Adrift in the Atlantic

French biologist Alain Bombard was so convinced that castaways could survive purely on the sea’s natural provisions that he set out to prove it on a most extraordinary voyage

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In the spring of 1951, French biologist and physician Alain Bombard was asleep in the residents’ quarters of a hospital in Boulogne-sur-mer when he was woken by a call: the trawler Notre-Dame-de-Peyragues had missed her course in the mist and broken up on the outer breakwater of the harbour. Bombard arrived at a scene that would stay with him for the rest of his life: 43 men piled up on top of each other “like dislocated puppets”, their feet bare and lifejackets intact. The doctor and his colleagues failed to revive a single one of them.

Bombard thought about how one simple error of navigation had caused the deaths of 43 men and orphaned 78 children. He thought of the 150 fishermen killed each year just in his region of France, and the 200,000 who suffered the same fate every year around the world. More than a quarter of them made it to a lifeboat, only to die in prolonged agony from lack of food and water, or the well-documented perils of losing one’s mind at sea.

Bombard became convinced that castaways could survive for long periods of time by feasting on what the sea could provide, and that countless lives could be saved if lifeboats were fitted with a few simple pieces of equipment: fish hooks, fine nets for collecting plankton – a source of vitamin C – and presses for squeezing fresh water out of fish. He even argued that drinking small amounts of seawater – a maximum of one and a half pints per day – could prolong life, contradicting centuries of evidence to the contrary. But how could he prove such a thing?

To demonstrate his point, in 1952, Bombard embarked on a singular voyage. In the hope of saving thousands of future castaways, he determined to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a 15-foot (4.5m) inflatable dinghy, using only the sea for sustenance. Onboard the aptly named l’Hérétique, he would have a sextant and a watch for navigating, his fishing kit, and a tarpaulin for shelter and catching rainwater. Emergency rations would be sealed within the craft, and checked by officials once he reached the other side of the Atlantic.

He set his sights on the West Indies, plotting a course between two dreaded dangers: the Doldrums and the Sargasso Sea. The former was an area of low pressure, where two powerful trade winds “meet in a tremendous conflict in a no-man’s land of violent storms, unpredictable turbulence and disquieting calms” (Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story, 1953). The latter was far more frightening.

On 19 October 1952 Bombard set off from the Canaries, cheered on by friends and accompanied by a “veritable convoy” of yachts. Even though the stiff breeze that sped him away from the harbour abandoned his lifeboat shortly after and left him drifting, he slept well that first night, tucking his tarpaulin up to his neck like a blanket and dropping off under a “lovely, luminous sky”.

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It didn’t take long for the reality of his solo voyage to sink in, however. After two more nights drifting aimlessly, a light breeze, which soon became a tempest, pushed l’Hérétique further into the Atlantic where it tossed the inflatable craft about like a cork. Confident in the lifeboat’s stability, Bombard decided to sleep it out, waking soon after to find himself completely surrounded by water. He began frantically bailing, scooping water out with his hat for the next two hours while more waves broke over the boat.

Being only a few days into his voyage, Bombard felt confident in his ability to weather the storms. But as October wore on, l’Hérétique continued to be buffeted by gales. The sail ripped; if he managed to sleep at all, Bombard did so shivering, encrusted with salt. When not bailing water or stitching up his sail, he mused on the nature of fear and despair. Above all, he was afraid of fear itself, recognising that increasing tiredness and exhaustion led him to expect the worst.

To keep his growing melancholia at bay, Bombard busied himself with catching fish, squeezing water out of the small ones using a makeshift press and cutting slits in the larger ones and drinking straight from their bodies like some Gollum of the Atlantic. He trapped seabirds and ate them raw and netted two daily spoonfuls of plankton to top up his vitamin C levels and keep scurvy at bay.

Sea-fearing

But fear kept creeping in and, come late October, Bombard had become fixated by the condition of his boat. Each day, he inspected the inflatable craft meticulously, noting where friction had worn the rubberised canvas thin, prising barnacles off to keep its undercarriage in tip-top condition, and putting his ear to the material to check for sounds of rubbing like a doctor with a stethoscope.

