The voyage of L’Égaré II began in 1955 with a mad idea: Henri Beaudout, then in his late 20s, believed that it was possible to cross the Atlantic Ocean from West to East by way of the most primitive raft propelled only by the winds and currents. His first attempt, L’Égaré I, ended in bitter disappointment as the raft was wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland—smashed against the rocks. In the face of this first failure, the undaunted Henri simply regrouped and set out to build a second raft: L’Égaré II.
With a new crew that included Gaston Vanackere, Marc Modena, and Jose Martinez, Henri travelled from Montreal to Halifax and the foursome set up shop in the yards of the Halifax Shipyard Co., Ltd. Given workspace and shelter by the charitable graces of the yards’ Chief Superintendent, the boys began sourcing the tools and materials they would need to start again. They acquired nine red cedar logs and using axes, cut them each down to a uniform diameter of 18 inches, and bound them together with manila rope. The result was a 13 by 17 foot log raft with a small square sail made from Egyptian cotton, and a tiny cabin just big enough for three crew members at a time—two in hammocks and one on the floor.
On May 24, 1956, the crew of L’Égaré II, along with a pair of kittens named Puce and Guiton (mascots for the adventure), were towed out from Halifax harbour and set adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. The first days of their voyage were shrouded in thick fog.
Gaston Vanackere, a draughtsman by trade, became the de facto documenteur of the adventure, armed with a hearty 16mm camera, and a rubber dinghy to shoot the raft from a distance.
Just 580 kilometers out to sea, the crew hit rough waters. Henri wrote in his log, “This bad weather has a disastrous influence on our morale, above all Jose who spends a great part of his time alone in the cabin.” Jose’s illness continued and he eventually had to be rescued by a passing fisheries ship, the Investigator II.
On the thirty-second day adrift, running low on rations, Henri and Marc attempted to catch some fish with a homemade jigger. Within an hour Marc heaved a ten-pound cod out of the water. Their first fish of the voyage, which became a feast for the crew and their kittens.
Days later, the reduced crew of L’Égaré II faced their biggest storm yet, with violent 40-mile-per-hour winds and 35-foot waves tossing them about. The men were forced to lash themselves inside the cabin with ropes so they were sure not to be tossed off the raft during the fierce gale.
On July 2, the raft finally found its way into the Gulf Stream. Henri and crew believed it would be smooth sailing from that point on, but one morning he and Gaston were startled from their sleep by water pouring into the cabin through two logs that were burst apart by the pressure of the sea. A risky mid-sea repair job needed to be executed on the fly.
Another morning, two weeks later, they woke again, this time to a welcome sight: a veritable “fish pond” under the raft. With a shoal following beneath them, the boys were able to spear many much-needed fish with relative ease. Their supplies were temporarily replenished by this stroke of luck.
Weeks later, a less welcome visitor began to follow the raft: a ten-foot, 400lbs shark. Using ropes and homemade harpoons, Henri and Marc did battle for hours with the creature before they were finally able to exhaust it and wrestle the shark out of the water and on-board their small raft.
By late August, the raftsmen were all very tired and anxious to touch land. Their supplies were running perilously low. On August 20, Beaudout spotted the “good ship Blydendyk” out of Rotterdam. The ship’s captain informed Henri and his crew that they were only 30 kilometres off of Lizard Point, the most southerly tip of England. A lifeboat was sent to retrieve them, and tow the raft the remaining distance into port. After 88 days on rocky, unforgiving seas, facing starvation, dehydration and imminent shark attack, Henri Beaudout, Gaston Vanackere, Marc Modena, and Puce and Guiton set foot on steady land for the first time. Their quixotic journey across the fiercest ocean on earth ended in triumph.