Dr. Alain Louis Bombard, French biologist, physician and seafarer. 1924 - 2005.

"To hope is to seek better things. The survivor of a shipwreck, deprived of everything, must never lose hope."

I was twelve, I hated the thought of being in a boat. Then I discovered that the sea held adventure, and I was hooked. Not on boats, but about those who sailed in them, and the places they went. What changed me was this one man's story...

It was 1968 when I first heard about Alain Bombard, and his battle to demonstrate how to survive after a shipwreck. I received a paperback copy of his book The Bombard Story, and a more magnificent tale never lay behind a more prosaic title. Bombard set out to establish how to survive in the event of being shipwrecked, cast away on a life raft. He brought all his humanity and practical knowledge to bear on the subject, combined it with his love of the sea, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rubber boat to prove his point.

Born in Paris on 27th October, 1924, to Gaston and Marie, he grew up in Paris, and quickly developed a love for the sea, and especially navigation. He began to study medicine, psychology and marine biology, and on completing his studies began working at a hospital in Boulogne, where he was woken one night in 1951 to attend a shipwreck. The experience made him consider the causes of death at sea, and he embarked on a project to improve survival chances following maritime disaster.

Following this, he and a colleague, Jean van Hemsbergen made an attempt to swim the English Channel, but he did not manage to complete the crossing, and later that year the pair decided to sail to Folkestone in a rubber dinghy. Despite poor weather, they made the crossing safe and sound, and on their return to France, had a chance meeting with a Dutch expert in life-saving equipment . This experience was to mould his plan to improve survival rates for sailors in lifeboats, and the three of them began the project for which he is most famous.

Studies of Survival

Convinced that he should begin studies to find out how to survive for long periods at sea, Bombard went to the Museum of Oceanography in Monaco to study. After scouring the records of many shipwrecks, and interviewing survivors, he quickly discovered that there were two main causes of death. One was simply despair - that following their being cast away, survivors frequently lose hope and their plummeting morale contributes to their demise. The other was dehydration, and it was to this topic that he began to give attention.

He quickly discovered two things. One was that drinking small quantities of sea water would help maintain the involuntary sailor. This came as quite a surprise to many, and is still controversial. He based his findings on studies surrounding the safe intake of salt, and found that a pint and a half of sea water (c. 1 litre) would enhance survival, whilst causing little permanent damage to the kidneys. He was careful to point out that this level of consumption was still dangerous, if it formed the only fluid intake for more than a few days, and at most a week.

He then went on to study the water content of marine life, especially fish. He found that fresh fish contained between 50% and 80% usable water, which was salt-free. This would enable one to survive healthily for much longer periods, provided six or seven pounds (about 3 kilos) of fish could be caught, and the water extracted. Now all he had to do was ensure that the castaway could get sufficient protein, amino acids and vitamins. His studies proved that eating a mixture of fish and plankton would give a fairly balanced diet, even including ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), so vital to prevent the sailor's dread, scurvy.

He finished his studies by testing various methods of catching fish, and concluded that small nets and lines, coupled with fine mesh for plankton, would enable a sailor to keep a healthy, balanced diet, even on the high seas.


The academic side over, he realised that it was necessary to put it all to the test. With this in mind, he and van Hemsbergen tried out a number of small vessels, including some quite bizarre craft supplied by their Dutch sponsor. They quickly settled on the rubber dinghy as being the best test, and contacted Zodiac, the main manufacturer. After some negotiation, they supplied a 14-foot (4.65 metre) wooden-decked dinghy, which they named L'Hérétique. This six foot wide craft was to be the testbed for his theories, and they decided to make a go of it, beginning with a trail in the Mediterranean, before setting out on the major trans-Atlantic voyage.

On one of their trial voyages, Bombard and van Hemsbergen were out at sea for two days, driven by winds. Unprepared, and with no supplies, Bombard drank small quantities of sea water to slake his thirst. On their rescue by a local trawler, van Hembegren drank, as they say, like a fish to quench his thirst. Bombard assumed he was equally thirsty, and similarly went for the water, but realised after a few draughts that he was not dehydrated. His experiment with sea water was a success!

Finally, on the 25th May, 1952, he and Jack Palmer (a late substitution for van Helmsberg, who was unable to go) set out from Monaco on a planned voyage. They were towed out into the sea by an American cruiser, and set loose, as Bombard later put it "as with the Kon-Tiki...as an unfavourable wind would have driven us back in again." Their maiden voyage began about ten miles out, and they set about their voyage. Gradually learning about the capabilities of their little vessel, they set watches, deployed fishing lines and nets, and also discovered that the net they would use for plankton also doubled as a sea anchor.

Bombard immediately began his experiment to see if sea water would quench his thirst, and it certainly seemed to succeed. for the first few days, they caught few fish, and collected only a little fresh water, and finally, Palmer also tried small quantities. They weathered storms and survived fog, and both were tired yet comfortable when on the 7th June they met a French vessel, the Sidi Ferruch, which gave them a small amount of fresh food and water. (This was later held against them, despite the fact that they had survived for ten days with no more than their wits and a few fish.)

