Alain Bombard – The Fall After the Triumph
He was the first to prove that shipwreck victims have more hope of salvation than previously thought if they are kept afloat, much less in lifeboats or rafts. He used sea water to drink alone, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable boat for 65 days, as well as collecting rainwater and squeezing freshwater sap from caught fish. To prevent avitaminosis, he strained the plankton and consumed it for nourishment.
Dr. Bombard seriously prepared for such an ordeal by studying the stories of shipwreck victims, performing various experiments. His book, “Overboard by Will,” which I once read, has circulated in many languages.
Above all, what interested me was his persistence in systematic preparation for the ordeal and the achievement of his goal. Exhausted, having lost about 30 kilos in weight, with skin flaking on his legs, he reached Barbados in 1952 on his “Heretic,” equipped with oars and a homemade sail. After his triumphant finish, Alain Bombard became widely known.
However, his experience was questioned. As is usually the case. Another Dr. Lindeman suggested that Bombard did use an untouchable supply of food, which had been loaded on the raft sealed at the start from the Mediterranean Sea. What about drinking water, Herr Lindemann? 3 liters a day on the ration, and for two months 180, well even 100 liters, where was it to come from and how to load it undetected. That’s like 5…9 20-liter canisters for a cooler. Lindemann is a German doctor, and what’s more, a brave man conducted an experiment on himself, as sometimes medics do, proving the applicability of his own new method. But that is another interesting story. German physicians, who were always at the forefront of medical science, as well as extremely pedantic, argued about the dangers of drinking seawater. But you can read more about that and Lindemann’s voyage in a separate issue of the Chronicle.
After the finish line, Bombard found himself in the media spotlight. Only attention does not leave a man who has become popular, and any incident, especially with a tragic outcome – another bait for the newspapers. This is what happened near the mouth of the Ethel River in the Mediterranean, a few years after Bombard’s famous crossing of the Atlantic. His achievement was popularized, and success was converted into business for life raft manufacturers. A competition involving French companies l’Angevinière, Zodiac, Kléber-Colombes and others began. It was spurred by a ministerial decision requiring ships of over 25 tons displacement and more than 72 hours at sea to carry inflatable life rafts. The decision also affected the fishing port of Ethel, the average displacement of ships there was at 115 tons.
However, for the ship owners it was expensive, the cost of the raft was approximately equal to the 10-month salary of a fishing boat worker. In the struggle for the buyer, the one who offers an optimal price/quality ratio wins. The latter must be tested in practice. L’Angevinière has been testing rafts in places where the approach to the shore is difficult. Bombard, a technical consultant and representative of this company, organized and participated in these tests. These activities attracted the attention of the media and the public.
In August 1958 a demonstration test of an inflatable raft was to take place near the mouth of the Ethel in a large gathering of the public and journalists. Weather conditions: rough seas lulling, current speed 4-5 knots, rain, no wind. The raft with volunteer fishermen and Bombard is towed from the shore into the sea and unhooked, it successfully returns to shore. All is well due to the quite favorable weather. Bombard promises to test in harsher conditions and instructs the director of the fishing cooperative to warn of such…
Tragedy on Ethel Ridge
In October of the same year, Bombard, who was at the Brussels World’s Fair, receives a call from the company L’Angevinière, which in turn is informed by the director of the fishing cooperative. Together with the company’s engineer, Mr. Beauvais, and its commercial director, Mr. Breton, Bombard arrives at Ethel as soon as possible and the inflatable raft he is testing is delivered there. Conditions are very bad…
A tugboat and a rescue boat take part in the test. In this case, due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances, dramatic events are played out.
An inflatable raft is lowered from the tugboat and a company engineer and six volunteers, all wearing life jackets, board the raft. The tug pulls the raft and delivers it over a ridge of underwater rocks. On the ridge itself, the raft is subjected to tremendous shaking. The bomber is not held and is the first to go overboard. The other participants manage to pull it out of the water. Immediately, a water wave overturns the raft. All seven fall into the raging waves. Five of them manage to hold on to the raft and try to get it back to its normal position. The other two volunteers try unsuccessfully to join their comrades.
Then the rescue boat, not without difficulty, reaches the ridge in a quarter of an hour to rescue the five people in distress, including Bombard. The rescue boat commander, noticing one more person on the ridge among the underwater rocks, sets a course for him. Along both sides of the boat, spiraling rigging extends to grab them by hand. And then both of the boat’s engines shut down. It loses momentum and then turns sideways in the waves with its side toward the rocks. The out-of-control boat is overturned by the waves. In that narrow spot, the bottom is close. The overturned inflatable raft and rescue boat are drifting.