So imagine his horror when, in the middle of the Atlantic, he began to be hounded by swordfish. By now, Bombard had become a dab hand at batting away sharks, but he was defenceless against swordfish, fearing that he would enrage them if he engaged in conflict (swordfish were, he had read, prone to fits of fury). He described “12 hours of terror” fending off “a large swordfish of undeniably menacing aspect … seemingly in a rage, his dorsal fin raised like hackles”.

It’s worth noting that, by this point, Bombard was also completely lost. “[I] can no longer determine my longitude with certainty,” he admitted on 26 October. “I shall just have to guess it from the time the sun reaches the meridian”. Stubbornly, he pushed on, but his body was beginning to show the effects of his journey. He started to lose toenails and developed a rash. Losing weight, he found it impossible to get comfortable; every position he sat or lay in caused him pain.

By November, having failed to read an accurate longitude for weeks, Bombard was convinced that he was approaching the end of his journey, unaware that he hadn’t yet passed the Cape Verde Islands. Expecting to see land each new day, and being sorely disappointed, his mood dwindled. And as the days wore on, he started to become increasingly superstitious: he became obsessed with seabirds, which teased him to despair with their promise of land; Wednesdays took on a special meaning; and he believed that he could calculate wind speed by simply listening to its note against the sail.

The only tangible presence being his own, Bombard began to take comfort in the creatures around him, documenting his encounters with all the drama and character you would expect from someone who hadn’t had human contact for months. He was visited at four o’clock each day by the same petrel and was kept company for almost the entire journey by a shoal of ‘dolphins’ – actually dorados, a large type of fish, which jostled around his boat. “I began to share their sensations and reactions,” he wrote, “eating the same food and catching the same flying fish”.

Between the horror of swordfish attacks and the creeping onset of paranoia, Bombard also experienced moments of pure wonder – a half-eaten shearwater carcass illuminating the sail with a ghostly phosphorescence – and at times, he became overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, writing long eloquent odes to the ocean. Staying awake one evening to check the time of the moonrise, Bombard was overcome by the feeling of what a strange and formidable element the sea is, writing:

It seems to form part of a system so entirely different from normal existence that it might belong to another planet. But there it is at my feet, alive yet inscrutable. Here and there lights appear in the depths... They look like stars half hidden in a cloudy night sky. The fish around me leap and swim to and fro, protagonists of an unseen and mysterious existence. Life at the surface is only the thin upper layer of another world.

Approaching desperation

Around mid-November, time began to weigh heavily on Alain Bombard. He suffered a 14-day bout of diarrhoea and would go days without sleep. To top it off, the skin on his feet had started to peel away in strips and he was down to his last couple of toenails. Towards the end of November, the wind disappeared entirely and our castaway drifted for over a week, his mood ebbing, his eyes aching from straining on the horizon. Unbeknown to him, he had reached the edge of the Sargasso Sea.

Stewing in his own thoughts under a terrible sun, Bombard soon fell “prey to every emotion”. His paranoia became overwhelming; he believed the clouds were deliberately avoiding the sun so as to deny him shade. He decided that he would not attempt to fight the next storm, trusting his fate to God. “What have I done to deserve all this?” he wrote, dictating his will and final wishes, and holding the authors of his castaways’ handbook accountable for his inevitable death.

But just as Bombard was falling into despair, a miracle happened – and it did, in fact, fall on a Wednesday. He ran into the Arakaka, a passenger cargo steamer out of Liverpool. At first he was reluctant to board, fearing it would invalidate his experiment, but when the captain shouted his location over the tannoy – and it was 600 miles (966km) further east than he thought – Bombard scrambled aboard shouting: “This is it. Fifty-three days, I give up”.

He accepted a shower and a light meal: a fried egg, spoonful of cabbage and a slither of liver. He knew he would be held accountable for his self-imposed rule breaking, but his need for human contact was too great and accepting this hospitality, arguably, saved his life. The encounter gave Bombard the morale boost he so sorely needed, and he set off with renewed vigour on 10 December, having been taught how to read longitude.

On Christmas Eve 1952, the French biologist staggered on to a Barbados beach, 65 days after setting out from the Canaries. He had lost 55 pounds (25kg), was severely anaemic, and found it hard to walk, but he was alive. And, crucially, he had proved his point, at least in his own mind.


