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Around the world in 13 years

Modern explorer Jason Lewis recalls the first human-powered circumnavigation in The Expedition



It was 20 years ago this month that, late one night in a Parisian flat, hunched excitedly over a beer-stained map of the world, two idealistic young men hatched a stupidly brilliant plan.

MODERN MAGELLAN :  Jason Lewis, author of the The Expedition trilogy, leaves the Turks and Caicos islands in his pedal boat Moksha. - PHOTO BY KENNY BROWN
  • MODERN MAGELLAN : Jason Lewis, author of the The Expedition trilogy, leaves the Turks and Caicos islands in his pedal boat Moksha.

Were this at all like so many late-night, beer-sweetened, post-collegiate dreams, it ought to have dried up in the morning sunlight and blown out the window. But somehow, this particular idea lodged itself in the hearts of Englishmen Jason Lewis and Steve Smith, like an anchor catching on a rock. The thought was outlandish and intoxicating: to be the first people to circumnavigate the globe using only human power. No motors. No sails.

The world and its pool of discoveries had been steadily shrinking, its mysteries explained, its contents inventoried, its territories charted. Everest had been climbed, the moon landed on, and the earth circumnavigated by every means imaginable, except the most basic means of all. Human power was still up for grabs.

Their discussion is chronicled in the opening pages of The Expedition: Dark Waters, the first book in Lewis’ three-part autobiography of the 13-year journey, which was released Aug. 1.

Even in its purely conceptual phases, there were obvious obstacles. Lewis chronicles his lingering apprehensions after agreeing to the journey:

“I stabbed at the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on
the map.

‘These blue areas—‘

‘Yes! Yes! The big wet bits,’” Smith excitedly interjects, going on to reveal his brilliant plan to kayak across the world’s greatest bodies of water.

But the means of transport the two would eventually use were no less far-fetched. A custom-built pedal boat, christened Moksha (a Sanskrit word meaning release from the mortal world into a state of bliss) would see the two across the English Channel—the first true test of seaworthiness for both the vessel and themselves. They would cycle from France to Portugal, and then pedal across the Atlantic to Miami. From there, North America waited to be crossed—by bicycle, foot, or inline skates—followed by Central America, Australia, Asia, Africa, and all the big wet bits in between.

But before any circumnavigation could happen, there was a colossal amount of fundraising, boat-building, and other preparations to be done. The way Lewis tells it, this phase in itself is a journey of unexpected twists, lucky breaks, strained friendships, and moments of foolhardiness and humiliation redeemed for their comedic value. A London squat house with no heating served as base camp for the operation. Having no funds to speak of, Smith and Lewis focused on cultivating grassroots support for the expedition instead, drawing on the squat’s colorful gaggle of “artists, authors, musicians, blaggers, and petty criminals.”

A media event staged around the pedal boat’s first trial on the River Exe goes terribly wrong when Lewis and Smith leave a crucial part of the vessel in the workshop—the part, they realize only too late, that enables steering. After having to be rescued from a waterfall in front of a line of eager journalists, things aren’t looking very promising for the Atlantic crossing. And yet our valiant heroes press on, each bringing his own particular strength to the voyage:

WHAT THE…? :  Englishman Jason Lewis, right, gets a second glance from a local as he skates his way through California’s Central Valley. On his way to becoming the first person to complete a human-powered circumnavigation of the earth, Lewis also became the first to inline skate across the North American continent. - PHOTO BY KENNY BROWN
  • WHAT THE…? : Englishman Jason Lewis, right, gets a second glance from a local as he skates his way through California’s Central Valley. On his way to becoming the first person to complete a human-powered circumnavigation of the earth, Lewis also became the first to inline skate across the North American continent.

“He had more overland experience having ridden a bicycle more than a mile since leaving school,” Lewis explains matter-of-factly. “I had more experience of boats having actually been in one.”

