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The 'Heresy' of Alain Bombard

Alain Bombard - L'Hérétique

Alain Bombard during a cruise aboard L'Hérétique. [Image: frame taken from the documentary Bombard, le naufragé volontaire.]

Dr Alain Bombard, born in France in 1924, a doctor at the Boulogne-sur-Mer hospital, was faced in the course of his professional activity with the problem of rescuing shipwrecked people and devoted himself with exceptional tenacity to finding possible solutions. During World War II, the problem of survival of human beings abandoned aboard a small raft had arisen many times: pilots of downed planes, crew members of sunken ships, troop transports torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic had presented a tragic range of situations, all of them characterized by the need to survive, to overcome for days the terrible snares of hunger and thirst while waiting for the long-awaited rescue.

Bombard started from the observations recorded in such cases and set out to study the possibilities of salvation for future castaways. How to survive abandoned aboard a miserable raft , in a small boat, without food, in the middle of the ocean? Bombard wanted to give a positive answer to this problem, and for this he got down to work with his own scientific research and with his particular direct experience.

Survival Instinct

In essence, he was faced with the problem of solo navigation. It is estimated that only a quarter of the castaways perish after a more or less long period of permanence on flimsy emergency boats. There is, on the other hand, the precedent of sailors who have sailed the ocean alone. The high percentage of shipwrecked people who have been saved, and the success of the adventure of the lone sailor seem to show that from their own mishaps it is possible to extract some rules of conduct aimed at achieving greater security of survival at sea.

To this task Bombard gave himself totally. First of all he studied the undertakings of some navigators who had practically already, in a certain sense, solved some of the difficulties with which the castaway must face. For example, Joshua Slocum, the American who at the end of the 19th century had made aboard his boat, called Spray, around the world; or Fred Rebell, who between 1931 and 1933 had crossed the Pacific; or also that of Marin Marie, who in 1933 had crossed the Atlantic. The three of them, to cite just a few examples, had practically solved the problem of staying on course during sleeping hours, overcoming the anguish of loneliness, overcoming storms despite the smallness of their boat, etc.

In summary, Bombard considered that the possibility of remaining at sea depends on the solution given to three orders of difficulties:

  • Know very well the winds, sea currents and the weather (which can allow a very small boat to travel great distances with a certain safety margin).
  • Have the widest possible notions of seafaring technique.
  • Learn how to feed yourself and quench your thirst by taking advantage of the resources of the sea itself, in order to dispense as much as possible with your own food and drink reserves.

As Bombard himself stated, since there are no lands left to discover, it is much more important now to discover the sea that surrounds these lands, that is, to better understand its resources and learn to avoid its dangers.

Water Is also Eaten

In October 1951 Bombard visited the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, and there he studied with particular attention the problems related to the feeding of the castaway. He thus came to the conclusion that, rationally exploited, marine fauna can supply human beings with all the basic substances they need for their subsistence: in addition to vitamin B12, antianemic (the lack of which it is started to feel the effects after of a certain time), all the essential vitamins (A, B1, B2, D) abound in the meat of various fish; the antiscorbutic vitamin C is found in the plankton, which can be easily collected with the help of a very fine mesh net. As for water, Bombard discovered that it was found in sufficient quantity for survival in fish, whose tissues contain less sodium chloride than those of mammals, since the proportion of water in their body ranges between 50 and 80%. It is essential, however, for the presumed shipwrecked person to avoid falling into the lack of liquid before having managed to capture a sufficient quantity of fishes; however, these difficult initial moments can be easily overcome with the administration of small doses of salt.

Monaco-Balearic Islands, Pilot Test

After drawing up his own work program on the above basis, Bombard took the risk, in 1952, of putting his hypothesis into practice. He got hold of a Zodiac type rescue boat, and carried out with a partner, the Panamanian Jack Palmer, a first trial trip between Monaco and the Balearic Islands. The flat-bottomed boat was 4.60 meters long and 1.90 meters wide, and was supported by two floats in the form of swollen rubber tubes; a 3 square meter sail completed its rigging. It was baptized with the name of l'Hérétique -The Heretic-. The daring sailors left on May 25, and two days later they had already begun their diets of fish; on June 11 they happily reached the Spanish islands in the Mediterranean.

Alain Bombard Jack Palmer - L'Hérétique
Jack Palmer (right), helping throw l'Hérétique into the water. [Image: frame taken from the documentary Bombard, le naufragé volontaire.]
The real journey began, however, two months later. From Tangier, Bombard, who was then 28 years old, left, this time alone, also boarding l'Hérétique, on August 11, 1952. His itinerary included the stages in the journey Tangier-Casablanca-Canary Islands-Antilles. Although the program seemed very ambitious considering the fragility of the means used to carry it out, let us say first of all that it was carried out in all its details.

More Stubborn than the Sea for 65 Days

Despite the differences between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Bombard skilfully took advantage of the maritime current of the Canary Islands, and in 10 days he covered the first Tangier-Casablanca stage. On August 25 he left Casablanca, and on the eleventh day of sailing he landed at the port of Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands. After a rest of a month and a half, on October 19 he began the most important part of the journey, the crossing of the Atlantic, in the course of which he had to face various and grave dangers. Once, for example, the wind tore his sail, and he patiently stitched it back together with the few means at hand. On another occasion, during a storm, the water almost completely filled his boat, which he was forced to empty after hard work for many hours, fighting, moreover, against the rough sea, since castaways, as Bombard himself affirmed, if they want to save themselves, they must be more stubborn than the sea itself.

The established diet proved to be quite efficient, and the navigator was able to subsist for many days without drinking a single sip of water; the worst moment occurred on December 10 and 11, when the volunteer castaway encountered the English ship Arakaka on his journey; he felt very bad and began to experience extremely painful impressions of hunger and thirst.

However, on December 23, after a 65-day voyage, he arrived in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, the easternmost island of the Lesser Antilles group.

The experiment that Bombard had wanted to carry out personally had a totally positive balance, and constituted the practical demonstration of the many possibilities of salvation that a shipwrecked person has.



[Source: Vv.Aa. (1978). Bombard's experiment. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor Didáctico (Tome III, pp. 68-69). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]