Cats' Adventures & Travels 20
Kittens sail across the Atlantic
aboard L'Égaré II
(the 'Atlantic Kon-Tiki', 1956)
The raft at Falmouth, with kittens Puce and Guiton being held by the crew
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In the mid-1950s Frenchman Henri Beaudout, inspired by a spirit of adventure and becoming restless with the daily round of life in Montreal, where he was working, became convinced that it would be possible to cross the Atlantic Ocean from west to east using only the prevailing winds and currents. His research suggested that a timber raft would be the best kind of craft to make the voyage. To cut a long story short, he set off on 11 June 1955 with three like-minded companions (Paul Lapointe, Gaston Vanackere and Bernard Sorieul), also French, down the St Lawrence river on their tiny, single-sailed raft, named L'Égaré, 'The lost one', which was made of British Columbia red cedar logs firmly lashed together with stout manila ropes. They encountered all manner of unfavourable conditions and the expedition came to grief in August, when the raft was wrecked in a fierce storm off the Newfoundland coast. They were lucky to escape more or less unscathed.
Nothing daunted, Beaudout set about raising funds for a second attempt, and by May 1956 he was ready to set out again with Gaston and two new companions, José Martinez and Marc Modena. This time they sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with L'Égaré II and now they had on board two young kittens, only recently weaned. In his book (details below) Beaudout doesn't say where the cats came from or why they were taken, but other sources say they were presented as mascots, and it was thought they could act as useful 'weather watchers', with an ability to predict incoming bad weather.
The kittens were named Puce (meaning 'flea' in French), who was black, and Guiton, his sister, who was grey. They provided the voyagers down to three since Martinez had to be taken off with severe recurring seasickness with a great source of companionship and amusement with their antics, and although at times rations became desperately short, the men always made sure they were fed regularly and received their morning milk. In really rough weather they were secured in a small box for their own safety, but mostly they spent their days clambering around their small world, playing and sleeping.
The crew made many attempts at fishing to supplement the meagre rations, but mostly with a conspicuous lack of success; it was a month before they caught their first cod. Of course the fish was shared and 'two very happy little cats retired to the sun on deck, rolled themselves into the tightest circles their full stomachs would allow, and slept in complete contentment'. Occasionally it was possible to catch gulls, and their meat gave a welcome addition to the diet for both men and kittens.
It wasn't unknown for the two youngsters to play a bit too boisterously near the ends of the raft and fall into the sea, but 'without a sign of fear they would swim two or three strokes, sink their sharp little claws into the wood and bounce back on board with nothing more than a vigorous shake to get rid of the water'. In fact they never showed fear of anything in their little world; they would tear about the cabin roof or fly up the mast with ears back and tails waving, seemingly trying to outdo each other with their feats of agility.
What did upset them, though, was the reception given to L'Égaré and its crew when, after 88 days, they made landfall and went ashore at Falmouth, in Cornwall, south-west England in mid-August 1956. The crew had sailed some 5000 km (over 2500 miles) and had managed to overcome hunger, thirst, shark attacks, exposure and the unpredictable Atlantic weather and mountainous seas. Beaudout remarked later that 'Only the kittens kept us sane.' They were greeted by a crowd of hundreds, and the little cats were terrified by all the noise and people that had suddenly impinged on their world. The sea had been their horizon and they had only ever known four people at most. It was all strange and frightening and so they were kept in their little box for a while. Not long after their arrival the British Picture Post covered the story, including an 'interview' with the two cats which is reproduced below.
The voyage of L'Égaré II had been largely forgotten until recently, but at the time it was headline news and was dubbed 'the Atlantic Kon-Tiki'. The crew became celebrities and attended various functions in their honour; we aren't sure where the kittens were during this time, but presumably they would have had to spend the then-obligatory six months in quarantine. However, eventually they were adopted by the Duke of Bedford, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II; he agreed to take them in after he had invited Beaudout and his crew to meet him. A small replica of L'Égaré II was built to be their new home, and it was moored on the lake at the Duke's estate at Woburn as part of the Children's Zoo (left). Thus Puce and Guiton, little French Canadian cats, rubbed shoulders with the English aristocracy, although we don't know how long they lived or how they enjoyed their new life.
There's a short Pathé news clip from 1956 of the craft's arrival in Falmouth, which gives an idea of the fragility and small size of L'Égaré II; it was just 30 feet long by 17 wide (roughly 9.5 m x 5 m). Henri Beaudout's book (in English) The Lost One was published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, in 1957 (no ISBN). Fortunately for posterity, Henri was determined the adventure should be recorded on film, and crewman Gaston Vanackere was the photographer, equipped with a 16 mm. camera. A documentary film entitled Atlantic Adventure was released in 1961, and the two cats were named as part of the crew. The photos here are from the book, published articles of the time and film footage.