Finally, on 11th June, they made land on the island of Minorca, having survived a thousand-mile voyage on the open sea for 17 days without broaching their supplies, having caught around at least 15 pounds (6 kilos) of fish almost every day. The first part of his experiment was a success.

First Stop - The Canaries

The small-scale test had worked, and Bombard began to make plans for an assault on the Atlantic. Although he considered the experiment had proved his point, the media disagreed, and made much of the fact that he had taken on supplies from the Sidi Ferruch, and their Dutch sponsor dropped out. Undeterred, he had L'Hérétique repaired, ordered spares and began planning for the longer voyage. They sailed to Tangiers, from whence Bombard flew to Paris to try to raise capital and salvage his mission.

He discovered that his sponsor had ordered a replacement dinghy, and negotiated with Zodiac to take possession of their Mark III craft. It seems that despite the media pouring scorn on him and his experiment, others were more than wiling to help. He received gifts in the form of fishing tackle, a radio, binoculars and charts. Jack Palmer, however, seemed reluctant to carry on, and eventually, Bombard decided to go ahead without him.

The 13th of August, Bombard set out alone in the new vessel. He made good sailing to Casablanca, and landed there on the 20th, where immediately, he began to plan the next step of the voyage, the Canaries, which he embarked upon on 24th August.

Log Entry, 30th August 1952. "Lord, what a night! I feel pulped....it seems impossible that a vessel as frail as this can weather the battering of the sea..."

The voyage would not be an easy one. If he missed the Canaries, he had to cover a distance of 3,750 miles (6 000 km) at least. He was determined to try and make landfall, if only to prove his ability as a navigator. Finally, he made land on 3rd September, and made his way to Las Palmas, where he again discovered that his voyage was well-publicised, receiving in equal measure support of condemnation for his foolishness. He had his sextant checked for accuracy (and later discovered that the press will misuse anything - it was reported that ..."he asked for lessons in navigation...the harbour master refused...") and arranged for his departure once more.

Atlantic crossing

The 19th of September saw him set out on the final, gruelling stage of his voyage. Suffice it to say that it was not uneventful - he weathered storm, low morale and superstition. Alone on the sea, he became grimly determined to survive both physically and mentally. Despite visitation from sharks, storms and a variety of ailments (from sores through constipation and rashes, he continued to believe that he would finish and make landfall

He mastered his little vessel, continued to feed off fish and plankton and maintain his hydration levels, drinking seawater when necessary.When his boat sprang a leak (a result of friction against one of the floats) he repaired it using the patches supplied. Worthy of note is that the supplied glue failed to work, and he improvised using "a substance of a more physiological nature". He had to make running repairs to much of his equipment, notably the little sail.

Food was rarely a problem. Like Thor Heyerdahl and his crew, he found that flying fish would occasionally land in the boat, and whilst they made for reasonable eating and drinking, they made better bait for bigger fish. On the 11th of November, he was visited by a tropical rainstorm, and took the opportunity to wash himself clean of the salt, and collect fresh water, which although "[it] tasted strongly of rubber, it was like nectar".

He continually checked his medical condition, and after three weeks at sea, concluded that it was perfectly feasible to survive without fresh water. With only a few ups and downs, he made it through another month at sea before stumbling on the Arakaka, a British cargo vessel on 10th December. Taken on board, he confirmed his position, sent a telegram to his wife, availed himself of a shower and enjoyed a meal of liver, egg, cabbage and fruit. "Not only was I reproached later for eating it, but it gave me the worst stomach upset of the whole voyage". As a final request, he asked that a message be passed to the BBC for them to play Bach's Brandenburg Concerto on Christmas Day. To his delight, they managed to get the message, and the BBC duly responded.

Finally, on 21st December, he approached the Caribbean, and on the dawn of the 22nd, saw another cargo vessel, whose attention he gained with a flare. He again confirmed his position and realised that he had just 70 miles to cover. Finally making landfall later that day, he entered the annals of seafaring history with a remarkable experiment to prove that survival at sea was possible.

(Of course, many doubted that his experiment was well enough controlled. German physician Hannes Lindemann carried out his own tests, and claimed that he needed fresh water most days, though some salt water was tolerated.)

Home Again

Actress at the airport, seeing the media gathering about Alain Bombard: Who is that?
Air crew member: Doctor Bombard, the chap who has just crossed the Atlantic
Actress: So what? I've been across the Atlantic too!
His experiment was over. He had proved his point, and despite the efforts of the media at the time, gained much acclaim, although some scientists nowadays doubt the safety of drinking sea water, even in limited quantities. For 65 days, he had subsisted on what he could catch from the sea, and he had campaigned for fishing materials to be made available in every ship's lifeboat.

Since then, he has lectured, taught and set up a marine laboratory in Saint-Malo. He was even appointed Secretary of State to Minister for the Environment in Pierre Mauroy's government in 1981. But for me, he started a love affair with sea-going adventurers, which after nearly 40 years, has not diminished. In my eyes, he ranks alongside Tim Severin, Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques Piccard and Francis Chichester as an adventurer supreme.

He died on July 19, 2005 in Toulon.

Partial Bibliography

  • Naufragé volontaire (Voluntary castaway)
  • Testament pour l'océan
  • The Bombard Story

The Bombard Story by Alain Bombard, published Andre Deutsch, London 1966

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