The overturned boat is exposed to the bobblehead. Four people, including Bombard, manage to cling to its upturned hull.
The tugboat, which is away from the ridge, steps in. A few people get off the ferry so as not to exacerbate the risks. A life ring is thrown from the tugboat to one of the drowning men, but he, who has lost his strength, does not manage to grab hold of it. The tug manages to get to the four men caught in the boat’s hull, get them on board and bring them to shore. One of the drowning men is pulled out of the water with the help of a gaff. After a while, Mr. Breton is carried from the tugboat to another of the boats to be transported to the emergency room.
Air support arrives at the scene of the disaster – two twin-engine planes from the naval air base and a civilian helicopter. The planes circle over the sea to locate the drowning men. The helicopter tries in vain to save the two men by various means.
A life raft is thrown from the helicopter. But it turns out to be a tragic failure. The helicopter mechanic manages to drop the raft, but the compressed gas cylinder explodes and damages his face. The mechanic also deploys a ladder, which he is supposed to use for rescue, but seriously wounded, he is forced to abandon further action. The two exhausted drowning men fail to swim to the raft or catch the end of the ladder. The helicopter pilot is forced to abandon the rescue operation in order to bring the wounded mechanic to shore to send him to the hospital. The rescued Mr. Breton is then transferred to the helicopter, and the pilot takes Breton to Ethel without the mechanic.
The tugboat attempts to bring the rescue boat back to normal, but to no avail, the cable breaks. The tugboat, along with the ferry called in for reinforcements and two planes, continue the search, but it is too late…
The rescue boat, upside down, drifts and runs aground in a place far from Ethel. Several people from the shore try to turn the boat over with ropes. Attempts continue with the help of three tractors from a nearby farm, but to no avail. Finally, two tractors from the military range in Le Havre manage, after several attempts, to bring the boat back to normal. In the afternoon, the sea releases the bodies of only three victims. The bomber on shore hides in a room for the registration of sailors. The atmosphere around is horrible.
Three of the crew of the test raft are rescued: Bombard, the representative of L’Angevinière Breton and the young sailor. There are four dead: the chairman of the cooperative, a L’Angevinière engineer, a fisherman and a sailor. Of the crew of the rescue boat, two were rescued and five were killed. An investigation into the careless killing was initiated by the district attorney. The victims, participants in the events, and witnesses to the drama were questioned to determine the degree of responsibility of each. But investigations under common law and maritime law were abbreviated, and no one filed a complaint.
Messages of support for the families of the victims came from all over France and abroad. The Ethel drama was discussed along with other serious incidents in October 1958. The accounts of the incident in the press, often crude, at times deliberately obscured accounts of the real situation. The drama became a national and global event. Alain Bombard’s notoriety led to increased attention to him – the headlines of articles containing his name were printed in large type.
Y A-T-IL UNE AFFAIRE BOMBARD? (Is it really all a Bombard scam?)
The problems of the VICE-ADMIRAL SHVER II rescue boat
The capsizing of the vessel while attempting a rescue operation has raised many questions about its design and purpose. Numerous testimonies mentioned that the vessel should be considered to be self-restoring to its normal position. The ambiguity was exacerbated and thus gave rise to many rumors. What, in reality, are the characteristics of this vessel?
Lifeboat – Synopsis
The Port Ethel rescue boat “Vice Amiral Schwerer II” was built and launched in 1938 at St Servan with the name “Pourquoi pas?”. In 1956, the vessel’s classification was downgraded at St Malo, and in 1957 she underwent a complete refit at Fécamp in Normandy. The boat arrived at Ethel in May 1958. That is, on the eve of a test of the inflatable raft, for basic support.
Length: 11.93 meters, width: 3.46 meters, draft: 0.99 meters Weight: 10.250 tons, engines: 2 x 28 hp, diesel, Beaudouin Brand Speed: 7.9 knots
Why did the rescue boat capsize? Excerpts from Jean DUMET, 1958.
“The rescue boat maneuvered to keep its nose to the wave. The buoyrep (also called floating anchor in inflatables and other boats, the boat’s perliner) was driven by the propellers, which became blocked. There was no propulsive force to maneuver. The vessel stood sideways to the wave and overturned.
There are two types of salvage vessels:
- A dynamic model that self-restores to its normal position in the event of a capsize, but which can capsize relatively easily
- A stable model which, if it were to capsize, would be virtually impossible to bring back to a normal position.
