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Steve Callahan was 30 and sailing the Atlantic alone when his 21ft sloop was hit by a whale and sank in a storm.

Adrift on a raft in the Atlantic for 76 days

‘I got scared by?the thought I’d be dead in a few hours; I found a way to fix the raft and it felt like the biggest victory of my life’

On the night of January 29, 1982, Steven Callahan set sail alone in his small sailboat from the Canary Islands bound for the Caribbean. On February 5, the ship sank in a storm, leaving Callahan adrift in the Atlantic in a five-and-a-half-foot inflatable rubber raft. Naked except for a t-shirt, with only three pounds of food, a few pieces of gear and eight pints of water, Callahan drifted for 76 days, and over 1,800 miles of ocean, before he reached land and rescue in the Bahamas.

Steven Callahan was a ?young man from Maine with adventure in his heart. He realized his dream and sailed his own design 21 foot sailboat across the Atlantic from Newport to Bermuda, then on to England. His return from England would be with a race called the Mini-Transat and would complete a circumnavigation of the?treacherous Atlantic by returning him to Antigua in the West Indies. At least, that was the plan. Little did he know how bad his plans would turn on the trip back west.

For the actual Mini-Transat leg, Steven went it alone and met up with problems of rough weather and a pierced hull off the coast of Spain that nearly sank the boat. He managed to plug the hole and limp to port where he made repairs but the race was over for him. Eventually he got back out to sea to try completing his crossing without the race and brought on a young woman to crew who he met while in port. She left him on the island of Madeira and the transatlantic solo journey started in earnest. From the Canaries to the Antilles is over 3,000 miles of open ocean. His timing could have been better as this was now late January 1982 in the unpredictable North Atlantic.

Steven encountered storms, huge waves, high winds. His tough little boat seemed up to the task until one day early in February the boat collided with something, maybe a whale? Maybe just a huge rogue wave? No way to tell but the boat was taking on water rapidly and Steven had to fight for his life to get out, inflate his rubber lifeboat under crashing seas, and desperately try to salvage whatever survival gear he could from his sinking boat. The next 76 days were truly an incredible tale of resourcefulness and grim determination against all odds.

Steven Callahan began an 1,800-mile, two-and-a-half-month oceanic ordeal as harrowing as the one Wins-low Homer envisioned. On the night of Feb. 4, 1982, two days before his 30th birthday, Steven Patrick Callahan was cruising alone in mid-Atlantic aboard his 21-foot-4-inch sloop Napoleon Solo. He had built the boat by hand the previous summer and entered it in the 1982 Mini Transat, a single-handed sailing race from Penzance, England to La Coru?a, Spain, then on across the Atlantic to Antigua in the West Indies. Callahan had been forced out of the race in Spain when Solo (named for the Robert Vaughn character in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) developed a crack in her bow. Now, after repairs, he was sailing the Atlantic for the first time alone. ?I was working on a novel while Solo sailed herself,? he recalls, ?writing stories and letters, scribbling pictures of sea serpents in bow ties, pigging out on fried potatoes and onions, just plain enjoying it all.?

Then came disaster.

He was jolted out of sleep that night by a terrific crash. Tons of seawater cascaded into the cabin. The boat, he believes, had been struck by a whale, feeding blind on the surface and unaware of his presence. ?This is it,? he remembers thinking. ?I?m going to die.? He grabbed a knife from beside his bunk and fought his way topside, clad only in a T-shirt, a diver?s wrist-watch and, ironically, a talismanic whale?s-tooth necklace. As the boat foundered, he cut loose his six-man nylon raft and inflated it.

?By the light of the full moon, he could see that Solo was down by her bow, swamped and awash but not yet sunk. Ten-to 12-foot seas washed over her deck, but Callahan decided to risk diving back into Solo?s cabin to fetch what he could in the way of survival gear. ?If she sank while I was down there,? he says, ?I?d die. But I?d die just as dead, and slowly, if I didn?t have more than what was on the raft.?