This story featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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For more extraordinary tales of remarkable journeys, pick up a copy of our latest book The Odysseum: Strange journeys that obliterated convention (Chambers, 2018)

Hash it up

Welcome to the humble, yet delectable, world of the breakfast hash: an easy to cook and adaptable recipe guaranteed to fill your belly while using up those left over odds and sods in your fridge. Rising to prominence during the Second World War in its rationed corned beef based incarnation, the ‘hash’ is now a staple comfort food par excellence.

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The protein

Begin by crisping up any leftover meat or veggie protein in a hot skillet. If you’re lacking leftovers, some bacon or a little chorizo will do just fine. Fry until crisp and transfer to a warm plate with a slotted spoon, leaving the juices in the pan.



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The potato and the allium

Dig out that solitary leek or half an onion from the fridge and dice with some potato or sweet potato. Fry in the pan, throwing in some salt or smoked paprika.


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The veg

Balance it out with some leftover vegetables. We recommend button mushrooms, any weird or wonderful delights from your weekly veg box or some crunchy red peppers. Chop and add to the frying potato and onion.



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The egg

Personally, we think a true hash has to be finished with an egg. Add your meat/protein back to the pan with the veg, then crack a raw egg on top or make a nest for it to sit in. Leave to cook for five minutes until firm.

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The seasoning

Finish with a sprinkling of sea salt, black pepper, parsley and, if you’re feeling indulgent, fresh parmesan. Experiment with other combinations: salmon works well with dill and thyme; spring onion and kale works a treat with duck; tofu and sweet potato hash goes beautifully with turmeric.

Illustrations by Joe Latham

What’s your ultimate hash combo? Share it on Instagram tagging @ernestjournal, using the hashtag #ernesthash

Sourdough Library

Karl De Smedt has travelled to 50 countries on a quest for sourdough starters, to compile and study them at the Puratos Centre for Bread Flavour in Belgium. He invites us into his curious archive…

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First thing’s first, Karl. Why?

One hundred and fifty years ago, bakers yeast was starting to be produced commercially. Comparatively, the sourdough process was very time-consuming, so most bakers abandoned it and the knowledge was lost. I feel that having a library where sourdough can be studied is an important contribution to the world of baking and fermentation.

Tell us bit more about yourself and your background.

I graduated from bakery and patisserie school in 1988. I worked for six years in a confectionary in Brussels before joining Puratos in 1994 as a test baker. That’s where I worked with sourdough for the first time. The sourdough dated to 1989, brought over by a colleague from San Francisco, as part of research to produce sourdough solutions for the company’s customers. You could say this sample was the very first sourdough in our collection.

Since 2008, I’ve been responsible for the Centre for Bread Flavour, a specialist branch at the forefront of the company’s sourdough production efforts, which handles clients from all over the world. It’s here we opened the sourdough library in 2013.

How unique can a final sourdough product be?

Very. We like to compare sourdough to cheese, where the main ingredient is milk, but there are so many different types of cheese, due to the origin of the milk, fermentation temperatures, the ageing, the producer etc.With sourdough, there’s just as much variety – in our library we’ve identified over 900 microorganisms from 108 starters.

I understand that the original creator of each starter also needs to donate yearly supplies of flour to the library for maintenance. So, will this change the outcome of the mix later on?

Indeed, we do ask for a supply of flour from the owners for their sourdough contributions. However, we do that to minimise the impact of change, a protocol recommended to us by Professor Marco Gobbetti from the University of Bolzano and Bari in Italy. We are well aware that the starters might be subject to change. But with Gobbetti’s protocol, the sourdough cultures are kept in optimum conditions to preserve them for longer; we have the micro-organisms stored in a freezer at -80°C and the sourdoughs themselves are stored at 4°C.

When a sourdough enters our library, it’s like taking a picture. We capture that moment – we have the composition of the sourdough at that point in time. That allows us to go back to the bakery after 5, 10 or 20 years to compare the two starters with each other and the original sample. There is no other place in the world that is doing this for sourdough. That’s why this library is so important to us.

Does the library undertake research into the microbes in the starters?

Yes, of course. Through DNA sequencing, we can define each and every microbe that we find in a starter. So far, we have identified more than 900 different ones. We do this in close collaboration with the universities we work with; Professor Gobbetti and his team have already been able to produce a couple of scientific publications as a result of our work together.

Any surprising finds on your quest?

