He Crossed the Atlantic in a Barrel. We Asked Him About Dodging Ships and Using ‘La Toilette.’

By Anonymous

The French adventurer Jean-Jacques Savin spent over four months alone, floating across the Atlantic Ocean. “It’s freedom,” he said.

ImageHe Crossed the Atlantic in a Barrel. We Asked Him About Dodging Ships and Using ‘La Toilette.’
Jean-Jacques Savin inside his barrel ship on Nov. 15, 2018, about six weeks before his departure.CreditCreditGeorges Gobet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On a journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the French adventurer Jean-Jacques Savin spent 127 days alone in a large, barrel-shaped capsule made of plywood, at the mercy of the winds and currents. He had no television. No Facebook or Twitter.

In December, Mr. Savin, a former military parachutist, pilot and park ranger in Africa, set sail from the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago west of Morocco, in the orange vessel he built. It measures about 10 feet long and 6 feet 8 inches wide.

Last week, on May 2, Mr. Savin, 72, completed his 3,125-nautical-mile trip on the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius.

On Thursday, we spoke with Mr. Savin by phone from Martinique, where he was preparing his return to France by plane, and his barrel’s return to Europe by boat.

The following is an edited and condensed translation of our conversation.

Q. What inspired the trip?

A. When I was a child, I read a book by Alain Bombard [a French explorer], who wrote about his trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, which took three months. That thrilled me and became a dream. And I lived my dream.

You have made four solo trips across the Atlantic on a sailboat. How did this trip compare?

It’s not the same. It’s like comparing an outing by car with one by foot. You don’t even see the same landscape.

ImageHe Crossed the Atlantic in a Barrel. We Asked Him About Dodging Ships and Using ‘La Toilette.’
Mr. Savin working on the construction of his barrel at a shipyard in Arès, France, last November.CreditGeorges Gobet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What instrumentation did you have on board?

The barrel was powered only by wind and the ocean current. I had a satellite connection with Europe, which connected to a GPS device and software that relayed weather forecasts, wind speed and direction. Through the satellite, I was able to get emails, text messages and make calls.

I didn’t have Facebook or Google, or a smartphone. But I was in regular contact with an assistant who relayed comments from the 21,000 people from Australia, Japan, Canada, Poland, the United States and other countries around the world who were following my journey on Facebook and on my blog.

What did you do every day?

I tried to fill my notebooks and spent three to four hours a day dealing with the messages relayed through the secretary.

If it was nice, I swam, and dove underneath the barrel to catch a fish, sea bream, to supplement my meal.

I made a breakfast in the morning, and a nice dinner in the evening. I had a lot of time to write my book. I played a lot of bluegrass on my mandolin.

I read a lot of nonfiction adventure books, a lot of books about the First World War, during which my grandfather was a hero. I commemorated the 100th anniversary of the war’s end with my 2018 departure.

And I finished the Bible. It was a condensed Bible for young people, with photos. I would have had to cross the Pacific to finish the complete version.

The time at sea passed very quickly.

How did you go to the bathroom?

Ah … la toilette. When it was nice out, it wasn’t a problem because I could go swimming and climb down a ladder. But during bad weather, I used a hermetically sealed bucket, to trap the smell. I also brought a bag of sawdust so there wouldn’t be any odor.

How did you stay sane?

It was my job! I decided to do this. I had the need for solitude. It was my desire to leave and to be alone. Every year, I fast for 10 days, alone in the woods. It’s good for the body and helps me stay young.

This time, I intended to be alone for three months, and it lasted for four and a half months because the winds weren’t favorable.

Were you ever afraid?

Twice, I almost collided with large ships. The first one, an oil tanker, was heading straight for me. At the last minute, I was able to reach them by radio and they turned away.

But there was another ship I wasn’t able to make radio contact with. They were about 200 meters [650 feet] away, heading straight for me. I set off a flare and he saw me, and turned slightly away, and we missed each other by about 20 meters [65 feet]. Luckily, he saw me. I was terrified we were going to crash.

The most difficult moment, though, was during my arrival. I was moving quickly with a strong wind and I was afraid I was going to run aground on the reefs. Again, luckily, the American Coast Guard was always watching me.

I asked if they could send a boat to pick me up, but it was a tanker [the maritime tanker Kelly Anne] that took me aboard, and dropped me off in St. Eustatius.

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Mr. Savin inside his barrel in November. It measures about 10 feet long and 6 feet 8 inches wide.CreditGeorges Gobet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What were your happiest moments during the trip?

When the American oceanic vessel Ronald Brown [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research vessel Ronald H. Brown] came after 62 days to refuel me.

At that point, I already knew that the trip was going to take more than three months and I had only packed provisions for that amount of time. The boat contacted me — they found me on Google and got in touch with my assistant — and came by for an hour to give me lots of supplies, like fruit and food. That was fantastic. I am grateful to them, and to all of my sponsors.

How did you celebrate New Year’s Eve?

I had terrible weather, a storm, so there was no meal and no celebration.

I brought a block of foie gras to eat on my birthday and New Year’s. But I ate it in the middle of my trip, about one and a half months in. I opened a little bottle of wine, and put a message inside, as is tradition. The message contained my location, the day, the hour, mission, my email address, phone number, in case, one day, someone finds the bottle with my message. That day would be a celebration, and a surprise. I’ve made many trips and put many bottles into the ocean and none of them have come back. Never.

Did you ever think about quitting?

No, never. Never. It was fantastic. I had lots of time; I wrote my book, which is coming out in August.

What does it feel like to be alone in the ocean?

It’s freedom. Complete freedom. It’s hard to convey. No one tells you what to do. There are no rules. It’s freedom.

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Mr. Savin spoke to a reporter at Fort-de-France, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, on May 9.CreditLionel Chamoiseau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images