Working mainly by feel and memory in the surging blackness, he hauled out his sodden sleeping bag, a floating cushion, a couple of cabbages, a box of eggs, an empty coffee tin he later used as a bailer, and a carefully stocked emergency package. At one point the hatch cover slammed shut under the fist of a wave and Callahan figured he was finished. But then the sea relented. As the wave receded, the hatch was sucked back open just in time for him to breathe.?Exhausted, Callahan secured his raft to the floating hulk with a long line and waited for dawn before trying another dive. But during the night heavy seas tore the line loose. Callahan watched the erratic flash of his water-shorted masthead light dwindle into the distance as the raft drifted away from the Solo.

He was, by his reckoning, 450 miles west of the Canary Islands, 800 miles north of the Cape Verde Islands, and another 450 miles east of the nearest shipping lanes where he might be picked up. For food, he had 10 ounces of peanuts, 16 ounces of baked beans, his eggs and cabbages, and 10 ounces each of corned beef and saltwater-soaked raisins. Worse, he had only eight pints of fresh water. With the supplies he had salvaged he figured he could survive a maximum of 18 days. But in his emergency kit were three ?solar stills,? balloon like devices that ?sweat? fresh water from seawater?when and if they work. By sheer chance, he also had a spear gun, purchased in the Canaries. Unable to find room for it in Solo?s crowded cabin, he had stowed it in the rolled-up raft. It was to prove a life-saving decision.

What followed were 76 days and 1,800 miles at sea full of hope, doubt, agony, pain and torment at the mercy of the sea. Somehow, after 1,800 miles of riding the North Equatorial Current through bouts of starvation, dehydration, a punctured raft with a futile patch kit and a pair of barely (yet thankfully) functioning desalinization stills, he was spotted by a fishing boat offshore of Marie Galante in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean.

Get out get out, the boat’s going down!”

That?s what Steven Callahan thought as he jumped into action in the darkness of the night.

Eight days out on the Atlantic, Callahan is alone at sea, hundreds of miles from the nearest land. There’s only one person who can possibly save Steven Callahan.


By the third day, bathed by frigid wave after wave, Callahan is shivering and sore. His wet sleeping bag and space blanket are meager protection against the constant barrage of cold seawater. Hundreds of boils have broken out on his skin, and the saltwater burns each new raw cut.

Thus, the voyage began for Callahan atop the raft he would jokingly refer to as Rubber Ducky.

Starting on Jan. 29, 1982, Callahan would spend a mind-boggling 76 days aboard a vessel the size of an outhouse. He would fend off scorching midday sun, cold ocean temperatures, starvation, dehydration, shark attacks and the disappointment of watching nine ships pass without their occupants having the slightest idea he was there.

Deserted at sea. Callahan was finally spotted off the coast of the Caribbean island Guadeloupe by a group of fishermen.

His true tale of survival atop the Atlantic would become a best-selling book, “Adrift.” Both terrifying and profoundly inspirational, the story shows how one man fought to survive against insurmountable odds.

“Be Prepared” is the Scout motto some people live by. Sometimes, though, it may take it for granted. Not Steven Callahan.

“Things are going well, but you never know what can happen next,” he said. “You might fall down and break your leg. Or your boat can sink in the middle of the ocean. You have to pay attention and be ready for anything.”

Growing up in Dover, Mass., Callahan got his first taste of the wilderness on Scouting trips to Vermont and New Hampshire. He learned to canoe down rivers and backpack up the peaks of the White Mountains.?When Callahan was 11, his Scoutmaster, Arthur Adams, invited him to serve as crew day-sailing on the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Callahan accepted, and was immediately hooked on the oceanic life.

I was always around the water, and we?d go to the beach. My family didn?t even come from a coastal area, originally?when I was about 12, I was in the Boy Scouts, and my Boy Scout master asked me if I?d be interested in going sailing one day. He had a little boat, so I did, and I really resonated with it right away. It took very little time before that was my major passion. We went out and sailed offshore till you couldn?t see land anymore. I kind of got how a boat worked. Just intuitively, I felt it. It wasn?t like I needed to be told too much about, intellectually, what was going on. It felt right. I remember lying down in the bottom with the boat healed over ? it was just this little daysailer ? so your eyes were kind of level with the ocean and just lying there feeling like you were floating on the surface of the sea, and you just felt at home.

