?What are you doing home?? I asked.
Steve explained how the expedition had gone like clockwork until they tried to make the crossing of the Bering Strait. The amphibious Defender was now beached on the island of Little Diomede just 25 miles away from mainland Alaska and a place in the record books.
?We just can't get the safety boat crew motivated to help us across. It takes two of us to re-fit the floats on the Land Rover to get her ready to sail and by the time we've done this, the safety boat crew have disappeared. It's only a tiny settlement, but when we finally find them, the weather has closed in again or they've got smashed and are sound asleep!?
?What do you need me to do?? I asked.
?Dan's brother Adam is coming out as well and what we need you guys to do is keep on top of the safety-boat crew and get that boat in the water. Once we're at sea, we have to keep going.?
?When are you leaving??
?Next Monday, the 4th! We've got to go back this August as the weather will worsen with winter approaching. If we don't complete it this year, we will have to wait until summer 2009. A German team are leaving in the winter of 2008 and trying to be the first as well. They're using Jeeps!?
That was it. Germans using Jeeps, it was a case of national pride! I had to help Steve complete his goal and get Land Rover into the record books, but there was just one small problem - my 'better half!' Now although she's only a pint sized thing, she is the boss of the World's Strongest Man competition - they're all scared of her, so come on guys be fair, what chance do I stand?!
Our daughter was only 4 months old and the 4th August was Lisa's first day back at work after maternity leave - the timing wasn't good. This was obviously going to upset her, plus my mother would have to come and babysit while I was away. I protected my vital organs as I broke the news!
?Any chance I can go away on an expedition dear?? I pleaded pitifully!
?How long for??
?About three weeks!? I ducked, clutching parts firmly for fear of what was to follow.
There was no screaming, no plates being flung around the room, all was quiet. I looked up.
?OK, as long as you finish all the DIY before you go away again. The list of jobs came thick and fast. Lounge, stairs, landing and porch re-plastered and painted; bathroom re-plastered and entirely new suite; new carpets all round; lounge floor sanded and varnished; new fence in the back garden; new trees planted in the front; tidy your garage and oh, wash my car as well!?
I'm sure that I would pay for my eagerness to strike a deal later, but for now it was a case of 'get packing.'
I drove up to Steve's house on the Sunday night where we packed extra food rations into our kit bags. We might be out on the water for twelve hours or more and that was if things worked well. In an emergency, we had to be prepared to sit out on the water for at least 24 hours before any help might arrive.
Monday 4 August 09:00
We met Dan Evans, MD of Protection and Performance and his younger brother, Adam at Manchester airport. Both had been involved in the design, development and testing of the amphibious Land Rover and Dan had made the crossing with Steve of the first half of the Bering Strait. As Dan kissed his pregnant wife good bye and hugged his young daughter, we knew that we had better come back successful. If not, we were all going to get it in the ear for a very long time!
The flight to Alaska was as long as I remembered from my trip nine years previously. Although it was August, I had packed for the worst. Down jacket, gloves and Arctic socks bulged from my kit bag as I unloaded it from the conveyor belt at Nome city airport twelve hours later. Perched on the edge of the Seward Peninsula, 1,000 miles from the main road network, Nome is an old gold mining town and the finishing point for the famous Iditarod sled race.
As we stepped outside into the clear Alaskan air, I was expecting to be hit be a fierce rush of Arctic wind, numbing me to my very core, but instead was met with warmth on my face. The seas were flat calm, not a ripple on the water, as home-made gold-dredging barges gently paddled their way up and down the rugged shoreline. It was the perfect day to cross the Bering Strait, but first we had to get to Little Diomede.
We checked with Bering Air about our next flight by single-engined plane to the tiny Inuit village of Wales. Perched on the most western edge of Alaska we would then have to take a small fishing boat across the hostile waters of the Bering Strait, a distance of 25 miles, which is the same as crossing from Dover to Calais.
As we wandered around the tiny town, buying souvenirs for our loved ones back home, we gazed out to sea and couldn't believe how calm it was. Steve and Dan had been battling frightening seas to reach Little Diomede only two weeks before and my only memory of this part of the world was -20°C, icebergs attacking the coastline and blowing a gale most of the time.
