or sponsor the trip, see www.an-tiki.com

The raft: 39ft long and 20ft wide, is made of four polyethylene water pipes (with sealed ends) lashed together. On top of this are a series of cross-pipes, in which will be stored water. On top of this is a wooden deck with two cabins – one for living and cooking; one for sleeping. It will be propelled by two sails (one 400sq feet, one 130sq feet) on a 35ft mast. The trip is expected to take 60 days.

The crew: Besides Smith, the other crew members were David Hildred, 57, Dr Andrew Bainbridge, 56, and John Russell, 61.

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