Of course, there was the romance of it too. When I was in high school there was a guy, Robin Lee Graham, who was basically the same age as I was. His father gave him a little boat, so of course I was very envious of all that. So, he took off and sailed around the world, most of the way in this little 26 footer. There was a series of articles in National Geographicabout him and his voyage. Here I was in physics class and he was on the adventure of a lifetime.

Then I read a book, very early on, by this guy Robert Manry, a newspaper reporter in Chicago. He had taken a little boat called?Tinkerbelle, a thirteen foot lapstrake boat that was made to sail around lakes. He put a deck on it and a cabin and he sailed it to England. I could envision myself doing that. I thought, ?Thirteen feet? I can do that. Hell, I can even build that myself.?

I always loved space, too. I grew up in the 50s and I remember when Sputnik went up?space is kind of unavailable, and the closest thing we have on earth is to go to sea.

“Sailing involves so much,” Callahan says. “From gauging the wind to studying the charts and the stars, to learning the history and the craftsmanship of boat building. I was always curious about life, and this tied it all together.”

Arthur Adams became Callahan’s mentor. He taught him to choose the destination and to take the helm, preparing him to sail on his own.

“By the time I reached 16,” Callahan says, “I would call him up and he’d tell me to take the boat out myself.”

And it wasn’t long before Callahan was building his own craft and competing with other sailors.

Callahan departed Newport, in Rhode Island, USA, in 1981 on Napoleon Solo, a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) sloop he designed and built himself, single-handedly sailed the boat to Bermuda, and continued the voyage to England with friend Chris Latchem. He had left Cornwall that fall, bound for Antigua as part of the Mini Transat 6.50 single-handed sailing race from Penzance, England, but dropped out of the race in La Coru?a, Spain. Bad weather had sunk several boats in the fleet and damaged many others including Napoleon Solo. Callahan made repairs and continued voyaging down the coast of Spain and Portugal, out to Madeira and the Canaries. He departed El Hierro in the Canary Islands on January 29, 1982, still headed for Antigua. In a growing gale, seven days out, his vessel was badly holed by an unknown object during a night storm, and became swamped, although it did not sink outright due to watertight compartments Callahan had designed into the boat. Callahan suspected the damage occurred from a collision with a whale.

Unable to stay aboard Napoleon Solo as it filled with water and was overwhelmed by breaking seas, Callahan escaped into a six-person Avon inflatable life raft, measuring about six feet across. He stood off in the raft, but managed to get back aboard several times to dive below and retrieve a piece of cushion, a sleeping bag, and an emergency kit containing, among other things, some food, navigation charts, a short spear gun, flares, torch, solar stills for producing drinking water and a copy of Sea Survival, a survival manual written by Dougal Robertson, a fellow ocean survivor. Before dawn, a big breaking sea parted the life raft from Napoleon Solo and Callahan drifted away.

The raft drifted westward with the South Equatorial Current and the trade winds. After exhausting the meager food supplies he had salvaged from the sinking sloop, Callahan survived by “learning to live like an aquatic caveman.” He ate primarily mahi-mahi as well as triggerfish, which he speared, along with flying fish, barnacles, and birds that he captured. The sea life was all part of an ecosystem that evolved and followed him for 1,800 nautical miles (3,300 km) across the ocean. He collected drinking water from two solar stills and various jury-rigged devices for collecting rainwater, which together produced on average just over a pint of water per day.

Callahan’s use of an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and many flares did not trigger a rescue. EPIRBs were not monitored by satellites at the time, and he was in too empty a part of the ocean to be heard by aircraft. Ships did not spot his flares. While adrift, he spotted nine ships, most in the two sea lanes he crossed, but from the beginning, Callahan knew that he could not rely upon rescue but instead must, for an undetermined time, rely upon himself and maintaining a shipboard routine for survival. He routinely exercised, navigated, prioritized problems, made repairs, fished, improved systems, and built food and water stocks for emergencies.

As his boat went down, Callahan scrambled onto a life raft that was a little bit shorter than his 5-foot-10 frame. He was able to salvage a small amount of provisions and a couple of gadgets that could produce about a pint of fresh water per day.

Put to the test, his solar stills proved defective. Callahan dissected one to see how it worked and eventually got two of them functioning. Instead of producing 32 ounces of water a day, each balloon yielded only 20, but it was enough. Callahan also rigged a Rube Goldberg lash-up of tarps to catch what rainfall he could. ?Even at that,? he says, ?I was thirsty all the time.?