Wednesday 6 August
We woke the next morning and things couldn't have been more different. Low clouds hung over the land, fog masked any views and rain battered the windows. It didn't look like any aircraft would fly that day. Things didn't look good and there was a feeling of nervousness and frustration amongst the team. Steve and Dan had experienced what the unpredictable weather could do in this region after being stuck on the Russian coastline for two weeks and then again on Little Diomede for a further ten days. August was the last chance to cross the Strait that year. If they didn't make it, they would be up against the might of the Jeep sponsored German expedition and all Steve's hard work and money would be for nothing.
Although the airline receptionist was very understanding of our urgent requests to reach Wales, there was absolutely nothing she could do. The village of just 153 inhabitants was 200 miles away and with no roads leading there, flying was the only way to go.
We sat in the nearby cafe and ate ice-cream, whiling away the hours as the clock hand slowly ticked around on its never ending journey. The clouds were in no rush to leave and aircraft sat idle on the edge of the runway, the fog clinging to the ground, determined not to be shaken.
After an hour or two, we decided to take a wander back into town and get some fresh air. There are only so many souvenir shops you can visit in one day and we were getting twitchy, always looking at the clouds above to see if there was any improvement. Even if things did brighten up above Nome, there was no guarantee that Wales would be the same. Perched so far out to sea, it has its own little micro-climate, with the winds being funnelled between the two vast continents of Asia and America on their way north to the Arctic Ocean.
Steve received a call on his mobile. It was Bering Air, the flight was on.
We raced back to the airstrip, this was it. Clambering aboard the tiny Cessna Caravan, we strapped ourselves into the flimsy seats and peered out of the misty windows. The pilot applied full throttle and we were airborne, bumping through the clouds and climbing to 8,000 feet.
The flight was just short of an hour and as we strained to see the ground below through the thick patches of cloud, I suddenly caught a glimpse of the Diomede islands and the Russian mainland beyond. We started our decent, the engines were cut back, flaps applied as we banked hard over to make our final approach.
There below, at the end of the gravel runway, was Wales, my home for ten weeks over eleven years before. I was itching to meet old friends and see if anything had changed. We landed with a bump and as we climbed out of the aircraft, locals hoarded around the aircraft unloading the baggage hold and stacking the items onto quad bikes with trailers. We jumped on board and were taken over to the home of Dan and Ellen Richard.
It was just how I remembered it. The adjoining garage where we slept with the moose carcass dripping blood onto the plastic sheet below, the thick doors to provide maximum insulation and the smell of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven, Ellen's speciality.
?What are your plans Steve?' asked 'Sunni'.
?Simple, get to Little Diomede as soon as possible. Do you fancy taking us out there??
Sunni checked the weather forecast for the following day. The weather was lifting and the seas were calm, it was good. We would leave the next morning.
We sat and chatted until the small hours. Dan gave me a guided tour of his house, proudly showing me the new bits of extension he had built. There, in the corridor, pride of place, was the Land Rover Global Expedition plaque that we had made Dan for his birthday. It was so lovely to see everyone again.
Thursday 7 August 12:00 - Depart Wales
It was slightly un-nerving as I walked down the beach to see the boat that would be carrying seven of us across the Strait, a tiny sixteen foot fishing boat, powered by a single outboard motor. My only experience of water before this was crossing the Channel on a P&O car ferry, so the thought of covering the same distance in something not much bigger than a bath tub didn't fill me with joy! I donned my life jacket, but to be quite honest it wasn't really worth putting on. Life expectancy in those waters is measured in minutes, not hours and any rescue helicopter or boat would be too far away to reach us in time.
?So how often do Whales attack small boats?? I asked.
?Not that often,? came the reply, ?but it does happen.?
I felt so much better!
Sunni set his GPS and we pushed out onto the calm sea. There was mist in the distance and as we sped away from the shoreline at a steady eight knots.
After three hours on the water, reading my latest copy of Land Rover Monthly, Little Diomede homed into view, the jagged rocks of the 1200 foot high rock peaking through the mist. A small boat came out to meet us and guide us into the slipway. There, perched high above the seas was the white Defender 110, hiding behind a 40 foot container, providing some shelter against the wind, rain and crashing waves.
Jerry, our safety boat captain was there to meet us.
?Don't let him disappear,? said Steve. ?Today is probably our only day for getting the job done.?
We unpacked our kit bags and carried everything up to the Land Rover, stepping over the Whale bones. A young puppy trotted by us, proudly showing off his Seal flipper, which he flipped into the air and caught. There were bits of dead animal everywhere, mixed in with old oil drums, rusting lorry trailers and rubbish strewn all over. It was an environmentalist's worse nightmare. Why on earth didn't they clean the place up?
