Inflatable across the Atlantic


In the 1950s, Dr. Alain Bombard had some radical ideas concerning survival of shipwrecked mariners. Although it was a common belief that drinking saltwater would kill, Bombard, after much research, came to the conclusion that drinking about 1 pint of seawater daily-if necessary, along with water extracted from 5 to 7 pounds of freshly caught fish, plus a dollop of plankton could provide the hydration and nutrition necessary to keep a mariner alive for weeks.

Not one to hide behind his research, Bombard decided to test his theory. To this end he chose to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, from the Canary Islands to Barbados, in a 15-foot Zodiac inflatable that he named L’Hérétique (Heretic). Initially he was to be joined by a fellow researcher, but at the last moment his partner withdrew and so Bombard set out alone. In order to test his theory he took no fresh water, no food, supplying himself with a plankton net and fishing gear. For navigation, Bombard, who was an ace celestial navigator, took only his sextant.

Suffice it to say the passage was fraught with difficulty. To be in a 15-foot rubber inflatable, with virtually no freeboard, powered by a small sailing rig, with no food or water, heading across the Atlantic, seems a suicide mission. Yet Bombard headed out to sea and 65 days later walked ashore in Barbados, 55 pounds lighter. In transit he did stop to have a meal aboard a British freighter and for this his results were criticized. It was also claimed that he had stowed a fresh water supply aboard his boat. Testing his results a few years later Hannes Lindemann, a German doctor and long distance kayaker found that he couldn’t survive on Bombard’s diet and discredited the results of the Frenchman.

Regardless of the validity of Bombard’s methods, it is quite a courageous feat to head out to sea in a rubber dinghy. Bombard spent the rest of his life adventuring and in politics, becoming a thorn in the side of the French establishment. In later years he became a well-known environmentalist, remarking that, “I had fought on behalf of man against the sea, but I realized that it had become more urgent to fight on behalf of the sea against men.”

We’re not sure which sight reduction tables Bombard used. In the 1950s H.O. 214 — the precursor to H.O. 229 — was in use, but so was H.O. 211. We know that he had a Nautical Almanac and that he had his sextant tested for errors before departing. We can only assume he did noon sights in order to ascertain his latitude. We will use the 2009 Nautical Almanac. On December 20, we have a DR position of 13° 55’ N by 58° 45’ W. He was a few days away from his landfall on Barbados which was at 13° 05’ N by 59° 30’ W. There is no error to his sextant, and as seated in his boat, his height of eye was three feet. He waited until meridian passage and took a lower limb of the sun. He got an Hs of 52° 26.0’. Just to gild the lily a bit here, the shot was taken at 15:53:12 GMT. This is not necessary information, but it could make the results a bit more accurate.

A. Find the Ho

B. Find the latitude

By Ocean Navigator