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A survivor of his own decisions

Published in 1953, The Voyage of the Heretique set off a firestorm of controversy, casting its author, French physician Alain Bombard, as either brave or a fool. Bombard believed shipwrecked mariners could live off the sea until they were rescued, eating fish and drinking sea water. In 1952 he set out on a solo voyage across the Atlantic with no provisions whatsoever.

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For food, he would eat plankton and fish. For water, he would squeeze fluids from the fish and drink small amounts of sea water. In a nod to his radical ideas, he named his 15-foot Zodiac L’ Heretique, or “heretic.”

On Oct. 19, Bombard set his little triangular sail and left the Canary Islands. He “harvested” plankton daily with a small net. The fish he caught were 75 percent water — salt-free water — and he collected rain, as well. The “stew” of raw fish and plankton, which he initially compared with “lobster purée,” soon lost its appeal. He said the fish water was “nauseating.” On his 53rd day, a passing ship informed Bombard that he was 600 miles short of the Americas. He took a shower on board, ate an omelet and carried on.

On Dec. 23, after 65 days at sea, he came ashore at a village on Barbados, having covered 2,700 miles. Bombard had lost 50 pounds but was in good enough shape to walk.

He became a hero in France, publishing several books and serving in the European Parliament. He proved that it was possible for a shipwrecked mariner to “live off the sea.” He also discovered that attitude was as important as food or water: “The survivor of a shipwreck, deprived of everything, must never lose hope.”

In his book, Bombard recalled spending a week recuperating at a “charming hotel” on Long Island, New York, known as the White Whale. This was my parents’ house in Sag Harbor. From this stay, Percy Knauth, my father, produced an article for the May 18, 1953, issue of Life magazine.