Why weren’t the propellers protected? Because it is virtually impossible. The propellers of salvage vessels are located in “tunnels”, which in principle protect against impact, but rigging, for example, is drawn in by the current created by the propeller and can get caught on the propeller blades. Rescue vessels, however, are equipped with access hatches that can be opened from the deckhouse. It is enough to open these hatches to access the propellers and release cables or other objects that could block the propellers. But it takes a certain amount of time, and in the case of the Ethel, the crew did not have the necessary time to release the propellers.”
The loss of life and the scale of the drama inflicted a monstrous trauma on the entire population of Ethel. It remained an open wound for all; memories stirred people’s minds, but they preferred to remain silent about it. A sense of animosity arose toward Alain Bombard. Mentions of the events were aired by the press, with accusations of the “rescue boat, tracking and safety equipment that led to the loss of life,” but this was not received by the people of Ethel. And some of them never forgave Bombard and didn’t want him in the area.
Bombard has long been unable to erase the painful memories of what happened; it has become a taboo for him. According to his own feelings, his health was deteriorating, and depression led to a suicide attempt five years later, in 1963. It was only a meeting with Paul Ricard, who financed the “Marine Observatory” in the Mediterranean, set up for research on sea protection, that allowed Bombard to come out of a long depression and find a new purpose.
Igor Leonardovich Vikentyev, whom I’ve met, the famous TRIZ popularizer, leading site devoted to the research of creative persons, gives his version of what happened, quoting the publication – Aliev A., Alain Bombard: “Believe, You Can Survive!”, Yachting magazine, 2002, N 3. With an unflattering assessment of Bombard in the title itself: An involuntary discredit of Alain Bombard’s noble purpose and personality.
However, is Vikentyev familiar with the information containing the diary notes of what happened and the evaluation of the rescue boat of support?
The experiment of the French doctor Alain Bombard.
Alain Bombard embarked on a solitary voyage that lasted 65 days, from October 19 to December 23, 1952. His background is as follows. In the spring of 1951, Alain Bombard, a young intern doctor (born on October 27, 1924) who had just begun his career at a hospital in the French port of Boulogne, was shocked by the death toll of sailors from the Notre-Dame de Peyrag shipwrecked near the coast. The trawler ran onto the rocks of a coastal breakwater at night, in fog, and crashed. Forty-three sailors were killed. In the morning, a few hours later, their bodies were pulled ashore and, most surprisingly, they were all wearing life jackets! It was this event that prompted the young doctor to become involved in the problem of saving the lives of people in distress at sea.
Bombard wondered why so many people become victims of shipwrecks. After all, every year many thousands of people die at sea. And usually 90% of them die within the first three days. Why does this happen? After all, it would take much longer to die of hunger and thirst. Bombard drew the conclusion he later wrote in his book Overboard by Will: “Victims of legendary shipwrecks, who died prematurely, I know: it was not the sea that killed you, it was not hunger that killed you, it was not thirst that killed you! Swaying on the waves to the cries of the seagulls, you died of fear!
While still a student, Alain Bombard became interested in the problems of survival in extreme conditions. After studying many accounts of shipwreck survivors, Bombard became convinced that many survived beyond the medical and physiological norms defined by scientists. Some stayed alive on rafts and lifeboats, in the cold and under the scorching sun, in the stormy ocean, with a tiny supply of water and food on the fifth, tenth, and even fiftieth day after the disaster. As a physician well versed in the reserves of the human body, Alain Bombard was certain that many of the men forced to give up the comfort of the ship by the tragedy and to flee by whatever means were available, had died long before their physical strength was exhausted. Despair killed them. And such death befell not only accidental people at sea – passengers, but also professional sailors accustomed to the sea.
So Alain Bombard decided to go on a long sea voyage, putting himself in the conditions of “man overboard” in order to prove from his own experience the following: 1. A man will not drown if he uses an inflatable life raft as a life preserver. 2. Man will not starve to death or get scurvy if he eats plankton and raw fish. 3. Man will not die of thirst if he drinks juice squeezed from fish and sea water for 5-6 days. Besides, he wanted very much to destroy the tradition, according to which the search for the wrecked people ceased after a week or, at the most, after 10 days. Regarding the first two points I can say that it was after the voyage of Alain Bombard on all vessels, especially on small and fishing, along with rescue boats and lifeboats were widely used inflatable life rafts of different capacity – PSN-6, PSN-8, PSN-10, (PSN – inflatable life raft, the figure – the capacity of man. ) Regarding raw fish – the indigenous inhabitants of the far north – Chukchi, Nenets, Eskimos, not to get sick with scurvy, always ate and eat not only raw fish, but also the meat of sea animals, making up for the lack of vitamin “C”, which is known to contain in various fruits and vegetables.