But the more unlikely the hero, the better the tale, as we discover once the voyage gets underway. By crossing the Channel in such a small craft, Smith and Lewis have already broken the law the moment they depart their native shore, a trend that will continue throughout much of the journey. Bridges and borders are illegally crossed. Lewis forgets his passport. Police are outrun or outwitted. In the naval tradition, the two get royally plastered the night before setting out to sea, our humble narrator’s lurching seasickness compounded by a hangover and a freshly acquired STD.

Up until this point in the book, Lewis and Smith seem to share a special worldview: that the earth is their home, and all the rules humans put upon it are mere warning signs posted to prevent idiots from hurting themselves, but which true explorers naturally needn’t bother with. At sea, this philosophy is tested. The flimsy laws imposed by humans are a distant memory, as are hospitals, toilets, credit cards, and grocery stores. Floating in the Atlantic, it’s the laws of nature that must be vigilantly navigated. Out in the blue, death always seems to be near: starvation, illness, drowning, dehydration, and attacks by predators are all plausible outcomes, and Lewis and his partner’s brushes with these are harrowing. Tempers are frayed. Insanity skulks around the corner.

The two arrive relatively unnoticed in Florida, emaciated, filthy, and baffled by land life like two aliens discovering Earth. Unsteady on their feet, they make their way ashore, where an elderly woman strikes up a conversation with Lewis about her cat, and he can only nod, stunned.

In need of time away from one another, Smith and Lewis travel separately across the American South, Smith by bicycle and Lewis via inline skates along the highway, which turns out to be, of course, illegal. The matter is further complicated by Lewis’ complete unfamiliarity with inline skates. And the fact that he, again, gets royally plastered the night before setting off.

CHARTING THE COURSE :  Cartographer Rob Antonishen created this map detailing the route around the world traveled by British explorer Jason Lewis and company. - IMAGE BY ROB ANTONISHEN
  • CHARTING THE COURSE : Cartographer Rob Antonishen created this map detailing the route around the world traveled by British explorer Jason Lewis and company.

You know what? I love this shit. I’m tired of boring, smug, feel-good role models. I’m sick of biographies that seem to be missing all the good dirt. And I love that the first human-powered circumnavigation of the globe was completed, not by a rich eccentric, or a travel writer with a lucrative book advance, or some adventure-type celebrity filming a television show, but by this guy. Lewis leaves with a few hundred pounds to his name, doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, makes poor (read: hilarious) choices, finally figures it all out, and ultimately succeeds in completing one of the greatest voyages of our time.

Interestingly, upon his solo completion of the journey—Smith having bowed out gracefully after the pair reached Hawaii—Lewis was offered a hefty book deal from HarperCollins. The offer came with a few stipulations. Namely, that the book would be ghostwritten within a mere seven to eight weeks, and published in time to take advantage of the Christmas market. Television appearances were scheduled to create a buzz around the forthcoming book, movie rights discussed, and speaking engagements booked. Lewis was poised to become the very celebrity adventurer type he’d so long stood in opposition to.

Broke and living out of his car, Lewis initially accepted HarperCollins’ offer. But he quickly became disillusioned, he told me in a phone interview, with the publisher’s lack of care for the details of the story, and the sloppiness with which the book was thrown together. The ghostwriter had little interest, for example, in his piles of handwritten journals or video from abroad, claiming these would take entirely too much time to go through. The manuscript that was produced was mediocre at best.

Lewis wasn’t about to see his incredible life story crappily rushed out to make a quick profit.

“They didn’t really care what was between the covers,” he explained. “I wish I could have taken the money and run, it would have been a lot easier, but I just couldn’t do it. I had spent 13 years of my life on this thing.”

He turned down the HarperCollins deal and wrote the thing himself, dammit. Seeing his frustration at the mainstream publishing industry, Lewis’ girlfriend Tammie Stevens (a former New Times ad rep; small world) started her own Colorado-based independent publishing company, BillyFish Books, through which the three-part series is being released.

