Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)

Adrift and Alone

‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ – Samuel Taylor

Coleridge

Jack Haldane was by no means the only biologist drafted in to do special war work. He was not even the only Jack. In the early 1930s young Jack Kitching, newly graduated from Cambridge, toughened himself by taking up underwater ecology off the coast of Argyll. His diving equipment was a milk churn with a glass window, a garden hose and two car-tyre pumps. He could easily have been mistaken for an itinerant ironmonger. He carried less fat than a lollipop stick and his ‘diving suit’ consisted of a rugby shirt, long shorts and plimsolls. With such meagre insulation it was difficult to withstand the cold Atlantic for more than twenty minutes at a time. On shore Kitching was seized by uncontrollable shivering. After half an hour in the warm Scottish rain he went underwater again. These forays would prepare him for taking on the entire Atlantic Ocean.

In 1942 a team of scientists and engineers was being put together in Canada to tackle the physiological problems faced by airmen. Kitching was sent to the Department of Medical Research at the University of Toronto to work under the auspices of the Committee on Aviation Medical Research. Over the next three years he would write sixty-five reports on fifteen different topics. The projects were stimulated by problems encountered by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Some investigations were tackled in collaboration with scientists affiliated to the Royal Air Force or the US Air Force.

The researchers were asked to prevent the pilot blacking out when pulling out of a dive. During such a manoeuvre his blood rushed downwards away from his brain. The team developed water-filled flying suits in which the water rushed down to the pilot’s legs, compressing them and keeping the blood in his head.

On reconnaissance missions the planes either flew very low, or high leaving tell-tale contrails behind them. Either way they were easy to spot and shoot down. If they could fly even higher they would be out of the range of anti-aircraft batteries. Unfortunately, at 12,000 metres the air is so thin there is insufficient oxygen to sustain the crew. Mount Everest is only 8,845 metres high but, if instantaneously whisked to its summit, I would rapidly collapse from lack of oxygen and would die unless promptly carried down the mountain. Mountaineers attempting major peaks take care to acclimatise at altitude to enrich the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, and use oxygen respirators as they approach the summit. Above 8,000 metres is known to climbers as ‘the death zone’.

The fuselages of military aircraft were not airtight or pressurised. If they were, the smallest piece of shrapnel that punctured a fuselage would result in instant decompression. As paying passengers we pay little attention to the stewardess’s announcement that: ‘In the event of a loss of cabin pressure oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling.’ She never elaborates on ‘the event’. There is no mention of a refund for passengers sucked out of a broken window. She also fails to mention that if we don’t breathe oxygen within thirty seconds of decompression, we become unconscious and comatose. The pilot has only fifteen seconds of ‘useful time’ in which to take corrective action – i.e. put the plane into a steep dive to lose altitude.

The aircrew of fighters and bombers had to be given a personal supply of oxygen so the Toronto team investigated the problems with oxygen respirators. In normal breathing we have to suck air in by expanding the chest. Breathing out is passive. In contrast, pressurised oxygen from a respirator fills the lungs and has to be forcibly expelled by the aviator against the pressure. The trick is to have the oxygen pressure sufficient to sustain the man but not so high as to exhaust him when he tries to breathe out.

Jack Kitching, in collaboration with RAF researchers, also studied brain function and the physiological effects of breathing pure oxygen, such as nausea and impaired vision, and trialled a drug as a temporary antidote for some of the problems. He did this by self-experimentation in a decompression chamber not unlike that used by Jack Haldane. Within months a greatly improved respirator was in use with crews of high-flying reconnaissance planes.

