THERE ARE THINGS you should know about sailing a boat that you are never likely to put into practice, but which you should know anyway because you never know . . . Yes, it’s true, you never know. Who can tell for certain what lies before us, at sea as much as on land?
One of the things you should know is whether you can drink sea water to stay alive in an emergency. There are certain stories in the history of the sea that suggest it’s possible to drink sea water for a reasonable length of time. For example, Dr. Alain Bombard, a French physician and biologist, claimed to have crossed the Atlantic in a 15-foot inflatable dinghy with only a sextant, almost no provisions, and no fresh water. He said he drank a limited amount of sea water and used fish as a source of water and food. His claims were later disputed, though, and it was suggested that had actually taken along fresh water and consumed it on the ocean, and that he had also been secretly provided further supplies during his voyage.
It is never easy to ascertain the exact truth about anything in this life, but you should know that the consensus of doctors having experience with castaways is that sea water should not be drunk, except to augment an ample supply of fresh water. In that case, as much as a pint of sea water a day might be acceptable.
John Voss drank a glass of salt water every day during his circumnavigation and I myself have drunk a small cup of the South Atlantic for 30 days in a row without apparent ill effect (if you exclude minor mental instability). Sir Francis Chichester found that the occasional drink of sea water relieved leg cramps caused by excessive sweating in the tropics. But we were all drinking adequate supplies of fresh water, too.
An eminent sailor and physician once advised me to try drinking half a cup of sea water once or twice a day when I suffered prolonged bouts of seasickness. It wouldn’t stay in my stomach long, he assured me, but the tissues would swiftly absorb the minerals needed to balance the bodily fluids — including the blood, incidentally, which is very similar to salt water in chemical makeup.
All right, then. The odds are that you’ll never need to drink sea water. But you just never know. If the impossible should happen, remember what I’ve just told you. Don’t drink sea water as your only source of water. It will only bring on the madness and hasten your demise.
Pure water is the best of gifts that man to man can bring,
But who am I that I should have the best of everything?
Let princes revel at the pump, let peers with ponds make free,
Whiskey or wine, or even beer, is good enough for me.
—Anon. Spectator, 31 July 1920
“Help, there’s a creature destroying my garden. I think it escaped from the zoo.”
“Try to keep calm, madam. Can you describe the animal?”
“Well, it’s big and gray, with tusks and large ears. It keeps picking my cabbages with its huge tail — and I can’t tell you where it’s stuffing them.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.