Dan checked all the levels, jumped in and fired up the Defender. All was well, even though she'd spent nine hours in sea water and then two weeks battered by storms. Our first problem though was trying to get the Defender passed a large tracked digger that was parked right in the middle of the makeshift track. This involved driving underneath the boom, but the guys had got it up there, so it must be able to get back down again.
With Adam driving, we each took up a position where we could guide the vehicle through. Gingerly negotiating the rocks, planks of wood were positioned to step from one large boulder to another. It was a tight fit, but with much shunting back and forth, she was free to drive down towards the sea.
With a clear run to the slipway, we quickly started work on re-building the Defender. The inflatable floats, propeller and rudder were stored inside, while the large out-riggers were carried down to the assembly point.
With the rudder and prop back on, I moved on to help the others. Adam had already positioned all the bracing bars were secured to the chassis and it was now a case of fitting the large red frames that supported the floats and connecting up the hydraulics, which raised and lowered them as required when entering and exiting water.
The last job to do was to inflate the large floats. There were 5 chambers, of which two could be punctured and the Land Rover would still float. After five hours of frantic work, we were ready. It was six pm and although we were close to the Arctic Circle and it wouldn't get dark until gone 1 am, we were keen to get going. Losing the safety boat in the dark was one scenario that we didn't want to happen.
I jumped on board the boat with Adam and we cruised around just off shore while we watched Steve and Dan trying to launch the vehicle. The tide must have been slightly lower than when they landed, as they struggled to scrape past the jagged rocks and onto the open water. We could hear the propeller striking the rocky sea bed as they tried in vain to free themselves from the island. After twenty minutes or so, with Dan struggling to free rocks from around the Land Rover, she broke free. Next stop, mainland Alaska.
The seas were flat calm, the islands of Little and Big Diomede sheltering the waters from the strong currents and the Land Rover set off at a good pace of 4 ˝ knots. The safety boat circled the Land Rover so we could check that all was OK, Dan gave the thumbs up from their end. Things were looking good.
As we sailed further away from the island, the sun started to burn off the fog and we looked back and could just make out both Big and Little Diomede. It was a glorious day as we chugged along in a pocket of clear sky, fog hanging over the sea all around us. Hot drinks were passed around and Adam and I broke open our rations and shared them with the other four guys in the boat.
Our progress was good, but after four hours on the water, we hit the Wales Current, which slowed us down to 1.4 knots and even as low as ˝ knot at times. At that rate, we would take two days to complete the crossing! Jerry started to get twitchy in the safety boat, not wanting to be caught out at sea in the dark. Adam and I reassured him that all would be well and that we must continue heading for Wales.
Progress was painful, the clouds started to loom and the wind picked up slightly, making the sea a little choppy. Still, nothing that the Land Rover couldn't cope with.
Every half an hour, Dan would climb out of the cab and do a walk-round of the vehicle. There was a slight leak within the hydraulic system that kept the outriggers pressed down into the water, so he would have to press his back against the vehicles bodywork and after giving Steve the nod to operate the hydraulics, would push his legs against the outriggers, so forcing the floats into the water more. This would lift the vehicle's body out of the water slightly, so reducing drag and increasing speed.
The fog still clung low to the sea, but we could look over the top of it to see the majestic peak of Cape Mountain, which sat to the south side of Wales. Six hours had passed by, the sun was slowly setting behind us, leaving a glorious sunset in its wake. The sight of the Land Rover swimming towards us, with the deep red and orange of the sky lit up behind, will be something that I will always remember. The fog had finally been blown clear and we could at last see Wales village.
?What's that?? asked Adam, pointing to a shape in the water.
It was a small fishing boat, coming out to greet us. We could make out the rugged shape of Dan Richard, sitting in the boat that was being crewed by his brother-in-laws. An avid land-lover, Dan had not been in a boat for 25 years, but this was a truly special occasion so he had made an exception.
The time was 00:50 on Friday 8th August 2008, when Steve Burgess and Dan Evans entered the record books for being the first team to successfully swim an amphibious vehicle across the Bering Strait. Best of all though, it was done in a Land Rover. Their total time for the entire crossing was 18 hours 50 minutes.
We were all tired, but when we stopped and thought about what we had done since leaving England, the speed of this achievement suddenly became clear. We only left the UK on Monday morning and there we were on what was really the Wednesday night having achieved the crossing already! We had all been set to be in Alaska for several weeks and we'd finished in under 3 days!