Respirators were fine while the crew were inside the aircraft – but what would happen when they had to disconnect to bail out? The Physiological Research Centre in Farnborough was the RAF’s equivalent of the Canadian group. It was tasked with determining the maximum altitude from which someone could parachute without breathing apparatus and survive. Edgar Pask, who had been an anaesthetist in Oxford, volunteered for the job. It involved dangling from a scaffold in a parachute harness while breathing air mixtures that contained less and less oxygen. At the lowest concentrations tested (equivalent to those found at an altitude of 12,000 metres) Pask’s muscles twitched violently. He also had severe difficulty in breathing and passed out. Had the experiment not been curtailed he would have suffocated. This dangerous experiment established that a flyer parachuting from no higher than 10,500 metres would have a reasonable chance of surviving. Above that an oxygen supply was essential.

Bombers flew at altitudes of between 7,600 and 10,700 metres. The temperature outside was -30°C to -40°C. The ‘waist gunners’ in B-17 and B-24 bombers sat in plastic blisters on the side of the fuselage. The machine gun protruded through an open port allowing freezing air to swirl into the plane. The gunner’s thick gloves made it almost impossible to manipulate the gun. If he took them off, his hand froze to the cold metal. Pulling the hand free left the skin behind.

Self-experiments in a cold room ‘under conditions of extreme discomfort’ revealed reduced reaction times that might have serious consequences if the pilot were controlling an aircraft. The critical temperature to maintain manual dexterity was 12°C.

Kitching also tackled the problem of keeping aviators warm. The thick insulation needed for clothing to combat such low temperatures was incompatible with manual dexterity. The pilot was either too cold or too encumbered to do his job. Simple innovations were curved gloves and flying suits with bent knees. It was far more comfortable to have the clothing modelled to the posture that the man adopted in the plane. Kitching was the prime mover in the development of electrically heated gloves, flying suits and inner boots that were far warmer and less bulky.

If cold was a problem in the cockpit, it was even more serious for the aviator who had ditched in the sea – providing he didn’t drown first. When Japan entered the war, the supply of kapok, the buoyant material in life jackets, was cut off. To find a replacement the Toronto team tested the buoyancy of numerous materials before settling on ‘milkweed floss’.

Life jackets were supposed to prevent the wearer from drowning. At least, that was the theory. While serving as an observer on a rescue launch Edgar Pask was appalled at the number of corpses that were wearing life jackets and floating face down in the water. Designers came up with several new types of ‘Mae West’, so-called after the voluptuous film star who looked as if she might have an inflatable secreted in her corsetry. All the new jackets were supposed to force the wearer onto his back.

Testing their self-righting capability should have been easy. A volunteer would lie face down in a pool and leave the jacket to do its stuff. It was, however, psychologically impossible to remain inert in such circumstances. The guinea pig would have to be unconscious. So Pask donned a flying suit and prostrated himself in the water. He breathed through a tube in his windpipe attached to a poolside anaesthetising machine. An inflatable cuff around the pipe prevented him from swallowing water. A preliminary trial showed that without a Mae West he sank to the bottom. Dozens of tests were needed to determine the design of jacket that ensured the ‘survivor’ would float face up. To check that the the jackets would self-right in a choppy sea the team moved to the Elstree film studios, which had a large tank with a wave-making machine for filming model boats on stormy ‘seas’. The life jacket performed well in metre-high waves. The unconscious Pask could easily have drowned in these tests had water seeped past the inflatable cuff and into his lungs.

In 1943 there wasn’t even an agreed technique for resuscitating a drowning man who had stopped breathing. Different methods were promoted by four agencies. The Farnborough Centre put them all to the test.

In the absence of recently drowned volunteers, Pask accepted the challenge. It involved a hazardous experiment. A tube in his windpipe would measure how much air was forced into his lungs by the artificial resuscitation, but Pask had to stop breathing before he could (hopefully) be revived. He was repeatedly anaesthetised to the point of respiratory arrest. Unless his breathing could be restarted, and fast, he was a dead man. The experiments took two sessions of over four hours each before they decided which was the best method. Pask’s heart stopped sixteen times. I know of no one who has deliberately induced so many near-death episodes on behalf of his fellow men. Pask merely claimed that he had done all his research while asleep.

