Britain's Transglobe Expedition, the first trip round the Earth by way of the north and south poles, came to a triumphant end today when the explorers returned home by ship to Greenwich, just as they had pledged they would.
In the course of their nearly three-year voyage, the explorers, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 38, and Charles Burton, 40, traveled more than 35,000 miles along the Greenwich meridian through bitter polar frosts and wilting Sahara Desert heat.
"Some people would say that we have been lucky," Fiennes told waiting portside crowds, "but I would say God has been good to us." As recently as late July, the pair was stranded on an Arctic ice floe out of reach of their support crew, and the mission appeared to be in peril.
But under warm sunlight today, the dangers were in the past as the Benjamin Bowring, Transglobe's 12,050-ton support ship, with its crew of 23, docked at Greenwich to be met by cheering well-wishers.
Prince Charles, patron of the expedition, steered the ship the last mile into port. He praised the bravery of the team, recalling that he had described the journey at its outset as "mad but marvelous."
The Transglobe's return capped a holiday weekend of personal accomplishments on this, Britain's last fling of the summer. Yesterday, Ashby Harper, a 65-year-old Albuquerque, N.M., school headmaster, became the oldest person to swim the perilous English Channel.
Today, Bill Dunlop, of Mechanic Falls, Maine, docked at Falmouth Harbor, England. The 41-year-old thus ended a 78-day oceanic voyage in a sailboat 9 feet 1 inch long, the smallest boat to cross the Atlantic from west to east.
"It feels like I'm standing on a sponge," Dunlop said as he set foot on land for the first time in 78 days and fell into the arms of his wife, Pamela.
Dunlop, a former truck driver, looked exhausted, The Associated Press reported. He had close moments aboard his boat Wind's Will during the trip, which started in Portland, Maine, June 13. For 27 days the skipper and vessel were out of touch until they were sighted Aug. 14 approaching the British Isles.
Dunlop's craft was just eight inches shorter than the yacht Giltspur in which Tom McClean, a Briton, reached this southwest England harbor Aug. 12 after a 50-day voyage. He said he planned his voyage last winter unaware that McClean was also trying.
American Hugo Vihlen set the record for the smallest boat to make the Atlantic crossing east to west. He sailed in a 6-foot boat, April Fool, in 85 days from Casablanca, Moroccco, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Notable as these accomplishments were, the scale of the Transglobe journey overshadowed them.
At a reported cost of $17.5 million, the all-volunteer venture had taken six years to plan and ended just a few days short of its scheduled three years' duration. Its equipment -- 80 percent of it British -- was donated by 300 corporate sponsors, and Prince Charles noted that the success had boosted exports of British goods. Orders worth $5 million for equipment featured on the expedition were placed while it was under way, according to organizers.
The explorers faced life-and-death situations at least a half dozen times as they traveled by sea and overland on Land Rovers, skis, snowmobiles and rubber rafts. But Fiennes, Burton and the crew agreed that some of the worst moments came when they were stranded on ice near the North Pole with few rations left and in constant danger from bears.
"We didn't know what to do the first time we met a polar bear," Burton joked today. "They are 10 feet tall. . . . Some people said they were friendly. But they can also eat people. We usually fired a few shots above their heads to frighten them."
The Benjamin Bowring repeatedly had to turn back before finally rescuing them.
Fiennes said he was surprised that the saga had been followed so closely in Britain. "I was certainly not expecting all the interest the expedition has aroused," he told reporters. He said he had kept a diary of the journey and now planned to write a 180,000-word book.
His American publisher, Arbor House, wasted no time in sending out details of the work, which were relayed to correspondents here by telegram last week. Souvenir color pictures of the expedition were published today in The London Observer, one of Transglobe's sponsors.
But for all the overtones of a media event that accompanied the windup, the voyage was undoubtedly as it had always been billed, a great adventure. The explorers reached their first major objective, the South Pole, in December 1980 about 15 months after they set off. It took them 16 months after that to get to the North Pole.
From all accounts, their particularly arduous time in the area of the North Pole made them especially glad to be home. Asked if they might do it again, the members of the Transglobe expedition laughed.
"I don't like to go back to the same place twice," Fiennes said.