Can shipwrecked men survive if they drink sea water?


One very hot day in July, 1943, Lt. (j.g.) George H. Smith of the United States Navy was sitting on a small rubber raft somewhere between Munda and Guadalcanal. He was very thirsty, and he was cursing man’s inability to drink sea water. To his surprise, he saw a booby bird land on the water, put its long neck under the surface, and apparently take a drink.

In Smith’s own words, “It made me mad. I couldn’t understand why the bird, which was only flesh and blood like myself, could drink sea water while I couldn’t.”

Smith’s next reaction was the crucial one. Though under all the strain of a life-and-death predicament, he set himself a plan of scientific investigation.

“I shot the bird,” he relates, “cut him open, and traced the course of the water through his digestive system. Around the intestines of the bird I found a handful of fat, and I reasoned that if I greased my mouth with this fat, I might be able to swallow sea water without tasting it. For five days then I drank a pint of sea water each day.”

Lt. Smith was picked up after 20 days afloat, still in fairly good physical condition.

Smith’s story was widely circulated. His procedure for making sea water drinkable, and the fact that he had drunk a pint of it a day, were even incorporated into survival instructions used by some Navy and Army Air Force crews. Soon, however, less optimistic reactions began to be expressed.

Articles appeared in service publications pointing out that men are not booby birds and that drinking sea water as Smith had done could kill a man. U.S. Navy medical authorities reported that the reason Smith had suffered no ill effects from five continuous days of imbibing sea water was that he was not seriously dehydrated at the beginning of the ordeal and that on the fifth day a rain squall provided him with all the fresh water he could drink. If he had been dehydrated when he started or if the rain squall had not come when it did, he might have lost his life.

Smith himself had noted that the amount of water he lost in urine during the five days was apparently three times the quantity of sea water he drank. Obviously, excretion of the salts in the sea water was taking water from his body, and he would have been dangerously dehydrated if he had continued drinking sea water.

Unfortunately, the medical reports on the incident were not read as widely as the original report, and Smith’s experience is still cited by some survival “experts” as proof that man can survive at sea without fresh water.

Recently several newspapers and magazines of large circulation have carried stories purporting to “prove” that it is safe to drink sea water. Most of these stories are based either on the account of Dr. Alain Bombard, who drifted from the Canaries to Barbados in his raft L’Hérétique in 1952, or on the experiments carried on by the French Navy, which are essentially a continuation of Bombard’s work. The French experimenters now maintain that a man can survive for six days by drinking only sea water. But he must drink it in small quantities—approximately one-tenth of a pint (50 c.c.) at a time. If sea water is to be drunk beyond the sixth day, the French say that the survivor must drink 1000 c.c. (1.05 quarts) of fresh water on the sixth day to help get rid of excess salt.

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