He floated for 11 weeks, doing his best to navigate. He counted nine ships that passed in the distance, none of which he was able to successfully signal. He primarily subsisted on dorado ? the fish known as mahi-mahi when it is served in restaurants ? though he also resorted to eating the barnacles he could gather.

Callahan drifted westward, killing and eating fish, distilling and catching water, scooping golden sargassum weed from the current and eating the small crabs, shrimp and fishes he found in it. To avoid taking in too much salt, he ate sparingly of the weed itself, occasionally stroking the cool blue sides of his doggies, who by now had grown used to him despite his spear. Shooting the North Star at night with a rude sextant he had fashioned of pencils, he reassured himself that he was no more than 18? above the equator and hoped that the current would carry him into the web of West Indian islands that at that latitude span the entrance to the Caribbean like a net.

?There was no joy in this,? he recalls. ?I was constantly wet, a suntanned prune. Cold by night, hot by day. Where my skin rubbed against the raft, it sloughed off and the salt stung the sores.? On his forced high-sodium, low-potassium diet, he grew weaker and weaker. His feet swelled up like kelp bulbs. ?I couldn?t stretch out or stand, and my legs cramped. It was like living forever in a half-filled waterbed, with a couple of kangaroos kicking the bottom.?

“When you’re in a survival situation, part of you holds out hope and part of you believes you’re hosed,” he said. “It’s always in your mind, and you have to balance one with the other.”

Sharks too were occasional visitors to Callahan?s world, rasping their sandpaper hides against the thin nylon skin of the raft. One hammerhead liked to mouth the protruding ballast tanks?bulbous, water-filled stabilizers on the raft?s bottom. Callahan learned to discourage the sharks by poking them with his spear point, but the spear gun itself had proved useless. Almost immediately he?d lost the rubber sling that propelled the spear shaft. Then a particularly agile doggie unscrewed the barbed spear point in its dying gyrations. Callahan lashed a knife to the shaft and carried on.

In the end, he drifted 1,800 nautical miles.

“It’s kind of like getting down on all fours and crawling from Portland, Maine, to Denver,” he said.

It was on the evening of the 75th?day that he saw lights indicating land. When the next morning broke, he realized that he was barely five miles from a small island village. Some seabirds, drawn to the fish around his raft, began circling overhead, which drew the attention of the local fishermen. On April 21, 1982, Callahan was pulled from the sea.

“I was ecstatic,” he said. “But it’s a funny thing about the survival experience ? there are mixed feelings. It’s like you’ve been king of your own world, and you’ve been seeing things and witnessing things that you never could have in any other way. There’s a kind of nostalgia for it when it’s over.”

The fishermen, who picked him up just offshore, had been drawn to him by birds hovering over the raft, which were attracted by the ecosystem that had developed around it.

“Ecology started to develop ? pretty much anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology. And fish would gather around it, and weeds and barnacles would grow. …I’ve always felt spiritually touched when in wilderness environments, and this was that on steroids. I just got very attached to the fish which to me were kind of symbolic of the magic and mystery of life and the sea. They fed me, they became my friends at one point they almost killed me because they were big powerful fish and I was fishing for them primarily with a spear, and in an inflated raft, and they kept breaking the spear and at one point put a hole in the bottom of the raft.

“And in the final analysis they brought my salvation, because the fishermen had come out to that side of the island that day, which they had never done before, and they saw all these birds hovering over the raft, which were there because of the fish, and they came out to find fish, and they found me as well.”

Callahan told the men to proceed with their fishing before they took him ashore. ?They work hard for a dollar down there,? he says simply. For the next two hours the fishermen hand-lined and killed every last one of Callahan?s doggies. As he rode in to the island of Marie Galante in their boat, the dead fish lay all around him. He recognized most of them. ?I had mixed feelings,? he says. ?They had come 1,800 miles with me, saved my life, and now they were being rewarded with death and the fish market. That?s the sea for you.?

Steven Callahan survived for 76 days adrift in an inflatable life raft. This 2002 photo shows Callahan with an improved life raft he designed after his ordeal. While enduring shark attacks, rain and helpless drifting, Callahan dreamed of a better survival vessel. Once he returned to land, he spent almost two decades designing this one, featuring a rigid exterior, a removable canopy and a sail.

