Ferry passengers in the Channel were recently met by the sight of a Defender 110 far from shore, ploughing the open sea under its own steam. This was to be the first stage in an ambitious transglobal expedition dubbed ‘the last great overland adventure’. The crossing wasn’t plain sailing and the attempt had to be aborted, but the team will return.
Their journey will involve driving two Puma-engined Defenders 18,000 miles from London to New York via the Bering Strait – the same mission of Ranulph Fiennes’ aborted ‘Land Rover Global Expedition’ in the late 1990s. Team members Jeff Willner, Steve Brooks and Mikael Strandberg all have expedition experience.
To help the Defenders pull huge 36in tyres, essential for the tundra, the TDCi engines have Stage 3 tuning and higher ratio gears in the transfer box, making 70mph cruising easily achievable, Jeff reports. Nato hitches enable the two Defenders to be linked with a metal bar, effectively giving them the traction of one 8x8 vehicle.
What makes the Defenders amphibious
To cross open water, custom made flotation pontoons have been built by HMS Engineering in Hereford, structurally integrated into both the chassis and the external roll cage to prevent the upward buoyancy of the tanks from stretching the chassis rails outwards. ‘When we got into 6ft seas and we were pounding through the waves, it was good to know that they were over-engineered,’ Jeff told LRO. ‘Two of those pontoons can float everything, but we’ve got four so there’s redundancy.’
Propulsion is generated by a propellor at the end of a propshaft, connected to a PTO on the back of the transfer box. With the front wheels disconnected from the steering linkage and a Bowden cable system attached instead, the driver operates the rudder from the Defender’s steering wheel. However, the team was forced to re-think this mechanism when heavy seas caused the cable to snap. ‘It wasn’t nice, going round in circles in the middle of the Channel with a ferry coming right at you. Our rescue boat had to come and pull us out of the way,’ said Jeff. A hydraulic system similar to that used by outboard-equipped RIBs is now being developed by Safety Boat Services in Norfolk.
To ensure proof of concept, the team intends to cross the Channel not once but twice. ‘The idea isn’t to just survive the crossing but to build a vehicle that will absolutely crush the water,’ says Jeff. After traversing Siberia (where temperatures may reach -40 degrees centigrade) with the aid of Russian-built trucks, the pontoon system will be deployed for the 140-mile crossing of the icy Bering Sea to Alaska. Under new development is a mechanism for attaching outboard motors to give the amphibious Defenders enough speed to cross the Strait. ‘If a storm blows up and you’re still in the middle of the water, you’re a bit screwed,’ says Jeff. ‘It’s a very inhospitable part of the world.’
Jeff hopes the expedition may inspire future aquatic overland adventures. ‘You could imagine taking a Land Rover up the Amazon river, the Nile or the Mekong… you could have a tent on top and live out of the truck. It could be a whole new sub-genre of overlanding.’
Twenty years after he drove round the world in a Defender, Jeff is ready for more. ‘There’s something really attractive about doing something hard again. You could say the trip is a nonsense idea, but a lot of life’s answers are found in things that don’t make sense. This is an incredibly challenging and rewarding project – and a lot of fun.’
The team aims to attempt the Channel crossing again in late November, with a ceremonial departure from the Royal Geographical Society.
Follow their exploits on the DefenderX website.