After their epic journey the men returned to Canada, and L'Égaré II was also returned to Quebec, with a promise from the Canadian premier of the time that it would be placed in a museum. That never happened and it was left to rot a most unfortunate fate, as the English would have been pleased to keep it as a museum exhibit. However, after 55 years, the accomplishment of the crew of L'Égaré II was 'rediscovered', and a small team of volunteers in Canada is determined that this important piece of Canadian history should not be forgotten. In the latter part of 2012 they were engaged in building a replica of the raft. Beaudout's compatriots have died, but he himself is alive (he was 85 in 2012) and was able to oversee the project.
- The Raftsmen website
- Video clip: Rebuilding L'Égaré II
- Video clip: Puce and Guiton: The Kittens Who Conquered the Atlantic
- Audio clip from CBC Radio: broadcast in May 2012 in their C'est la vie strand, this interesting programme relates how the story of L'Égaré II was rediscovered. Briefly, retired sea captain Caleb Kean was, in 1956, bosun on the The Investigator which went to the assistance of L'Égaré on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland when fourth original crew member, José Martinez, had to be taken off the raft due to illness. Kean was in the boat rowed over to the raft to make the transfer, and never forgot the incident and his involvement with the men and their little craft which a month or two later made international headlines. In later life he began trying to find out what became of L'Égaré and the crew, but unfortunately he and his family made little headway until he was interviewed by CBC in connection with his long seafaring life. Among other memories and anecdotes, he mentioned the story and his part in it. With CBC's help Henri Beaudout was finally traced, and the two men were able to make contact. The clip fills in many other details and talks about the raft's voyage and the cats! and is well worth a listen (about 18m). There's also a short clip at YouTube with a more condensed outline of Captain Kean's quest and the outcome.
- Catherine François at TV5Monde: article in French with a 5m video clip of an interview with Henri Beaudout (also in French) and showing some footage from the raft's voyage the kittens put in an appearance.
Interview with Puce and Guiton
The following appeared in the 15 September 1956 issue of Picture Post.
The Cats' Own Story
From the raft, in quarantine in Falmouth Harbour, our reporter brings this exclusive interview with the expedition's youngest members.
"I think," said the small grey cat, eyeing photographer Joe McKeown, "that he's an amateur. No flashgun. Not worth talking to."
"Pardon," said the small black cat with the white spot at her [sic] throat, "Guiton has a commercial mind. I am a Puce. You wish to know about our voyage? Bon. In the beginningit was not easy. The Canadian S.P.C.A. did not want us to come at all. We were, you understand, very young then. The men smuggled us aboard under their coats. Then came the fog, the storms, the waves. But one soon learns to run with one's claws outlike the studs in le soccer boots, yes?"
"You wish to know how I became grey?" asked Guiton, leaping the gap to our launch and balancing on a narrow fender. "It was all that fog. In the sun, one becomes sunburned. In fog, one becomes grey. But that is all in my story. It will cost you sept milleseven thousand."
"Cod's heads?" I asked.
Guiton shrugged her tail in disgust.
"The fish was the worst," explained Puce. "Sometimes I ask myselfis there nothing but fish in the sea? No hamburgers? No lamb chops?"
"Sometimes we were desperate," said Guiton, rubbing her tennis-ball tummy tragically. "We became nothing but fur and bone. Hunger made us so depraved that we actually stole from the men. But that, too, is in my story. It costs six mille."
"Not often did we go hungry," said Puce firmly. "But we got so very tired of fish."
"And did you find the voyage boring?" I asked.
"Mais non! Was there not the mast to climb, the insects to chase, the radio wires to chew?"
"You think the voyage was a success then?"
"But of course! You may write it was a great success. Except now" she [sic] waved a sad paw around the harbour, "except now they say we are illegal immigrants. We must live alone out here on the raftand then be locked up ashore in quarantine."
"Just think," gloated Guiton, "not only have I crossed the Atlantic on a raft, but soon I shall be a jailcat as well. What a story I shall have then! You may take first option on it for a mere mille."
I shook my head.
"I am retiring to my hammock," said Guiton, stalking to the furled sail and crawling inside. "Next time, send your editor in person."
"If you are now returning to shore," said Puce hastily, "would you kindly ask the harbour master, the good capitaine Edwards, if the morning food boat is coming?"
"Of course," I promised, clambering back on to the launch. "One last question: why did you make the voyage?"
"But naturellement," said Puce, "for la gloire; for the honour of catkind the world over."
"Because," said a small grey voice from the furled sail, "nobody flammante well asked us if we'd prefer not to."
Photographed by Joseph McKeown.