In 1953, German-born Hannes Lindemann had just begun practicing medicine in Liberia and had in mind to settle into a comfortable life as a doctor when he met Alain Bombard, a Frenchman and fellow physician, who had taken an interest in survival at sea. In the fall of the previous year, October 19 to December 23, Bombard sailed a 15′ Zodiac inflatable 2,700 miles from the Canary Islands to Barbados. Hoping to address issues that led to the poor survival rates of sailors who took to lifeboats during World War II, he intended to survive by living off what the sea provided and took few provisions. He had a net to gather plankton for food, and for drinking, he had a press for extracting water from the flesh of fish; he’d mix it with seawater to extend it. Lindemann, doubting some of the claims made by Bombard following his voyage, “decided to use my own body to experience the problems of the shipwrecked; problems of nourishment, keeping the body healthy, avoiding the dangers of the sea, and, ultimately, keeping the mind healthy.”
Lindemann’s first crossing of the Atlantic, made in 1955 in a 25′ dugout canoe, took 65 days, and while he had worked out solutions to many of the physical challenges, he had not solved the mental difficulties. “I had been in dire despair several times during the crossing. I had been on the verge of giving up, especially when I lost my rudder and the two sea-anchors. Consequently, I set out to prove that one can and must prepare mentally if one is to succeed in any extraordinary feat.”
The preparation for his experiment in survival included what he called Psycho-Hygiene Training to “anchor auto-suggestions deep in the subconscious so that they would automatically come to assist in difficult situations.” For six months he did mental exercises, reciting to himself: I’ll make it, Keep going west, and Never give up. “Thus, my subconscious was prepared to withstand all enticements of a more comfortable life.”
For a second crossing, Lindemann upped the ante by choosing an even smaller boat—a Klepper Aerius 17′ folding kayak—for the voyage. “I congratulated myself on having chosen a folding boat, for now, I would be able to relive exactly the feelings of a lonely castaway; I would share his sufferings, his hope and despair. I would, in fact, have to contend with even greater discomfort than a person afloat in a life raft of a plane or a ship’s lifeboat. By suffering to the utmost in the elements, I could test the durability of the human machine…”
Lindemann set out from the Canary Islands on October 20, 1956, in “a mood of complete self-confidence.” With his two sails raised and an outrigger providing additional stability, he had gone only 3 miles when a pilot boat approached him and ran over the kayak’s outrigger, breaking the paddle that supported the float. The long ordeal of preparing for the crossing had left him “limp, tired, and depleted,” but his inner voice began repeating “I’ll make it, I’ll make it” and rather than head back to the harbor to deal with the setback, he set his bow to the west and continued.
During his 72 days at sea in the cramped quarters of the kayak cockpit, Lindemann did indeed “suffer to the utmost.” Waves driven by a storm lasting several days capsized him twice. Both times he was rendered unconscious and only came to after he had surfaced. The first of those capsizes happened at night and he had to wait for the morning light to right the hull. For nine hours he clung to the upturned kayak in the dark, all the while being hammered by waves as high as 27’. “My spirit grew weak and seemed to want to leave my body, but…I’ll make it and Never give up broke through time and time again and enabled me to persist.”
On December 30, he reached St. Martin on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, and stepped ashore on unsteady legs and weighing 54 lbs less than when he had started. He spent the night in a hotel, and the next morning got back into the kayak—Keep going west—to spend 50 hours sailing to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where a group of his friends was waiting for him.
Lindemann wrote about his two Atlantic crossings in Alone at Sea, which was first published in 1958 and republished in 1993. I was the editor of Sea Kayaker magazine at the time the book’s second volume was released, and I included a profile about Lindemann in the Fall 1993 issue. Shortly after that issue came out, I met Dr. Lindemann in 1993 at a sea-kayak symposium in Port Townsend, Washington. He was 71, a tall, slender figure in a black jacket, with his hair turning silver around the temples. I had with me a copy of his book and the July 22, 1957 LIFE magazine with his picture on the cover, both given to me by Peter Schwierzke, a Klepper importer and the friend of Lindeman who encouraged him to republish Alone at Sea. I introduced myself to him, and he kindly signed both the book and magazine. My time with him was brief, as he was walking to one of the lecture halls to give a presentation.
Michael Collins, Sea Kayaker’s publisher, was more fortunate. He and a dozen other kayakers attending the symposium sat with Lindemann in an impromptu gathering and asked him questions about his crossings. Sea-kayak symposium goers are, as a rule, interested in equipment and techniques in the spirit of adventure, but he emphasized that neither of his crossings was a challenge simply for challenge’s sake, but motivated by a drive to learn things that might help people survive, to save lives. Michael had seen the LIFE article when he was a boy, and it was one of the influences that led him to build part of his career around sea kayaking. He recalls that meeting Lindemann almost 30 years after reading the article, and being in the presence of a man he had idolized from a young age did not leave him with a sense of awe, but rather with a feeling of calmness. To a person, everyone in that fortunate symposium group expressed the same feeling after meeting with Lindemann.
I spoke to Peter Schwierzke by phone recently about the time he spent with Lindemann. One of the first things he said when bringing up memories of his friend was, “when I think about talking to Hannes it calms me down.” Years ago, while he was in Sacramento, California, working as an importer and distributor of Klepper kayaks, he had a few quotations from Lindemann posted in his office where they would be regular reminders. One was Stress, eine selbst gewählte lebensform von leben oder leiden (Stress, a self-chosen way of life or suffering). “Hannes made a lifetime study of positive thinking,” Peter recalls. Lindemann wrote books on the topic: Autogenic Training (based on the method he used to prepare for his second crossing) in 1975, and two years later Anti-Stress Program: This is how you cope with everyday life.
Dr. Lindemann was once asked what was the most important thing he had aboard the kayak during his Atlantic ordeal. He didn’t hesitate to answer: “Optimism.” It’s a good piece of advice whether you’re crossing an ocean or just getting through your day.
Dr. Hannes Lindemann passed away on April 17, 2015 at the age of 92. The most recent edition of Alone at Sea, from Polner Verlag, is no longer in print but copies are available from internet sources. The full text of the 1958 edition is online at The Internet Archive.