Though drowning may have been averted for the ditched aviator, hypothermia would soon take hold. We are very-susceptible to cold. I recently read of a woman who collapsed from hypothermia in a supermarket. She had stolen a frozen chicken and hidden it under her fur hat.

Seawater conducts heat away from the body twenty-five times faster than air does. Immersion in water below 20°C leads inexorably to hypothermia and death. In the North Atlantic in winter a ‘survivor’ lasts only thirty minutes. Even when sitting on a life raft off Florida on a warm summer night, men exposed to sea spray became severely chilled. The insulation in a flying suit is useless when wet.

In October 1943 there was an urgent request for a waterproof ‘ditching suit’ to protect against immersion. Within a month, a butyl survival suit resembling a limp blimp was being tested in an ice-cold pool with an air temperature of 0°C. Kitching lasted four hours in ‘relative comfort’.

He was also one of the volunteers for the sea trials. These involved being abandoned off Nova Scotia in November in a tiny rubber dinghy. It was supplied with a ‘help’ kit containing hooks, line and sinkers as well as darning needles and thread. This ensured there were plenty of sharp points around to puncture the inflatable boat. There was also a fetching ‘mosquito head-net’ and matches should Kitching need to light a fire. The survival rations included pea-soup powder which was ‘unappetising’ and chocolate that was ‘extremely nauseating’. This was serious criticism from a man who was fearless in the face of food. I once saw Kitching consume a large chocolate bar writhing with maggots and his only comment was ‘full of protein’.

Later sea trials of an improved survival suit demonstrated that it kept the water out during fifteen minutes’ immersion followed by seven hours’ exposure on a raft. By the end of the trial those not wearing the suit were ‘in a very poor condition’. The survival suit went into mass production and was soon being issued to bomber crews. In 1947 Jack was awarded the Order of the British Empire – ‘For Ordinary Bloody Effort,’ he told me.

It goes without saying that Edgar Pask also tested the survival suit. He leapt into the frigid Atlantic off Shetland, the northernmost point of Britain. A fierce wind chill enhanced the test. The trial had to be terminated before the observers froze to death. Pask ribbed the others by complaining that he was ‘too warm’.

There is little value in protecting the survivor from cold if he then dies of thirst. Water is the most important ingredient in our diet. Yet we are profligate with it; just breathing out wastes over half a litre per day. Hunger kills within weeks, thirst within ten days.

Mellanby’s conscientious objectors determined that one had to drink a litre a day to remain hydrated when eating ‘lifeboat rations’ – the driest of dry foods. Small amounts of water made little difference physiologically but gave a psychological boost. The emergency water supply on lifeboats was pitifully small. The landlubber who designed the ration packs and water bottles clearly planned for only a day or two at sea, but being a castaway is an open-ended enterprise. It is impossible to allocate meagre resources properly when there is no way of knowing how long you will be adrift.

There can be few more aggravating ways to die than of thirst while floating on top of the largest reservoir of water in the world. The problem of drinking seawater is that the body can only get rid of the excessive salt by using greater amounts of water, thus dehydrating the body further. The Toronto team did trials on volunteers who ate only the emergency rations (800 calories a day) provided in a dinghy. Half of them eked out the freshwater supply by drinking 450 millilitres a day diluted with 280 millilitres of seawater. At the end of the experiment those who drank the seawater supplement had lost twenty-five per cent less weight than those on the fresh water alone. Tests revealed that they eliminated all the extra salt ingested and there were no deleterious effects on the blood or urine. Unfortunately there is no indication of how long the trial lasted. The results were locked away in confidential reports. Had they been published they might had saved Alain Bombard a great deal of discomfort.

In 1951 a young French doctor was called to treat the crew from a ship that had been wrecked on the coast. Dr Bombard failed to revive any of the forty-three victims. It alerted him to the horror of shipwreck. He read that every year 50,000 people survived the sinking only to perish in lifeboats, many of them from thirst. He decided to do something about it.

