The incredible story of the man who crossed the Atlantic in an inflatable boat without water

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Alain Bombard
Alain Bombard

It was Oct. 19, 1953, when French physician and future navigator, Alain Bombard (1924-2005), set off from Las Palmas, Canary Islands, for Barbados, Caribbean on a 4.50-meter-long, 1.90-meter-long Zodiac dinghy called L’Hérétique with no water or provisions on board. His goal? Saving lives, in its own way.

Alain Bombard’s feat

It was inconceivable to Bombard that thousands of shipwrecked people lost their lives every year at sea after reaching the rafts. In fact, Bombard’s thinking was that a castaway could survive without water or provisions aboard his raft by simply using “his head.” How to prove it? Voluntarily shipwrecked.

The feat Bombard faced was to cross the North Atlantic without water or food aboard a small dinghy. He stayed on board for 65 days, sailing about 45 miles a day. Of course, a great many people tried to stop him, to convince him that it was madness. Among other things, the fact that Bombard was not a great sailor also played to his disadvantage. We wrote “future navigator” at the beginning of the article: this is because Bombard knew practically nothing about navigation. On his side he had only remarkable intelligence and a good deal of luck.

Alain Bombard and l'Hérétique
Alain Bombard and l’Hérétique

Even the boat on which he had decided to do the feat was unusual: the dinghy, a novelty at the time. They did not yet exist commercially, but a French company, Zodiac, which later became famous in this field, had built the little boats for pilots who fell overboard. Building one, later called the Heretique, on the needs of Bombard was born what later became, with an outboard motor at the stern, the prototype of all inflatable boats. In Italy they appeared more than a decade later.

Four days after leaving, on October 23, he realized how small the Hérétique was. A storm had crossed his path and he was sailing, asleep, through the great waves of the Atlantic Ocean. He woke up abruptly with the dinghy semi-submerged after a wave smashed into him. After he emptied it and put it back together, past the storm he wrote:

“The Hérétique had behaved according to my hopes and had glided smoothly through the waves without capsizing. There was already a strong possibility that, at least, the boat would have reached the other side in one piece.”


Alain Bombard and the supplies

There was a “recipe” designed by him to survive: 3/4 of a liter of seawater a day mixed with the liquid squeezed from the fish he managed to catch each day. As a physician and biologist, the good Bombard had taken care to study in detail all the substances needed by the human body, and in his stories he releases much information about the effects on his body.

These ingredients served to keep hunger and thirst under control. But all sailors know that the other fearsome enemy of long sailing in these conditions is scurvy, which is dangerous and deadly. To keep him away Bombard towed a very fine silk net with which he managed to catch a fair amount of plankton (about two tablespoons). After 21 days (and for the remaining 44) Bombard was assisted by almost daily rain that contributed to his daily water needs.


The perils of travel by Alain Bombard

Surviving hunger and thirst in itself is not easy on an inflatable boat in the middle of the Atlantic. Then storms, diseases such as scurvy are always lurking.

On Nov. 2, shortly after the voyage began, Bombard dived into the sea to recover a lost bearing that was useful for his position. The safety of getting back on board was all in a floating anchor. As fate would have it, this one slipped out, causing the dinghy to move away quickly. Only training as a swimmer (Bombard had swum across the English Channel in 1951, swimming 21 hours) allowed him to return to the dinghy safely.

Large fish also represented delicate moments for the biologist. Bombard recounts having had several encounters with sharks. One night he had to defend himself from a specimen kept attacking the Hérétique by improvising a “spear” with his knife. Another time it was a swordfish that followed him for an entire night. Then one day in mid-December he encountered a giant race.

“It was only after I returned that a fisherman from Dakar told me, “That was probably the greatest moment of danger; the ray could have toppled her over with a single blow of its fin, or it could have jumped out of the water and swooped down on her.”


Alain Bombard and the “12 very long days”

After 53 days of sailing alone, eating raw meat and fish liquid, Bombard encountered a ship on his route that first told him how his course was wrong. Bombard was in error about 600 miles on longitude. Despite the “cold shower,” the biologist decided to set off again without being recovered from the ship, despite the fact that already 53 days of travel was still an achievement no one would have hoped for.

He accepted only one meal from the ship (a fried egg, some liver, and some cabbage and fruit), only to bitterly regret it in the last 12 days of sailing that separated him from Barbados. After that frugal meal lo Doctor’s stomach began to reject the raw fish. Bombard says he lost more weight in the 12 days after his encounter with the ship than in the previous 53.

Eventually, however, he arrived where he wanted to be, in Barbados, on December 24. On the trip he lost 25 kilograms of weight.


Alain Bombard’s critique of the enterprise.

Critics of the feat say that Alain Bombard had managed to survive only because of a lucky set of particularly favorable conditions: lots of fish, warm and favorable winds, and rain. It still remains an extreme undertaking.


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