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Around the world on his own steam

Briton Jason Lewis circles the globe using only human power, a 46,000-mile odyssey that took 13 years.

October 07, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GREENWICH, ENGLAND — He was a young man then. Fresh out of the University of London, Jason Lewis was running his own window-cleaning business and playing in a grunge rock band when his friend Stevie Smith was struck by the terrifying thought that the prime of his life would turn out to be less than it should.

"What I see, day after day, are captured lives, half-lives, dedicated to a mirage of fullness that never comes," Smith would explain later. "My greatest fear is of mediocrity and of a slow, unremarkable acquiescence to society."

Come with me around the world, Smith told Lewis. We'll circumvent the globe like Magellan did riding the wind, but we'll do it under our own power: by bicycle, pedal boat, kayak, skates and our own remarkable feet.

"When do we start?" Lewis replied.

The answer to that question was July 12, 1994.

One of them finished Saturday, more than 13 years later, but it wasn't Smith.

Leather-faced, thin, weeping, and now 40, Lewis pedaled his boat up the River Thames to the prime meridian here -- 46,405 miles later, and exactly to the spot where he and Smith had started. Smith, who dropped out five years into the journey, stood back quietly among the cheering spectators, jostled by the television camera crews.

Along the way, Lewis capsized in two oceans, was chased by a 17-foot crocodile in Australia, suffered from two bouts of malaria, underwent surgery for two hernias, nearly died of blood poisoning 1,300 miles out to sea from Hawaii, stumbled upon a civil war in the Solomon Islands, suffered acute altitude sickness while biking over the Himalayas, got hit by a car and sustained fractures to both legs in Colorado, was robbed at the point of a machete in Sumatra and arrested as a spy in Egypt.

He sold T-shirts and worked odd jobs to raise money, and then kept going. He fell in love, but said goodbye and kept going.

"Thirteen years, coming to an end. It's been a big, long journey. It's good to be back," Lewis said simply as he pushed his 26-foot-long pedal boat, now resting on a trailer, across the famous cobblestone courtyard outside the Greenwich Royal Observatory.

Though it is still in dispute, Lewis and his Expedition 360 team believe it to be the first true human-powered circumnavigation of the globe, a voyage that spanned 37 countries both north and south of the equator and ended at Greenwich, 0 degree longitude, where Earth's time zones begin.

Standing opposite Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, a patron of the voyage who had christened the boat Moksha (Sanskrit for Freedom) Lewis was clad in canvas sandals, bicycle shorts and an old orange windbreaker.

"It gives me great pleasure to inform you," Lewis declared, holding aloft a magnum of Taittinger champagne, "that as of this moment, the world has been circumnavigated using only human power."

Before Lewis left Greenwich 13 years, 2 months and 23 days ago, he had spent a grand total of three days crewing on a sailboat and had ridden no more than three miles at a time on a bicycle.

With Smith, he crossed the English Channel, bicycled to the Portuguese coast; spent 111 days crossing the Atlantic to Miami in the pedal boat (at a speed of 2 to 4 knots) and spent a year rollerblading across the United States, including several months in Colorado recuperating from the car accident.

They set off early in 1997 by bicycle for South America, intending to cross from Peru to Australia. They made it as far as Honduras, covering 3,500 miles in seven months by bike and kayak, but unfavorable El Nio currents and winds forced them to reverse and go thousands of miles north to San Francisco. They decided to cross the Pacific near the equator instead, with a stop in Hawaii.

It was in Hawaii, already five years into the journey, that a no-longer-aching-for-adventure Smith threw in the towel.

Lewis kept going. Later he would bring in occasional crew members on various legs to help, but he pedaled alone for 72 days across the Pacific.

"I just let the boat drift when I was sleeping," he said, which caused a problem when he ran into countercurrents near the equator.

"I'd pedal in the day and go to sleep, and wake up in the same space where I started the previous day," he said. "That was probably the most demoralizing part of the whole expedition."

He arrived in Australia $40,000 in debt, and spent more than three years raising funds and working with schools while traversing the Outback on bicycle. Lewis then pedaled his boat to Southeast Asia; bicycled through China and eastern Tibet to India; took his boat to Djibouti in East Africa; bicycled and kayaked through Africa and Turkey; and bicycled to France, before setting out one last time on the pedal boat to cross the English Channel and go up the Thames.

At sea sometimes for weeks at a time, he had freeze-dried rations in one end of the boat, a small sleeping compartment known as "the rathole" in the other, and a desalinator for processing drinking water.

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