There were stories of castaways who drank seawater and survived. Teehu Makimare had only nine litres of fresh water to sustain him and his six companions (later four because two drowned) for sixty-four days. For almost half the time they drank seawater. Thor Heyerdahl diluted his freshwater supply with between thirty and forty per cent of seawater on the epic voyage of the Kon-Tiki raft across the Pacific.

The Board of Trade Merchant Shipping Notice was unequivocal:

A belief has arisen that it is possible to replace or supplement fresh water by drinking seawater in small amounts. This belief is wrong and DANGEROUS.

Drinking untreated seawater does a thirsty man no good at all. It will lead to increased dehydration and thirst and may kill him.

According to Bombard, the secret was not to wait until you were dying of thirst but to take small amounts of seawater from the beginning. Since the body needs sodium and acquires it mostly from sodium chloride, Bombard reasoned that providing one drank no more seawater than necessary to fulfil our required daily salt intake, no harm should result.

There was no doubt that drinking large amounts of seawater caused potentially fatal inflammation of the kidneys. What Bombard advocated was sipping seawater at first to sustain castaways until they organised a source of potable fresh water. Where would this water come from? Bombard noted that the water content of fish varied from sixty to eighty per cent. Surely they could be tapped like a rubber tree, but for water. We are often told that we should drink several litres of water every day in order to stay fully hydrated. This claim is based on research that calculated the necessary amount of water in our diet. Much of our moisture comes from the food we eat, not just from drinking.

Bombard planned a bold self-experiment. He would set himself adrift without food or water and attempt to survive exclusively on what the sea provided. His ‘lifeboat’ was a second-hand inflatable dinghy. It was four and a half metres long with a U-shaped pontoon closed at the stern with a wooden board. The central well was less than a metre wide. There was no motor, only a small sail. He called it L’Hérétique, to reflect his views on survival at sea.

A preliminary ‘cruise’ in the Mediterranean was planned to try out his ideas. As news of his adventure spread he was inundated by letters from people wanting to join him. One correspondent admitted to two unsuccessful suicide attempts but felt sure that Bombard had come up with a sure-fire method. Another volunteer, in the true spirit of self-experimentation, offered to let himself be eaten if things went badly. An Englishman called Jack Palmer seemed a better prospect. He was an experienced yachtsman and knew how to navigate. Bombard took an instant liking to Palmer and the small dinghy now had a crew of two.

They set off from Monaco on 25th May 1953 and sailed westward towards the Balearic Islands. A marine expert told Bombard’s pregnant wife that she would never see him again. Without fresh water both he and Palmer drank a couple of mouthfuls of seawater eight or nine times a day for ten of the following fourteen days without ill effects.

They hooked their first fish on the second day and squeezed out its ‘juice’. At first it made them heave, but they soon got used to it and it quenched their thirst. In the following days their fish hooks came up empty and the cramps from hunger became ‘almost more than we could bear’. It didn’t augur well for long-term survival at sea.

After a landfall in Minorca, L’Hérétique was towed back out to sea to continue the journey. The combination of a freak wave and the towline capsized the boat. The mast and rudder were broken and the oars, radio, cameras, binoculars and sleeping bags were lost. They would all have to be replaced, but not until the craft made it into the Atlantic. They passed through the Straits of Gibraltar at night, unable to sleep as huge freighters threatened to run them down.

Bombard developed an abscess in his mouth. It became so painful that he had to lance it with a knife. There were antibiotics on board, but he refrained from taking them because an accidental castaway would not have access to such medication.

A short stay in Tangier allowed them to replace some of the lost equipment. Already Bombard was having reservations about L’Hérétique. It was three years old and showing signs of wear. A replacement failed to materialise. An adviser predicted that the rubber dinghy wouldn’t survive more than ten days in the Atlantic. Palmer thought it was suicide to try and argued that they should return to the Mediterranean to complete the experiment. Bombard left a note for him: ‘I am taking the responsibility of leaving alone … If I fail, then it will be the fault of a non-specialist.’ Bombard was indeed no specialist. He was neither a mariner nor did he have the slightest idea how to navigate. Indeed, he was in the same boat as a typical castaway.