When I spoke to him about the process, Lewis made it sound like every moment spent working on the book was pure pain, but you wouldn’t know it to read The Expedition. Lewis may not like writing, but he’s actually rather good at it. Perhaps it’s his passion to communicate his experiences, his eye for absurd or humorous details, his foul-mouthed honesty, or the sheer awesomeness of the story itself shining through, but The Expedition is hard to put down. In the spirit of the true adventurer, Lewis relishes the journey’s little details almost as much as its great triumphs. The tale is enriched by the author’s witty, bizarre anecdotes, like the time he accidentally pops a special brownie before a scheduled interview with a Lonely Planet journalist, his prose slowly gliding from dryly informative to flowery and nonsensical. Other moments are described with the somber chill of one who has nearly escaped death, as when, while swimming in the Atlantic, his boat is carried out of sight by the current. Succumbing to hypoxia, he begins to lose consciousness, coming to as his partner hoists him to safety.

The Deep South is not kind to our skating hero. Though there are moments of humor in Lewis’ descriptions of this leg of the journey, a kind of misery presides over these pages. It culminates once he reaches Pueblo, Colorado, where he is hit by a car and left for dead, both his legs broken, bones jutting out. Dark Waters leaves him there, as rain pours and cars whiz by.

The Seed Buried Deep, the next book due for release in early fall, follows Lewis as he slowly heals and makes his way to California. Lewis, Smith, and company—for they were often joined by those who shared their adventurous spirit—spent time in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties, biking down Highway 1 through Big Sur toward San Simeon. Normally this would have been a fairly easy and enjoyable little jaunt, but not during the El Nino years, as several nasty landslides had made the roads largely impassible. Not to be dismayed, the explorers soldiered on anyway, dodging local law enforcement, getting caught in torrential rainstorms, dragging their bikes over the muddy slopes where the road would normally have been, and praying that the cliff wouldn’t choose that moment to come sliding into the ocean, carrying them all with it. The resulting poison oak outbreak sent several members of their party to the hospital once they reached the city of San Luis Obispo.

It wasn’t the last time the explorers would make a Central Coast appearance. Smith and Lewis made it as far as Honduras before the atypical current pattern caused by El Nino thwarted their plans to pedal Moksha to Australia. Disappointed, they made their way back up the coast to San Francisco, having pedaled 5,000 miles in the wrong direction. A new route was planned, this one from Northern California to Hawaii. Two new travelers were invited to peddle the first leg. But their trip was cut short by technical difficulties onboard and a major storm that nearly sunk the boat off the coast of San Simeon. (After being rescued by a Coast Guard cutter launched from Morro Bay, the new recruits decided they’d had enough adventure, thank you very much.)

As The Seed Buried Deep progresses, our image of the author shifts. Gone is the hapless, idealistic fellow prone to amusingly naïve decisions. Lewis is growing up, and his endearing foolhardiness and rebellious attitude is gradually replaced by a kind of quiet, meditative introspection. His account grows philosophical, even spiritual. Lewis’ search for oneness, a state of being he’d briefly glimpsed while out on the Atlantic, deepens. His thoughts about the fate of the planet, part of the reason for the expedition in the first place, become more somber. The Expedition becomes less a giddy account of larger-than-life characters and hair-raising brushes with disaster, and more a long, hard look at the modern world and one’s place in it.

Australia awaits Lewis, now a hardened solo traveler, in To The Brink, the final installment in the trilogy. Then it’s off to Indonesia, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Off to crocodile attacks, malaria, pirates, and getting mistakenly arrested and tried as a spy. Off to daily tests of courage and endurance, off to stare misery and death in the eye and go, “Oh yeah?” Off to the loveliness of strangers and the cold indifference of the business community, off to a deeper love of Earth, one’s only home. 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at [email protected].


The last great first

Get The Expedition: Dark Waters, the first installment of three, at,, and The second and final installments, The Seed Buried Deep and To the Brink, will be made available in the fall of 2012.



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