With Chris and Hugo working in Exeter, surviving on the dole and the proceeds of loose change thrown into a donations box outside their workshop, Steve and I based ourselves in London, also surviving on the dole, a target of endless abuse down the pub.
“What the bloody hell are you two thinking?“ roared Lofty, our six-feet, six-inch Yorkshireman friend over a beer at The Dove in Hammersmith. Tears were streaming down his cheeks from laughing so hard. “I mean, thirty-five quid a week on the Rock ‘n Roll isn’t going to get you around the world now is it? Word of advice lads, forget the whole pea-brained idea.”
Finally, as if disclosing classified information, he leaned forward and hissed, “Joost admit it, you two losers aren’t going anywhere – apart from the bar that is. Now get the fookin’ beers in!”
As a used car salesman buying old bangers for a pittance at South London car auctions and then flogging them for scandalous sums through the free ads paper Loot, Lofty wasn’t one to talk about going anywhere, either.
But this was typical of the UK’s home-grown brand of Tall Poppy Syndrome, a nationwide condition whereby anyone caught breaking ranks and trying to sneak their life off in a new direction was automatically branded a turncoat, a traitor. And heaven forbid they actually become successful. Convention called for people to keep their heads down in their little rut. If you tried to make a run for it, the mob would drag you down like a pack of wolves, back into the shit pit with them.
Secretly, it made us even more determined to prove them wrong.
A few people took the idea seriously, Steve’s father being one. Stuart had the energy of a five-year-old trapped inside a fifty-five-year-old body. Raised in the George Muller orphanage in Bristol until the age of fifteen, he wore the grizzled mantle of a survivor, beaten into shape by the brutish conditions and regular thumpings of the bible. He quickly became a walking, talking evangelist for the expedition.
Perhaps inadvertently expressing a piece of his own wounded soul, Stuart had a remarkable talent for making a person feel genuinely needed, especially when it came to forking out the cash. His local pub, The Prince Alfred in Queensway, was a favourite early hunting ground. Introducing himself with a winning smile and tip of his leather Crocodile Dundee hat to a group of complete strangers, he could sweep aside the initial scepticism – on occasion, outright hostility – and within five minutes have them all eating out of his hand. Even during the embryonic stages when the expedition was still just a fantasy, his infectious enthusiasm regularly had customers handing over ten pounds for a vinyl name on a boat that didn’t even exist yet.
This was the early seed money that helped purchase materials to start building the boat. Steve then set out to bicycle 1,700 miles from London to Marrakech, completing his goal in an impressive seventeen days, adding a further £3,250 of individual pledges to the pot. At the same time, a concerted letter-writing campaign to marine equipment manufacturers yielded a steady trickle of paints, resins, rope, polycarbonate windows, bilge pumps, watertight bulkheads, a compass, and so on. In return, we promised the ultimate in field-testing, and photographs of their products in action. Mars UK donated 4,000 Mars Bars. My father talked the British Army out of 250 MRE (meals ready to eat) ration packs.
Despite early successes with equipment, there was still the small matter of where £150,000, the budget for the entire project, would come from. Over the next twelve months, more than 250 tailored proposals were submitted to a wide range of prospective title sponsors, each one followed up persistently by phone. They were met with an equally persistent stream of rejections:
“It’s a wonderful idea … truly inspirational,” read the response from a popular battery manufacturer. “Linking longevity to our brand is a perfect fit. However, the three years proposed for the event is a little too long even for one of our batteries!”
Translated as: Hey guys, we’ll all be pushing up daisies by the time you finish this thing…
Or, one from a well-known insurance corporation:
“The opportunity of associating our company with your daring adventure is a little too risky for our sponsorship strategy at this time.”
Translated as: Watching your boat sink a mile out from shore on national television, with you guys wearing one of our shirts, will do little for customer confidence…
More often than not, it was just a form letter:
“After careful consideration, we regret to inform…”
Translated as: Bugger off you scroungers and get a job like everybody else…
Even Richard Branson turned us down because, according to his PR people, “Richard would want to do this himself.”
Translated as: Just bugger off.
Then, in early February, our prayers were answered. A £30,000 offer came through from Fyfe’s Bananas to be a supporting sponsor. With one backer in place, attracting others would be easy.
There was, however, a slight catch. The deal involved turning the boat into a giant banana, painted yellow, and pedalling our first ocean as “The Banana Boys.”
It was too humiliating a prospect to consider seriously.
All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis