Cruise Facts: Truth About Life Rafts

If your ship sinks and you’re stranded, without food or water, with only an open boat and your own resources, can you stay alive? Sure! This was proven in rather dramatic fashion by Alain Bombard, who believed people could survive such trials. Of course, nobody else believed it, so it was up to him to prove it. Thus on October 19, 1953 the Frenchman voluntarily set off from the Canary Islands, alone. He intended to cross the entire Atlantic Ocean, from Europe to the West Indies, in an open-topped 15 foot rubber boat. Not a scrap of food. Not a drop of water. Just his clothes and an unshakable faith in his own theory. Oh, and an inflatable cushion.

Bombard believed that shipwreck survivors died drinking seawater simply because they waited too long to do so. From the time he set off, he drank 1.5 pints (.71 liters) of seawater every day. He supplemented this with water squeezed from fish caught with a makeshift harpoon.

Gross? Most definitely. But not as bad as the raw plankton he swallowed. He would trail a cloth through the sea to capture the microscopic organisms, figuring if they could keep a whale alive, then he’d have no problem. Unlike a whale, which can gobble zillions of the stuff with one big mouthful, he struggled to get one or two teaspoons of it a day. After twenty days of this self-induced torture, he broke out in a painful rash. But he wasn’t dead.

Not that the sea didn’t try. A storm within days of setting out nearly wrecked his little rubber boat. His sail ripped and the spare was blown away entirely. More distressing still was what else it blew away: his inflatable cushion. Knowing he could live without food and water but not without a comfortable posterior, Bombard secured his craft with a sea anchor and jumped overboard after it.


While he was diving, he discovered to his horror that the sea anchor was not working. This parachute-like device was tied to the boat and left to drag in the ocean, thus keeping the craft nearby. Without it, the current was sweeping the boat hopelessly out of reach. Luckily the sea anchor fixed itself—it had been caught in its own mooring line—and he was able to haul himself back aboard. Strangely, whether he retrieved the cushion or not was never revealed.

Weeks passed, but Alain Bombard did not die. He survived off of seawater, plankton, and whatever raw fish he could catch at the surface. On day 53—that’s right, 53—he hailed a passing ship to ask his position. Sadly, he had another 600 miles to go before reaching his intended destination. He seriously considered giving up, for had he not already vindicated his supposition that man could survive on sea water? Indecision wracked the poor man.

After mulling it over, Alain decided to split the difference. He had a meal on the ship, then, joie de vivre revived, voluntarily returned to his little rubber boat. One wonders if he was able to procure another seat cushion. On Christmas Eve he reached Barbados, having sailed more than 2,750 miles (4425 kilometers) in 65 days. He lost 56 pounds (25 kilograms) and was supremely grumpy, but was otherwise fine. And that was in an open boat with nothing.

If your cruise ship goes down and you’re in a life raft, it has a roof. That makes a huge difference. Also, life rafts are equipped with emergency rations of food and water, and even fishing kits. Most importantly of all, however, is that modern life rafts have radio transponders. You won’t have to wait months. Probably not even days. The moral of the story? If your ship goes down, don’t panic. Be awesome. You absolutely have it in you. It’s just gonna taste really gross.

Former cruise line employee Brian David Bruns is author of the greatest-selling cruise book in history, Cruise Confidential. Four books in all, the Cruise Confidential series has won over a dozen awards, both in the U.S. and overseas, and been featured on ABC’s 20/20 on two separate occasions. 

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