He did, however, have a watch, a sextant and an incomprehensible book on navigation so he set about taking readings of the angle of the sun. It didn’t seem too difficult to fix his position. Unfortunately, it was more difficult than he knew. The rubber dinghy, with its toy sail, was unsteerable. From now on it would be driven by the wind and guided by currents to an unknown destination. Bombard had abandoned himself to the relentless ocean.

From the first day of his Atlantic voyage the currents carried L’Hérétique towards the Canary Islands, 1,400 kilometres to the south. Should it miss them, the next landfall was well over 6,000 kilometres beyond, on the other side of the Atlantic. The fish were biting and a bream even volunteered by leaping into the boat. Eleven days later the Canaries rose out of the ocean.

From Las Palmas Bombard was able to tell his wife that he had arrived safely. She told him that their baby daughter Nathalie had arrived too. He also acquired a radio receiver. It couldn’t transmit so there was no question of sending an SOS should he get into difficulties.

From Las Palmas he drifted westward on the Northern Equatorial Current, as if riding a river in the sea. The currents in the North Atlantic form a vast gyre over 8,000 kilometres in circumference. Somehow he had to stay in the main stream. If L’Hérétique drifted too far south he risked the fierce trade winds that whipped up storms at the slightest excuse. Should it veer to the north, he might become becalmed for ever among the seaweed rafts of the Sargasso Sea.

Fishermen had warned Bombard that fish were rare in the open ocean. His catches were barely enough to supply his need for water, so he took to sipping seawater. It tasted less salty than the Mediterranean.

He found himself in an ocean of storms. His tiny craft was dwarfed by giant waves. It surfed the crests and then slid down into the deep, dark valleys until he was surrounded by walls of water, imprisoned by the sea.

The dinghy was swamped and Bombard was as submerged inside it as he would have been in the sea beyond. Bailing was futile. He strapped himself to the mast and waited for the storm to abate. In another gale two days later the sail was torn in two by the wind. He replaced it with the reserve sail, which promptly blew away and was lost. He had to repair the original as best he could.

For weeks he baked by day and froze by night. Swampings became so frequent that for the rest of the voyage his sleeping bag was a wet sack. He rarely slept at night for fear of the great waves capsizing his tiny dinghy.

In the sun every surface became frosted with salt crystals that absorbed moisture, keeping everything damp. The salt irritated Bombard’s cuts and abrasions and by sitting all day he developed bedsores. His only relief was a small cushion. To his dismay he saw that it had fallen overboard and was bobbing in the waves a hundred metres away. He slung the sea anchor over the side. It was a drogue like a parachute that opened under water, slowing the boat’s drift. He soon made it to the cushion, but turned to discover that the dinghy was drifting away at speed. The drogue must have snarled on its line and failed to open properly. Bombard swam towards the boat as fast as he could. He was a strong swimmer though not now at his fittest. But the dinghy was drifting too fast for him to catch. What a fool he had been. He was going to drown for the sake of a cushion. Suddenly the boat slowed. The drogue must have opened. In minutes he was relieved to be back on board.

Bombard caught a regular supply of fish. They provided him with water, protein and fish bait. Some bones served as fish hooks. Even so, he was rapidly losing weight. Many diets rely on recommending such a limited variety of food that the slimmer eats less and less because of the boring monotony of their diet. Raw fish every day would certainly do the trick for me. When a bird became snagged in his fishing line, Bombard anticipated savouring its chicken-like flesh. It tasted of fish.