We turned in at 2am, exhausted, but this was only half the job done, we still had to get back to Nome.
We rose early, said our goodbyes and packed up the Land Rover ready for the next part of the journey. We had about an hour's drive over a mountain pass, which joined the villages of Wales and Tin City, the military base at the foot of Cape Mountain. From there, the plan was to drop back into the water and swim down to the beach at Lost River once we had cleared the huge cliffs that lined the shoreline.
Sunni; 'Old Man' and their younger brother .......... took their boat around the Prince of Wales headland to meet us at Tin City. I jumped in Dan Richard's pick-up truck and we led the way, while the others drove in the Defender, which they left rigged up for amphibious work. It looked precarious as it made its way around the mountain tracks, almost as wide as it was long, but amazingly the Land Rover managed to pick its way around the jagged boulders.
The weather that day was even better than the previous, not a cloud in the sky and beautifully warm. I felt quite daft as I searched through my kit bag looking for my sunglasses and pulled out layer after layer of Arctic clothing, designed for temperatures of -30°C!
We launched into the crystal blue waters and with the sun on our backs, slowly sailed down the coastline. When I visited Wales the first time, I couldn't quite understand why people would want to live in such a place. It was in the grips of a fierce winter, -10°C was considered a warm day and the creaking of the ice against the shoreline could be clearly heard. But now I knew, as we gently meandered our way, hugging the rocky shore and admiring the scenery as we went. We were thousands of miles away from home but world's away from our normal lives. It was purely magical.
For six hours we sailed along the coast, circling the Defender every now and then to take photos and make sure that things looked OK. She looked so at ease in the water, cruising along at a steady 5 knots. Eventually though, the steep cliffs faded away and we reached the long shingle beach that linked Lost River with the village of Teller.
The Defender's arrival onto the beach wasn't as graceful as the landing in Wales. A steep pebble bank caused the floats to fowl and so prevented a landing. After a couple of attempts, Steve decided that he really must stop messing about and actually land on the beach. With maximum power applied and ready to engage the wheels, raise the floats and disengage the prop all at the same time, he attacked the beach at a 45° angle. Success!
The safety boat was unloaded, fuel, kit bags, spares and other provisions were stashed on the Land Rover and we said our goodbyes. I don't know when I'll see them again, but one day I will return to Wales. With Dan at the wheel, Steve and Adam sat on the floats, while I stood in the load bed and hung onto the roll cage.
The going was tough. Hard packed shingle gave way to soft sand and Dan had to put his foot down and power through. It didn't help that washed-up trees littered the beach and we had to pick our way around them. Whenever we hit a really soft patch, we jumped off and pushed with all our might, as the tiny 2.5 litre engine screamed away, trying to propel the vehicle forward - all 4 tons of it.
We were getting low on drinking water, sweating in the heat of the sun and progress was slow. After an hour we came across an old dredging rig and were forced to take a path off the beach and move inland. Wood was strewn all around and we had no means of moving the huge timbers that blocked our path. The Defender was taking a hammering and we were getting tired. Steve decided that we would launch back into the water and all four of us would ride on board.
As we had no safety boat to accompany us, there was a slight risk, but the Land Rover had performed faultlessly and if we stuck close to the shore, we shouldn't have any problems. To be on the safe side though, Steve got on the satellite phone and called Dan back in Wales to let him know what was going on. He in turn then called ahead to the village of Brevig Mission, where another of his relatives said they would come out to escort us.
When the new safety boat arrived, we could steer away from the coastline and head directly for Teller, cutting across the large bay. As the sun slowly started to set, we could make out houses in the distance, clinging to the coastline, on the edge of the stunning bay. By 01:30 on the morning of Saturday 9th August we had landed. All there was left to do was make the 70 mile journey to Nome. The roads are quiet in that part of the world, so we took the prop off, raised the floats and set off! Two hours later we arrived in the old gold mining town. That leg of the expedition was complete.
He will always be in the record books as having been the first man to have swum an amphibious vehicle across the Bering Strait and he did it in a Defender. Steve's Land Rover achievement must rank alongside those of John Blashford-Snell and the infamous Darien Gap crossing and I am privileged and honoured to have played a small part in his expedition.
Unfortunately, this is where his expedition ends. 15 years of planning and financial commitment have taken their toll, not to mention the patience of his long-suffering fiancé Nicky. Steve now has a new challenge to keep him occupied, planning his wedding! The Defender is still in a container, parked up in Nome waiting to continue the adventure.