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A Frenchman Crosses the Atlantic in a Barrel

A Frenchman Crosses the Atlantic in a Barrel

by William H. Benson

June 13, 2019

     The Atlantic Ocean intimidates, but many have dared to cross it.

     Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator initiated Europe’s Age of Discovery, beginning about 1400. His shipbuilders developed the caravel, a light-weight ocean-going vessel, that could achieve fast speeds, was highly maneuverable, and yet could make forward progress when sailing into the wind.

     Prince Henry’s sailors sailed west to the islands of Madeira in 1419, and then to the Azores in 1427. Then, the prince encouraged them to sail south along Africa’s western coast.

     Yet, it was Queen Isabela, of the Castile and Aragon Kingdoms in Spain, who financed Christopher Columbus’s scheme to sail west across the Atlantic in 1492, in the hopes of finding a sea route to India. For the voyage, Columbus enlisted three caravels: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

     Columbus did cross the Atlantic, but it is doubtful that he understood he had not arrived in India.

     Then, in 1499, a Portuguese sailor named Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route to India by sailing around the African continent.

     By the seventeenth-century, Europeans considered transatlantic travel commonplace. Although George Washington never crossed the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and John Adams did, multiple times. The champion for crossing the Atlantic in the eighteenth century was the Great Awakening evangelist, George Whitefield, who sailed across the Atlantic thirteen times.

     In the twentieth-century, men and women have tried various ways to cross the Atlantic. The Washington Post reported in 1987 that, “The Guinness Book of World Records lists more that thirty methods of crossing the Atlantic.” Yet, I cannot find anyone who claims that they have crossed the Atlantic by swimming, yet.

     On October 19, 1952, a Frenchman named Alain Bombard climbed onto a fifteen-foot Zodiac inflatable boat, fashioned with a sail, at an island off the African coast, and headed west, alone. He drank rainwater, but also some seawater, and he ate fish he caught with harpoon and hooks. On December 23, 1952, after sixty-seven days at sea, he disembarked on the Barbados, in the Caribbean.

     On May 17, 1970, the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew set sail from Morocco aboard the Ra II, a log raft, and fifty-seven days and 4,000 miles later, they too landed at Barbados.

     In 2003, a Frenchwoman named Maud Fontenoy rowed her boat across the Atlantic Ocean.

     A Polish explorer, named Aleksander Doba, then in his sixties, paddled his kayak across the Atlantic in 2010, again in 2013, and a third time in 2017.

     Late last year, on December 26, 2018, a seventy-one-year-old Frenchman, named Jean Jacques Savin, departed from a Canary Island, southwest of Portugal, inside an orange barrel, that he built out of resin-coated plywood, for $65,000.

     Flat on the ends, rounded on the sides, it measured ten feet long, 6.8 feet wide. From within, Savin stared outside at the sea through four portholes. Without engine or sail, the barrel relied upon ocean currents to carry it west. Two solar panels topside provided sufficient electricity for communications, the GPS, and a desalination machine. A weighted keel kept it upright in the sea.

     Savin built the capsule to resist the ocean’s pounding waves and potential attacks by orca whales.

     The barrel averaged two miles per hour. Inside, Savin read, took notes for an intended book of his adventure, caught fish, ate his meals in a galley, slept on a cot, and swam in the ocean. With him he took freeze-dried food, and two bottles of wine, one to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and the other to mark his seventy-second birthday in January.

     On his website Savin said that inside his barrel he “felt less as captain of a ship, but more as passenger of the ocean. The time at sea passed very quickly. I decided to do this. I had the need for solitude. It was my desire to leave and to be alone.” He had read Alain Bombard’s book five times.

     Two times he feared for his life, “once when he met an oil tanker, and another time when another large ship edged near him.”

     After 2,930 miles and 128 days, Savin’s barrel floated onto the beach at St. Eustatia, a Caribbean island near the Dominican Republic, on May 2, 2019. He said the adventure was “exhilarating, but also quite risky,” and that, “Everything has an end. Finally, here I am at the end of this adventure.”