In a starter from Switzerland, made from rye flour, and one from Guadalajara in Mexico, we found the same strain of yeast: Torulaspora delbreucki. It’s a strain often found in premium wines. The only relation we could see between the two is that the bakeries were located at about 1,500 metres altitude. Also, In Canada I met a lady who had a sourdough that dated back to 1896 – her great-grandfather carried it to Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush. I shared her recipe online so our followers could make her waffles.

The sourdough library isn’t open to the public, but Karl and his team are happy to provide tours on request. Find out more at questforsourdough.com

Interview: Matt Iredale

Millican x Ernest competition

We’ve teamed up with our friends at Millican to give you the chance to win one of three Tinsley the Tote Packs worth £90 each

Get your hands on a Tinsley Tote, like our editor Jo! Photo by Jim Marsden

Get your hands on a Tinsley Tote, like our editor Jo! Photo by Jim Marsden

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Tinsley the Tote Pack (H 36cm x W 27cm x D 11cm) is an everyday tote that’s up for adventure. Ideal as a lightweight tote bag for around town, the multi-functional handles quickly convert to make a backpack with adjustable shoulder straps for longer trips. Designed for easy storage, the dual-purpose tote, made with durable Bionic® Canvas, features a weatherproof roll-top opening and comes with a quick-reach outer pocket for valuables and internal sections for keeping on top of life.

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The competition closes midnight 30 April 2019. Millican will announce the winner on their Facebook and Instagram pages on 1st May 2019. Good Luck!.

Shooting Snowdonia

We caught up with photographer Colin Nicholls to ask how he found shooting the wild uplands and abandoned slate quarries of northwest Wales

Colin Nicholls doing what he does best.

Colin Nicholls doing what he does best.

How did you find shooting the Snowdonian landscape? And how did this compare with shooting East Anglia for issue 7?

I am a big fan of Snowdonia, so to get to head there on a press trip was a real treat. I found it very different to East Anglia, much more walking up mountains and hills, and a much rougher landscape altogether. As expected for Snowdonia, we encountered some wet weather, so my weather-sealed cameras came in very useful. I enjoyed visiting both places but seeing and climbing mountains is something that always excites me.

What were the highlights of the trip for you?

Definitely going back to the Dinorwic slate quarry. I first visited there a few years back and loved seeing the abandoned slate workings that overlook Snowdon itself. To explore the remains of a Goliath of an industry – it really is like stepping back in time. We also had incredible weather up there with the light painting the landscape, and we were met along the way by some wild goats, one of which features on the cover!

Any low points?

I’m pretty easy going so it takes a lot to dampen my spirits, however the first night we camped the wind was howling and I got about two hours sleep. Safe to say the next day was a struggle but it was all good fun.

Where would you most like to photograph next and why?

I think for the first couple of months of the year I’ll explore my local area of Herefordshire. There’s so much around here that’s overlooked in favour of the ‘bigger’ and more well-known places to visit, and with photography being so much about light it’s nice to know that if it’s going to be a good day I can head out somewhere close for a quick and successful trip.

You're a frequent visitor to Iceland, aren't you? What draws you back again and again?

That I am! 2018 saw my fourth trip to Iceland, where I drove solo around the country, camping along the way. It was incredible! At the time Iceland was having the worst summer for 100 years, but I was lucky and the weather turned and I had some crisp, clear days and got the opportunity to take photos that make me very happy. I shot a fair bit of video, too. Overall the trip was one of the most content times of my life. I keep getting drawn back to the country’s endless beauty, epic landscapes and sparse population – it’s a place I’ll continue to visit for the rest of my life.

Who are your landscape photography heroes?

That’s a very hard question. I tend to take inspiration from a wide range of photographic disciplines. Interestingly I find war photography to be one of the most inspiring – people tasked with documenting the most hostile places in the world, while having to bear in mind the technical aspect of photography and tell a story. I try to surround myself with photography books and follow decent photographers on Instagram. Seeing what other people are up to, create stunning images, is a real drive for pushing my own abilities.

Colin, you’re known as the ‘king of snacks’ on long press trips. What’s your ultimate photography fuel?

Ha, awesome question. Cold cans of cola are number one on a hot day hiking up mountains. And cereal bars. I can survive on those bad boys for days.

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Colin shoots on a Fuji X-H1. Follow his work on Instagram or on his blog colinnichollsphotography.com

His stunning images feature in our 36-page special on Snowdonia in issue 8 of Ernest Journal. Pick up a copy today.

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