It was not so easy to carry out the conceived experiment. Bombard had been preparing for the voyage both theoretically and psychologically for about a year. To begin with he studied a lot of materials about shipwrecks, their causes, rescue facilities of different types of ships and their equipment. Then he began to conduct experiments on himself, feeding on what could be available to a shipwrecked person. Bombard spent six months, from October 1951, in the laboratories of the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, researching the chemical composition of seawater, types of plankton, the structure of a variety of fish that can be found in the ocean. These studies showed that 50 to 80 percent of the weight of fish is water, with fresh water, and the flesh of marine fish contains fewer different salts than the meat of land mammals. It is the juice squeezed from the body of fish that can satisfy the need for fresh water. Salty seawater, as his experiments have shown, can be drunk in small quantities to prevent dehydration of the body, within five days. Plankton, which consists of the smallest microorganisms and algae, is known to be the only food for the largest marine mammals – whales, which proves its high nutritional value.
There were many friends who fervently supported Bombard’s idea and provided all kinds of assistance, but there were also skeptical detractors, or even simply hostile people. Not everyone understood the humanity of the idea, even calling it heresy, and the author – a heretic. Shipbuilders were outraged that the doctor was going to cross the ocean in an inflatable boat, which they believed could not be steered. The sailors were astonished that a lay sailor, a man with absolutely no knowledge of the theory of navigation, wanted to make the voyage. The doctors were horrified to learn that Allen was going to live off the gifts of the sea and drink seawater. At first the voyage was not conceived as a solitary voyage, but as a crew of three. But as is always the case, practice is very different from theory, the realization of the idea from the original idea. When Bombard received a rubber boat designed for sailing about the size of a passenger car, it became clear that on a long voyage the three of us simply could not fit in there. The boat was 4.65 meters long and 1.9 meters wide. It was a tightly inflated rubber sausage, curved in the shape of an elongated horseshoe, the ends of which were connected by a wooden stern. On the flat rubber bottom lay lightweight wooden slats. The side floats consisted of four compartments, which were inflated and lowered independently of each other. The boat was propelled by a quadrangular sail of about three square meters. Bombard named this “boat” symbolically “Heretic”! She had no extra equipment, only a compass, sextant, navigational books, first-aid kit, and photographic supplies.
In the early morning hours of May 25, 1952, a speedboat towed the Heretic as far away as possible from Fonvieille harbor to keep it from being swept back to shore by the current. And when the escorting boats left and Bombard and Palmer were left alone in the midst of a foreign element, fear set in. Allen writes: “It came over us suddenly, as if the disappearance of the last ship over the horizon line had cleared the way for it… Then we had to experience fear more than once, real fear, not this momentary anxiety caused by sailing. The real fear is the panic of the soul and body, mad in the fight with the elements, when it seems that the whole universe inexorably turned on you. And overcoming fear is no less difficult than fighting hunger and thirst. Bombard and Palmer spent two weeks in the Mediterranean Sea. During that time they did not touch their emergency supplies, making do with what the sea gave them. Of course, it was very difficult. But Bombard realized that his first experience was a success and that he could prepare for a long voyage. But Jack Palmer, by the way, an experienced yachtsman, who had previously made a solitary voyage across the Atlantic in a small yacht, but abundantly equipped with everything he needed, refused to test his fate further. Two weeks was enough for him, the thought of eating raw fish again for a long time, swallowing disgusting though useful plankton, drinking juice squeezed from fish, diluting it with seawater, terrified him.
Bombard, on the other hand, was determined to continue his experiment. First he was to sail from the Mediterranean Sea to Casablanca, along the coast of Africa, then from Casablanca to the Canary Islands. And only then to sail across the ocean the way all sailing ships, including the caravels of Columbus, had sailed to America for centuries. This route is away from modern shipping lanes, so it is difficult to expect to meet any ships. But that was what suited Bombard, so to speak, for the “purity” of the experience. Many dissuaded the doctor from continuing the voyage after he on the “Heretic” safely passed the way from Casablanca to the Canary Islands for 11 days. All the more so because Bombard’s wife, Ginette, had given birth to a daughter in Paris in early September. But after flying to Paris from Las Palmas for a few days and seeing his family, the doctor continued the final preparations for departure. On Sunday, October 19, 1952, the “Heretic” was launched from the port of Puerto de la Luz (Las Palmas, the capital of the Canary Islands) into the ocean. A north-easterly trade wind was blowing the boat farther and farther away from the land. How many incredible difficulties Bombard had to endure!
