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Pipe Dream

Pipe Dream: Rafting Across the Atlantic
By Traci O'Dea

When David Hildred was thirteen years old, he bought a book called Throw Out Two Hands by author Anthony Smith.“On the front cover of this paperback book was a balloon over Africa, and for some reason, at 13, that grabbed my imagination,” he said. Little did that thirteen year old boy know what a huge influence Anthony Smith was going to have on his life.

David read the book and became a lifelong fan of Anthony Smith. “Whenever he went off on an expedition, I’d buy the book,” he said. On top of his “exploring books,” Anthony Smith has written over 30 titles, “ranging from how the machine gun was invented to how the human body works” and even has a species of fish named after him. Clearly, Anthony Smith’s interest in expeditions and the mysteries of the world has left its mark on David, an unassuming yet self-assured engineer for Systems Engineering Ltd. in the BVI. “Because of Anthony, I got involved in hot-air ballooning,” he said. “I’ve had over 100 hot air balloon flights. I was part of a team that flew across America in hot air balloons in 1992 to celebrate the rediscovery of America by Columbus.” Despite his time in the air, or maybe because of it, he seems to have an innate connection to the ground beneath his feet. His adventures haven’t simply included airtime, though, and he lists off his excursions not to brag but to confirm how truly Anthony Smith Inspired him. “I’ve been down the headwaters of the Amazon in a dugout canoe. I’ve hitchhiked around Africa. I spent a year wandering around Central and South America. I commissioned a yacht built after I spent some time in the Middle East, lived on that for 25 years, and that’s how I ended up in the BVI. I’ve been up above the Arctic Circle, exploring glaciers, and drove a camper van around the back roads of Australia.”

The youthful Anthony Smith plays with the polyethylene pipes that are soon to be used to build his raft.

Though Anthony’s influence pervaded David’s life, the two adventurers did not meet until this year. While perusing Amazon.com a few years back, David had seen a forthcoming project on a trans-Atlantic rafting trip forecasted on Anthony Smith’s author page. David anticipated the book, but then the blurb on the expedition and book disappeared. “He was still alive, according to Wikipedia, and so I thought, ‘Hell with it, I’ve gotta write to him,’ so through the power of the internet, I found him,” David said. He wrote Anthony a letter asking about the proposed project, and an email correspondence commenced which eventually led to them planning a meeting when David next visited the UK. “I went up, basically just to spend a morning with him. Well, I spent two days. Just talking.” David discovered that Anthony’s raft crossing had been stalled “because he’d been knocked over in London by a hit-and-run driver, and he ended up in hospital with his right leg broken in five places.” Despite the accident and injury, the 84-year old Anthony informed David that the venture was still a go and asked if David would like to come. “I checked with my wife and family, and they said, ‘Go for it—it’s the chance of a lifetime.’ ”David’s employer gave him three months’ leave of absence, and he signed up.

The Raft

GPS PE Pipe Systems is donating the main material for the raft’s construction -polyethylene pipes. “They are very high pressure water main pipes,” David said. “Effectively, they’re bulletproof, and they will float even if full of water. They’re very strong, very buoyant.” An-Tiki, the raft, partly named as a salute to the Kon-Tiki, has a design that consists of four main pipes that act similarly to the hulls of a catamaran. In fact, David called it a double catamaran. The other fourteen cross pipes serve as the support for the deck. Seven of them will be sealed with air while the other seven will be filled with fresh water for the journey. “So, actually, we’ll get more buoyant,” David said. “I don’t think sinking is something we’re terribly concerned about.”

Powering the raft is a big, square sail, which David said is “a bit like the square sail they had on the Kon-Tiki.” He called it a “standard downwind sail” and added, “We’re using a telegraph pole as a mast, so it’s pretty solid.” To steer, they have a 25-foot steering oar in the back and five centreboards, or guaras, dotted around the boat. “It’s a method of steering the boat that was developed by the South American Indians off the coast of Peru and which Heyerdahl utilised in Kon-Tiki. By raising and lowering the centreboards, you can actually steer the boat downwind,” giving them 30° off the wind, direct downwind in either direction. “So we have a good area of range of steering that we can use even if we don’t use the steering oar.” David isn’t too concerned about capsizing, either, partially because famous naval architect and designer Colin Mudie did the conceptual plans. “And then we’ve just taken standard engineering principles and looked at all the joint connections and the way things work,” David told me, adding that their support team also includes a specialist rigger, a shipbuilder, a shipwright, an electrician and experts in transatlantic rowing expeditions. Additionally, running their land-based headquarters is Robin Batchelor, “the chap who taught Richard Branson how to fly balloons,” David said. Another BVI connection.

