I learned of the death of Dr. Alain Bombard in an obituary column last month. He was a French physician interested in survival techniques, and he became a legend in the 1950s when he drifted in a small dinghy from the Canary Islands to Barbados, with no provisions.
At the Oceanographic Research Institute in Monte Carlo he studied strategies for survival at sea. He concluded that stranded sailors could survive subsisting on plankton, raw fish and sea water. In 1952, he hoisted up a small triangular sail in his motorless boat and started his voyage across the Atlantic. Through storms, calms, and delirium, he made the crossing in 65 days. He wrote about it in his book, The Voyage of the Heretique (Simon and Schuster, 1954), in which he described his ordeal as a “starving, thirsting hell.”
A German doctor, Hannes Lindemann, became fascinated by Bombard’s survival ideas and tried to duplicate his feat. He made two solo trans-Atlantic attempts: one in a dugout canoe, and one in a kayak. Drinking only saltwater and eating raw fish and plankton, Lindemann’s feet and legs swelled dangerously, and he aborted both attempts.
Lindemann said he didn’t know how Bombard did it and in his own book, Alone at Sea (Random House, 1958), he cast doubt not only on the sea waters potability, but also said that Bombard probably sneaked provisions aboard (like beer).
I don’t want to weigh Lindemann’s claim against Bombard’s — I think they’re both a bit daft. I don’t see anybody else out there leaping into a motorless boat, wanting to see how long they can live on sea-water, raw fish (and maybe a couple of beers).
In medical school, I was taught if you didn’t drink water for a couple of days, your kidneys would shut down. Depending on your conditioning, perhaps you’d go 3 days, but then you would go into renal shutdown. When I came to Indian country and observed ceremonies in which warriors could go four days without drinking (while also dancing, sweating and piercing themselves), I knew the body had an incredible capacity to sustain itself if there was the will.
I think Bombard was heroic and L’ Heretique. Heretics have a vision that does not conform to established doctrines. They see beyond what’s explainable and acceptable, and in every generation, it is they who expand the boundaries of our believability.