On one of the first nights Bombard was caught in a fierce storm. The boat was completely filled with water, only the mighty rubber floats were visible on the surface. We had to scoop out the water, but it turned out that there was no scoop, and we had to scoop it out with a hat for two hours. He wrote in his diary: “To this day I myself cannot understand how I managed, freezing with terror, to survive for two hours in this manner. Shipwrecked, always be more stubborn than the sea, and you will win!” After this storm, Bombard believed that his “Heretic” could not turn over, it was like an aquaplane or a platform as if gliding across the water surface. A few days later, another mishap befell the navigator – a gust of wind broke the sail. Bombard replaced it with a new spare, but in half an hour another squall tore it down and carried it out into the ocean like a light paper kite. We had to urgently repair the old one and sail under it for the rest of 60 days.
Bombard took neither fishing rods nor nets, except plankton nets, as a shipwrecked person should. He constructed a harpoon by tying a knife with a curved tip to the end of the oar. He used this harpoon to catch his first fish – koryphaena dorada. And he used its bones to make the first fishhooks. Though biologists had frightened the doctor before he set sail that he would be unable to catch anything far from the coast, it turned out that there were plenty of fish in the open ocean. They were unintimidating, literally accompanying the boat the entire voyage. There were especially many flying fish that bumped into the sail at night and fell into the boat, and every morning Bombard would find five to fifteen of them. Besides fish, Bombard also ate plankton, which he said tasted a little like krill paste but had an unsightly appearance. Occasionally birds were caught on the hook, which he also ate raw, discarding only the skin and fat. During the voyage the doctor drank seawater for about a week, and for the rest of the time he drank the juice squeezed from the fish. Fresh water managed to collect in small quantities as condensation on the tent after cool nights. And only in November, after a strong tropical downpour, we managed to collect at once about 15 liters of fresh water.
From constantly being in a humid environment, from salt water and unfamiliar food, Bombard’s body began to develop pimples that caused severe pain. The slightest wounds and scratches began to fester, taking a long time to heal. The fingernails of his hands were completely grown into the meat, and pustules formed under them, which the doctor himself would open without anesthesia. On top of that, the skin on my feet began to come off in shreds, and the nails on four toes fell out. But his blood pressure remained normal all the time. Bombard kept observations of his condition throughout the voyage and wrote them down in his diary. When it rained tropical rain for several days in a row and water was everywhere – above and below, it soaked into everything in the boat, he wrote down: “The state of mind is cheerful, but because of the constant dampness there was physical fatigue. But the scorching sun and windlessness of early December were even more excruciating. It was then that Bombard wrote his will, for he had lost confidence that he would reach Earth alive. During the voyage he had lost 25 kilograms and his hemoglobin level in his blood had dropped to critical levels. And yet he made it! On December 23, 1952, the “Heretic” reached the shore of Barbados. It took her about three hours to sail around the island from the east, where the surf was very strong because of the reefs, and to dock on the calmer western shore.
A crowd of local fishermen and children were waiting for him on shore, and they rushed out of the boat, not only to look at it, but to take everything out of it. Bombard’s greatest fear was that his untouchable supply of groceries, sealed at departure, which he was to leave untouched for examination at the first police station, might not be stolen. The nearest police station turned out to be at least three kilometers away, so Bombard had to find three witnesses to testify to the integrity of the package and then distribute it to the locals, which they were very happy about. Bombard writes that he was later rebuked for not immediately sealing his ship’s log, his records, to prove their authenticity. Apparently, he says, these people have no idea “how a man who has come ashore after 65 days spent in complete solitude and almost no movement.
So ended this amazing feat in the name of saving the lives of those who find themselves overboard against their will. The voyage on the Heretic and the publication of Overboard by Will was Bombard’s finest hour. It was thanks to him that in 1960 the London Maritime Safety Conference decided to equip ships with life rafts. Later he undertook many more voyages with different objectives, studied seasickness and the bactericidal properties of water, and fought against the pollution of the Mediterranean Sea. But the main outcome of Bombard’s life (A.B. died July 19, 2005) remains the ten thousand people who wrote to him, “If it were not for your example, we would have died!”