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Under Way

A man, a raftand the Atlantic

A man, a raftand the Atlantic

More than 50 years ago Dr. Alain Bombard became a “voluntary castaway,” setting off across the Atlantic in a small inflatable Zodiac raft without food or water and bound for America.


A French medical doctor, Bombard was troubled by the thousands of people who perished each year in life rafts and lifeboats. His research showed that the majority of them died within three days, far sooner than one should die from lack or food or water. Most, he believed, simply gave up hope and perished.

Bombard wanted to prove that it was possible to survive a prolonged period at sea by living off fish and plankton, with no more equipment than a castaway would find him or herself with. In doing so, he hoped that his “experiment” would save lives.

Although there were legions of skeptics, Bombard made landfall in Barbados 65 days and about 2,700 miles after departing the Canary Islands in his 15-foot raft with its small sail and rudder. The crossing is to my mind one of the most remarkable sea adventures of the 20th century.

A scientist, adventurer and intellectual who enjoyed composing music and playing the cello (Bach was his favorite), Bombard died July 19 in France. He was 80.

Following his voyage in 1952, Bombard wrote “The Voyage of the Heretique,” which I encourage you to try and find a copy of. The little raft was aptly named (Heretique means heretic in English) since the young doctor was going against so much mainstream thinking at the time. He wrote that he was probably the only person who believed in what he was doing.

Bombard felt certain that despair — not the lack of food or water — was the greatest enemy of those who become shipwrecked. “When a ship goes down, a man’s whole universe goes with it,” the doctor wrote. “Because he no longer has a deck under his feet, his courage and reason abandon him. He sits, slumped, contemplating his misery and can hardly be said to be alive. Helpless in the night, chilled by sea and wind, terrified by the solitude, by the noise and by the silence, it takes less than three days for him to surrender his life.”

On completing the journey, Bombard concluded that castaways are not killed by the sea, but by “fear and idleness.” “I put myself in their situation to prove every man’s life is in his own hands,” Bombard concluded.

The good doctor would not have been comfortable being called a risk-taker. He certainly didn’t see himself that way. He believed that a person should only risk his or her life if some useful purpose is being served.

Before the journey Bombard judged himself in average shape, although he was a long-distance swimmer. He was married, and his wife gave birth to a daughter just before he left the Canary Islands.

Bombard, who turned 28 while on the Atlantic, lost 55 pounds during the crossing. He became seriously anemic, and his blood pressure varied with his state of mind, which, he reported, ran from optimism to despair and exhaustion.

He had diarrhea for 14 straight days and nearly lost consciousness twice. He made out his will. He wrote that his skin became dehydrated and that he developed a rash over his entire body. The nails on his toes fell off. His vision started to fail. And he was hungry.

“But I got there,” the novice celestial navigator wrote.

Bombard lived on the fish he caught, mostly dorado or dolphin, and flying fish that came aboard at night and crashed into his tiny sail. He drank fish juice and rainwater, augmented with small amounts of salt water, which he was convinced he could safely drink in very small amounts. The adventurer had no rain for the first 23 days, during which time he says he proved he could quench his thirst from fish and the sea itself.

“Thirst kills more quickly than hunger,” Bombard reported, “but despair is a greater danger than thirst.” Even the seemingly ever-hopeful Bombard, however, was not immune. He wrote of the “insidious creeping” effect of loneliness, which he called his only problem and his only companion. Bombard passed the time with memory tricks, particularly trying to do complicated arithmetic in his head. He inspected his raft religiously and very carefully each day, listening for any pinhole leaks and patching whatever was required. He also became very suspicious of small things — if he couldn’t find his pipe, for instance, that was a bad omen.

And Bombard had a little plastic doll mascot that friends had given him upon leaving the Canaries. During the voyage, he says, it took on a tangible personality. He says he would look at the doll and start a conversation, first in monosyllables and then whole sentences, describing what he was doing and what he was going to do next.

Following the voyage, Bombard, who later started a life raft company, suggested that rafts have charts of the prevailing winds and currents printed right on the deck fabric. And on the chart, Bombard said he’d like to see these words: “Remember the man who did it in 1952.”