On October 19, 1952, the French physician and biologist Alain Bombard went to sea alone in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria aboard an inflatable Zodiac boat, with a sextant and hardly any provisions. With so few means, his objective seemed completely unreasonable—to cross the Atlantic Ocean. But he succeeded—65 days later, on December 23, he reached land in Barbados, having lost 25 kilos, but alive, and without suffering from serious health consequences; he would die in 2005 at the respectable age of 80.
Five years earlier, in 1947, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl had led the Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific to prove that ancient peoples might have expanded across the ocean with primitive resources. But unlike Heyerdahl, Bombard’s interest was not the thirst for adventure, but simply thirst, in its most literal and biological sense.
The Kon-Tiki voyage had proved that ancient navigators were able to survive in the ocean by hydrating themselves with fish juice and drinking seawater mixed with fresh water in a ratio of 2:3. Bombard had known of the deaths of several shipwrecked sailors while working as a doctor in Boulogne-sur-Mer, but he was convinced that it was not dehydration that killed them, but rather despair. Thus it was proposed to demonstrate that it was possible to survive a shipwreck only with the resources available on the high seas, including salt water.
After an intense period of study at the Monaco Oceanographic Institute and some prior preparatory runs in the Mediterranean and Africa, Bombard had just enough time to return to Paris for the birth of his first daughter, before facing the trip where he would risk his own life to prove his theory.
The regime designed by Bombard consisted of feeding himself minimally with plankton—rich in vitamins—and raw fish. The most critical need, hydration, would be solved by squeezing the fluid from the fish and collecting rainwater, supplemented with small doses of seawater that did not exceed one litre a day—one tablespoon at intervals of 20 minutes, allowing the saliva to dilute the salt in the mouth.
The Mad Doctor
The latter was the most controversial aspect of the experiment, something Bombard was aware of when he named his boat L’Hérétique, the heretic. In his own country he was branded Docteur Fou, the Mad Doctor. His contemporary, the German physician Hannes Lindemann, also a solitary navigator, questioned the veracity of the saltwater ingestion experiment as Bombard described it in his book Naufragé volontaire (Éditions de Paris, 1953). The Frenchman had a sealed emergency kit with provisions and water, but he was not supposed to use it; only a few days before his arrival in Barbados he was aided by a ship, where they offered him lunch.
It has long been known that humans cannot keep themselves hydrated with salt water. Those who do die dehydrated after suffering a poisoning that makes them lose their mind. “Human kidneys can only make urine that is less salty than salt water,” explains the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Specifically, the urine reaches a maximum level of about 2% salt, while seawater is around 3.5%.
When we drink salt water, the salinity of our blood increases and the excess must be expelled. “To get rid of all the excess salt taken in by drinking seawater, you have to urinate more water than you drank,” continues NOAA. Specifically, to lower the salt from one litre of seawater to 2%, the kidney needs to add 0.75 litres of body water. “Eventually, you die of dehydration even as you become thirstier.” When the body cannot remove excess sodium, there is an imbalance whose effects on the organs, including the nervous system, trigger the symptoms that lead to coma and death.
Small amounts of seawater
In the Second World War, shipwrecks were plentiful and there were stories of sailors who had survived by drinking small amounts of seawater. In 1943, the UK National Hospital physician W. S. S. Laddell published a study in The Lancet in which he tested this possibility. Laddell found that “a man in water debt continues to produce 350-450 cc of urine a day.” But in his experiments supplementing freshwater intake with salt water, Laddell found that “there was a slight gain to the body of water, because the extra water lost in the urine is less than the extra water ingested as seawater.”
Although Laddell himself added a note warning that the committee that had commissioned the study to assist shipwreck survivors in combat did not recommend drinking seawater, the truth is that Bombard’s thesis has not been definitively refuted. In 1987, a study with rats concluded that “when a man is stranded at sea, it is not advisable to drink all the fresh water and then to be compelled to drink seawater when dehydrated.” Instead, researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University recommend, “slowly increasing the seawater uptake” when the survivor is still well hydrated.
Current documents such as the US Army Survival Manual FM 3-05.70 (FM 21-76) clearly advise not to drink seawater or urine in the event of a shipwreck. However, it does validate other ideas put into practice by Bombard, such as reducing food to the essential, since digestion consumes water from the body. Also one should take advantage of the juice of the fish, specifically the fluid of the eye and that surrounding the spine, as these liquids are less saline than seawater. To reduce sweating, it is advisable to protect oneself from the sun and to moisten and wring out one’s clothing.
Although today there is no shortage of desalination or water evaporation system, Bombard’s legacy continues to assist castaways, at least in one independent aspect of the eternal debate on saltwater intake. According to what the French seafarer Gérard d’Aboville wrote in Bombard’s obituary published in the Libération newspaper on July 20, 2005, the Mad Doctor “understood that it is first and foremost hope that allows a survivor to survive, and he demonstrated it.”
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