Minamalist sailor

Mike Harris

Jules Verne is undoubtedly one of the all time greats of science fiction. Hollywood epics of his 3 major novels connect his name with incredible and quaintly antique tales of amazing imagination and adventure. Stories of Victorian explorers, inventors and stiff upper lips. All jolly spiffing stuff. Less well known are dozens of his other novels that in spite of his fairly limited personal experience of foreign travel are set in locations as diverse as the South Pacific, Colonial India, Civil War torn North America, Scandinavia and the Sahara. Some have written off the inventions and technologies he describes as ludicrously impossible though to others they reveal an amazing mind with an inspired vision of the future.

In language of the late 19th century, he describes what today we'd recognise as super-conductors, tilt rotor aircraft, video surveillance, microwave power distribution and a machine gun carrying cruise missile. Years before the Wright brothers took to the air, Verne wrote of powered flight. More than a half-century before Neil Armstrong's moon walk, he described a voyage around the moon aboard an aluminium capsule that began in Florida and ended with splashdown and pickup from a position in the Pacific within 3 miles of the spot used by Apollo 9.

Throughout several of his books, his interest in all things nautical is a recurring theme. In 'Propeller Island' there was a floating island city that cruised the Pacific and in the more well known 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea', the submarine Nautilus and its enigmatic Captain Nemo. From his own experience as a yacht owner Verne was familiar with marine technology and through his writing frequently explored the use of innovative items of equipment. In Twenty Thousand Leagues, there was the Rouquayrol-Denayrouze diving apparatus that the heroes used on underwater hunting forays. Invented in 1865 it included a pressurised iron air 'reservoir' backpack and for the first time did not need an air supply from the surface. Worryingly, Verne's equipment also included a copper helmet but quite how it worked is unclear as any difference between its internal pressure and that on the diver's body could have had fatal consequences. None the less, it was a precursor to Jacque Cousteau's aqualung that didn't appear until 78 years later.

The Boynton Apparatus
One of Captain Nemo's more unseemly activities was the sinking of ships, though Verne's ideas on surviving shipwreck are described in a lesser known work. 'Tribulations of a Chinese Gentleman' (1879) is a tale of a fellow whose financial state leads him to contemplate suicide. Being a little nervous about carrying out the job himself he makes a contract with some helpful gangsters and to make sure his affairs end up in good order he insures his life for a suitable amount. At one stage the heroes are aboard a Chinese junk which they are forced to abandon at night. One has had the presence of mind to bring with him four sets of the Boynton Apparatus that Verne describes as follows:

Captain Boynton's apparatus consists of a gutta-percha suit, comprising trousers, tunic and cap. But though impervious to water, the material would not be impervious to the cold or a prolonged immersion, were it not that the garments are made with outer and inner layers between which may be admitted a certain quantity of air. This air serves the double purpose of keeping the apparatus afloat and preventing the chill that would otherwise ensue from a long exposure.

The joints between the components of the costume are quite watertight. The trousers end in boots with heavy soles, and are clasped at the waist with a metal belt, wide enough to allow free movement of the body. The jacket is fixed inside the belt, and has a solid collar, to which is attached the cap; this is drawn tightly over the forehead cheeks and chin by elastic, leaving exposed only the eyes, mouth and nose.

Several gutta-percha tubes are attached to the jacket to admit the air. This can be regulated to any density, so that a traveller may float upright with the water up to his neck or only to his waist, or he may lie horizontally upon its surface, all the time in perfect safety and with complete freedom of action.

The practical utility of the apparatus has already been demonstrated in a way that does much credit to its inventor. To make it complete there are several other appliances; a waterproof bag slung over the shoulder, and containing various implements; a small pole which can be attached to the foot by a socket, and a small sail like a jib, and a light paddle, which may be used either as an oar or a rudder, according to the circumstances.


The Rig
How on earth could such a thing work? The question had to be answered, but with the effects of that copper dive helmet firmly in mind, I began to assemble the parts for a demonstration sail. Since gutta-percha was in short supply, a plain old neoprene wet suit would have to do, though this was a bit short of buoyancy in the right places. To make up for some of this a life-jacket provided a comfortable pillow and added safety. The sailing rig looked simple enough, though rather than a loose luff and down haul, I chose a mast pocket luff. For a mast step, what better place than the sole of a sandal, but again for safety reasons, it had to be quickly and easily detachable. Verne's idea was for a survival suit for shipwrecked sailors, so at great risk of fish attack, waves up the nose, and general derision, I set off for a quiet spot to try it out.

Sea Trials
First impressions were of an experience akin to learning to ride a one-wheel bike. Diabolically tricky but then, didn't you feel the same the first time you rode a bike, stepped on a skateboard or windsurfer? Taking care of the sheet, backstay and double bladed steering oar, was more than a handful. Sailing at anything less than 200 degrees off the wind proved even more of a challenge. However in 10 knots of breeze and blazing along at speeds of at least a knot there were odd blissful moments between waves when it was possible to relax, layback and enjoy the tranquility of the moment.

Room for Improvement?
Verne suggested a sextant might be a handy accessory but, best of all, was his exothermic chemical furnace. Depending on the urgency of he moment this functioned either as a body warmer, a flare to attract passing ships and, incredible as this may sound, as a stove for brewing tea. Quite how Verne's heroes might have managed to carry this paraphernalia is hard to imagine; for me just keeping a course was difficult enough. Several people have suggested how performance might be improved with certain changes to the underwater profile, though most are unprintable.

For the future
Verne's ideas have often been ridiculed, but in many cases it's simply been a question of time before the materials and technology needed to make them work become available. Maybe with time the Boynton Apparatus will come of age and life rafts made obsolete as we turn to high tech survival suits. Lightweight, insulating, with sewn-in GPS, electronic shark repellent and computer controlled buoyancy. Powered by compact, flexible solar and fuel cells and complete with autopilot, hand desalinator, fish fryer and tea maker. Great! but for the moment, maybe I'll just stick with the tender and grab bag.

Lessons Learnt

  • Never attach a float to your feet.

  • Don't sell the life raft just yet.

  • For a really fast sail try a wind surfer.


� Mike Harris March 2005