By now he had been at sea for over forty days and should have been showing symptoms of scurvy. He was thousands of kilometres from the nearest lemon but he had devised a novel antidote. Bombard knew that whales, like humans, cannot manufacture vitamin C, but they don’t suffer from scurvy. The vitamin must come from their diet and some whales feed exclusively on the tiny crustaceans in plankton. So every day he scooped up plankton with a fine-mesh net and swallowed two teaspoonfuls of the unappetising slurry. It worked.

Tethered to the dinghy by a line, he inspected the submerged rubber parts. To his horror he found that the repair patches that had been put on in Las Palmas had come unglued and were flapping loose. He became obsessed with checking for leaks. Every day he ran his hands over all the surfaces of the boat, feeling for wear. He put his ear to the pontoons like a doctor sounding the chest of a sickly patient. The slightest hiss would indicate an air leak.

Frequent storms added to Bombard’s stress. A dead-calm sea could become angry in minutes. A gale that lasted for ten hours snapped the rudder arm. The tiny dinghy was thrown about like a kite in a reckless wind. Bullets of rain punched holes in the surface of the sea. He collected the fresh water in a small tarpaulin between his knees. The tampaulin was so encrusted with salt that it tainted the water, making it saltier than the ocean.

Every day Bombard took his blood pressure and pulse, tested his strength and measured his urine. None gave reason for alarm, although he didn’t realise that he was seriously anaemic. His emaciated body was covered in painful pustules. Sheets of skin peeled from his feet and his toenails became deciduous. There were pockets of pus beneath his fingernails that he lanced without an anaesthetic. Again he shunned medication because it was not in the spirit of the experiment. All he could do was to endure.

The lone castaway faces an enemy even greater than physical deterioration. It’s called despair. Loneliness and the continual battle against the elements erodes morale. The melancholy Bombard began to talk to inanimate objects and accused them of plotting against him. His thoughts dwelt on his wife and the new child that he might never see. Every day he predicted that he would sight land, but only sea rolled over the horizon. Incessantly he checked the boat’s position and his estimates of how far he had travelled. The figures didn’t add up. He had no idea where he was.

The dinghy was never steady and it’s not easy to take accurate readings with a sextant while on a bouncing trampoline. In lumpy seas it’s not even possible to be sure whether you are sighting on the horizon or the top of a wave. From the outset he had made an error in his calculations. Although he didn’t know it, he was ten degrees further east than he thought.

For every two days driven by the wind Bombard spent ten days hardly drifting at all. By his fifty-second day at sea he had been becalmed for eighteen consecutive days. He was exhausted and was suffering from diarrhoea and haemorrhages. At night, flying fish fleeing from predators landed in the boat. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t face another raw-fish supper or a swig of seawater. He began to think of being dead on arrival. Rain fell all around, but not on the boat. Even the gods were against him.

The very next day the first ship he had seen since leaving Africa stopped and the captain invited Bombard on board. He was served a snack and after an hour and a half of human contact he returned to L’Hérétique to complete his voyage. At last he knew his true position. He was still 966 kilometres from the nearest landfall.

His morale was restored, but the dinghy was again becalmed. How could he be stationary when the Castaway’s Handbook assured him that the trade wind was at its strongest and most regular at this time of year? Then a storm arrived to repeatedly swamp the boat while he frantically bailed with his hat and shoe. When the weather abated, the boat began to leak.

On the sixty-fifth day he saw the beam of a lighthouse. The next morning he landed on a beach in Barbados. The experiment was over.

Bombard had lost twenty-five kilos (fifty-five pounds). A fish-and-plankton diet is seriously short of carbohydrate. His red cell count had dropped by fifty per cent. He had an all-body rash and his vision was temporarily impaired.

He had survived, although he had drunk nothing but fish juice for forty-three days and nothing but seawater for fourteen days. He had missed a trick by not biting into fish eyes, which a later castaway described as ‘nuggets of pure fluid’.

Despite all Bombard’s privations the current medical advice is still that the castaway drinks seawater at his peril.

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Bombard all at sea in L’Heretique.