The crossing, David assured me, is meant to be a comfortable one. The object of the experience is not to suffer. We’re not doing this to be 'The Wreck of the Hesperus',” he said. They found a company that is fabricating and donating stainless steel Quonset-hut style lodgings for the cabins. “We’ve got two cabins on board—one for living and one for sleeping.” In addition, they have “all the creature comforts—satellite communications, satellite tracking, all the safety gear.” Along with the 710 kilos of food and enough fresh water for 80 days, the raft is equipped with a desalinator and fishing gear.

David Hildred and Anthony Smith (seated) will be embarking on their trans- Atlantic raft crossing in January .

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The raft is being preassembled in Huntingdon UK, then loaded into a container and shipped to the Canary Islands where the crew will meet and spend a month assembling it. “The plan is to finish it just before Christmas, have Christmas off, then leave in January of 2011. The crossing is about 3000 miles and change. We’re on a raft; we’re not going to steer a direct course, but it’s hopefully going to take about 60 days—that’s about 50 miles a day.” An-Tiki will be accompanied by a power boat for the first 200-300 miles, “just to make sure we didn’t forget the can opener,” David said, and to assist them to get down into the tradewinds, if necessary.

The Worthy Causes
The crew of the An-Tiki will be completing the voyage for more than just the love of adventure. The first cause that they support is Water Aid, an international NGO whose mission, according to their website, “is to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sa nitation in the world's poorest communities.” In addition to raising awareness about the world’s water needs, the raft will serve as a research vessel, studying plankton in connection with The Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS). The third reason is “to show that people like Anthony who are older in years but not in mental attitude are still perfectly capable of doing adventurous things,” David said. “It’s very interesting how as we get older, we tend to become more careful. And yet, it was Chris Bonington who said it, you should take more risks as you get older because you’ve got less to lose.” Hence the name of the raft, An-Tiki, a cheeky reference to Anthony’s age.

The final reason, bringing everything back to the beginning, was inspired by a book that Anthony Smith read. “In the fifties,” David recounted, “Anthony read a book about a little Jolly Boat, a lifeboat that was drifting across the Atlantic after the freighter Anglo Saxon had been sunk by the Germans in 1940.” Of the seven crew who made it onto the lifeboat, two remaining survivors landed on a beach in the Bahamas. “The aim is to try and reach that particular beach in the Bahamas,” David said, seventy years after the two survivors did so, and to emphasize the importance of remembering the Merchant Navy, “very much a forgotten part of the war.”

Since age 13, David Hildred has been following Anthony Smith’s life, and he’s also been following in his footsteps. “I wasn’t a terribly brave child,” he said, nor does he feel any braver at 57. “I tend to look at risks more,” he said, and mentioned An-Tiki’s twenty-page mitigation document he wrote that plans “hopefully against everything—right down to heatstroke, sunstroke, psychological issues, all that sort of stuff.” He added, “I’ve learnt that if you look at the risks, and you mitigate against the risks, crossing the Atlantic on a raft is no more dangerous than taking the bus to Timbuktu…but am I braver? Do I feel that I’m taking risks? No, not really. Not in my mind.” In his actions, though? I asked. “I think that’s what it is,” he said. “I shall probably feel nervous the day we leave, but will I not go because of that fear or that nervousness? No. Absolutely not. In Throw Out Two Hands, things didn’t go quite smoothly, and yet, I would’ve gone on that expedition at the drop of a hat.”

BVIPY wishes David, Anthony and the rest of the crew smooth sailing. To track the journey or to donate to the sponsors, visit www.an-tiki.com.

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