Sunday, 25 November 2012

Penguin no. 1079: The Bombard Story
by Alain Bombard

Although the sea represents a constant danger to the ship-wrecked man, it is not malicious and it is certainly not sterile. The conquest of fear and the search for sustenance should not present insurmountable difficulties. That was my basic premise as far as the environment was concerned. I had also become convinced that in their studies of the capacity of the human organism to survive in such circumstances, the physiologists had not made enough of will-power and its influence on physical reactions. It is only necessary to recall the fasts of Gandhi, the polar expeditions of Scott and Amundsen and the voyage of Captain Bligh, who lived for forty days on eight days' provisions, sustained by his hate for his murderous crew.

In the early 1950s Alain Bombard was a young French doctor with an interest in researching survival at sea, and a strong desire to put his theories to the test. His interest had been partly inspired by the sight of the piled bodies of forty-three drowned men brought to the hospital at Boulogne-sur-mer one evening where he was working as a resident. The men, who had been recovered from the sea after the shipwreck of their trawler as it had tried to enter the port, all died; Dr. Bombard was unable to revive a single man.

He was aware that the statistics on shipwreck told an appalling story. Two hundred thousand people were estimated to die as a consequence of shipwreck each year, with a quarter surviving the wreck only to die while they awaited rescue. His concern was primarily for these shipwrecked survivors, as he was aware that the search for them rarely extended beyond ten days as this was considered the limit for survival. But Dr. Bombard believed this estimate was based on a flawed assumption, and that it was perfectly feasible for someone with a little knowledge and the most basic of equipment to exist on the bounty of the ocean for far longer. But he also knew that no one would take his theories seriously until they had been demonstrated, and so he decided he would test them on himself.

His plan was to make himself a castaway. He would travel across the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable dinghy carrying only emergency provisions of food and water, but these provisions would be verifiably sealed, and he would try to live solely on what he could harvest from the sea. He knew the potential dangers of a sea-based diet included conditions such as anaemia, vitamin deficiency, kidney failure from nephritis, or scurvy from lack of vitamin C, and so he started by researching just how it could be done.

He also knew that it was possible to survive a long time without food, but not without water, and avoiding dehydration would be the greater challenge. He theorised that the best approach was to drink small quantities of seawater when there was no alternative, and to drink the juice pressed from the flesh of fish when they could be caught. After much careful research he concluded that, with sufficient fluid intake, a diet of raw fish and plankton, while unappealing, could provide sufficient nutrition to prevent starvation over an extended period.

He set off from Monaco in May 1952 in his dinghy L'Hérétique in the company of Jack Palmer, and they headed towards Majorca so that they could  trial their equipment and techniques in the Mediterranean Sea, a far less perilous journey than the ocean-based one they were planning as there would always be ships or planes which could be hailed for assistance. Despite their proximity to land they struggled, with the fish proving much more difficult to catch than they had expected. While Alain Bombard remained committed to his experiment, Palmer began to show some reluctance about leaving the land again. With the trial completed, he started finding reasons to delay their departure on the second leg of their trip.

And so despite lacking navigational skills, Alain Bombard decided to set off to cross the Atlantic alone. This lack of knowledge was a real concern because a mistake could mean straying into the danger zones of the Sargasso Sea or the Doldrums, or the possibility of sailing on past the Antilles, chosen as the destination. He recounts all the dangers he faced, but despondency may have been his biggest problem, as his estimates of his position were always wrong, and as his journey continued he began to become unhinged by having the expectation of sighting land continually disappointed .

He made it successfully to Barbados, but the journey took him much longer than he had planned. Although it was the lives he could potentially save which had inspired his research, it was the thought of his critics which maintained him whenever his resolve weakened. In the end he believed that he had been vindicated, for he had shown that it could be done.


  1. What a nut!
    But there is a certain resemblance to the great explorers of the 15th-16th centuries... one probably has to be a little crazy to set out voluntarily on such perilous expeditions! And there's also something grandiose about the idea of that one man in his boat, all alone on the huge ocean - a bit like Odysseus facing Poseidon's wrath on his way home from Troy...
    This was really interesting!

  2. I think people like that are driven by an overwhelming obsession to find things out, or prove a theory, so logic doesn't necessarily come into it, but there is definitely something grandiose about such a bizarre journey.

  3. Florence and Christine,

    I was reminded as I read this of the Nobel Laureate Barry Marshall drinking Heliobacter Pylori because it was the only way he could convince other scientists that bacteria caused ulcers. Scientists should be a sceptical lot, and should demand evidence before they will believe.

    But I think he must also have taken on this quest because he wanted the attention and fame it would bring. His wife gave birth to their first child just before he took off across the Atlantic, so he was away from her for the final months of the pregnancy and the first months of the baby's life. And not just away from her, but risking his life as well. You have to wonder if the problem was so urgent that it couldn't be delayed for a year.

  4. Karyn, I've read a bit about shipwrecks, but never about someone deliberately setting off to experience one - how fascinating. I wonder what the effects of his research were, how widely known his results became - if say commercial shipping companies starting training their crews in survivial techniques or something like that, which I imagine on some level was Bombard's goal?

    1. Hi Lisa,

      He undertook this journey in the latter part of 1952, and published this account during 1953 (although the Penguin edition came out in 1956), and so he doesn't really discuss the impact of his research, and I haven't looked further to see if someone else has discussed it.

      As a doctor, he was aware of the potential problems of a sea-based diet, and so he was clearly researching how to get sufficient nutrition and sufficient fluid to survive for a long time - his aim was one month, but he was at sea for quite a bit longer, although his research wasn't perfect: he did have contact with a ship which provided him with a meal during that time, and then put him back in his dinghy so that he could continue on.

      His account is interesting for many reasons, including his descriptions of the behaviour of birds, dolphins, sharks, and sawfish, and because he covers his deteriorating mental state. He doesn't seem completely rational, and some of his decisions are troubling, but as he wrote the book, you can read his account knowing that he must survive.



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