During the ordeal, he faced sharks, raft punctures, equipment deterioration, physical deterioration, and mental stress. Having lost a third of his weight and being covered with scores of saltwater sores, he was taken to a local hospital for an afternoon, but left that evening and spent the following weeks recovering on the island and while hitchhiking on boats up through the West Indies.

During his journey, Callahan experienced a few positive elements aside from suffering, describing the night sky at one point as “A view of heaven from a seat in hell.” He still enjoys sailing and the sea, which he calls the world’s greatest wilderness. Since his survival drift, he’s made dozens of additional offshore passages and ocean crossings, most of them with no more than two other crew.

When he finally reached land on April 21, 1982, Callahan had lost 44 pounds and has very little energy.

Yet, he is alive.

“The whole world was brand new again,” he says, “from the smells to the colors, everything.”Ten days later, he would be back on a sailboat, gradually making his way home to America. Callahan has since crossed the Atlantic six times and the Pacific once, but never again solo.

What’s left of Rubber Ducky is at the Peabody Essex Museum at Salem, Mass. His sailboat houses a folding dinghy that Callahan has created. A canopy sits over the boat to protect sailors from the sun. More important, a sail can be hoisted so the dinghy can go against the wind and not drift aimlessly.

“Using this, I could have reached the Cape Verde Islands off Africa in 14 days, not two and a half months,” he notes.

That’s a lot less raw fish to swallow.

In many ways, his book “Adrift” is about the magic and mystery of the natural world. This is especially true with regards to the dorado (also called “mahi-mahi” and “dolphin fish”) that swam along Callahan for much of his journey.

Dorado are known for seeking out objects floating on the surface, such as the seaweed Sargasso, driftwood and the occasional raft. Within days of Callahan being forced into his raft, the dorado had somehow gauged the range of his spear gun–and kept a safe distance. Once his spear gun broke, however, and the dorado swam closer, Callahan was able to surprise the fish with his makeshift knife–and strike enough of them to eat … and to survive.

“It was like they were giving me their life so I could eat,” said the bewildered sailor.

“There’s no easy explanation.”

The skills Steven Callahan learned as a Boy Scout served him well on the water.

The ability to read a topographical map while hiking would come in handy when viewing navigational charts. The use of ropes and tying knots is extremely important for the seafaring life.

?I still don’t regret my 76 days alone in the raft. To this day I feel enlightened by what I went through because it changed me for the better. But would I want to be adrift in the ocean again? No way.?

“When I got ashore on Marie Galante, I got a note from a sailing magazine that wanted me to write an article about it. That was a good warm up first of all, and earned me a few dollars (and it started a relationship with this magazine I ended up writing for for years).?I was completely broke and had virtually nothing, and I was interested in writing?it was an opportunity and it just evolved from there.

Then, all these people were interested in talking about the experience that I didn?t expect. I thought other sailors would be interested in it, but I didn?t expect that there would be a general public interest in it?It became pretty clear to me, pretty early on, that there was something in the survival experience that people were interested in, generally, and then over the next year, I got interviewed quite a lot and was getting mail from lots of people that had no interest in or experience with boats or the ocean.

After I settled in and things calmed down, I realized I had nothing; I had to work. I was working at a boat design school. So, It wasn?t exactly seasonal, but we were starting a residential program, and so through that fall and the next spring I didn?t do a whole lot ? I was really just kind of getting my life back together. Then the next summer I took off and did a big whack of it then. So that?s what I would do, I really just took three months off and then I?d go back to work.”

On set: With Ang Lee.

Ang Lee asked him to help make?Life of Pi

Callahan, taught the film?s leading man Suraj Sharma the skills of surviving on a raft and detailed the psychological toll of drifting alone on a vast sea: the ?boredom, the terror and the moments of spiritual ecstasy.?He threw himself into the film with passion and Lee credits him with making the sea, and Pi?s journey, authentic and believable. Steve says: ?I mapped out what the ocean and sky would look like and matched it with the storyline. I spent time with Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi, discussing the psychological issues.

?I showed him how to spear fish and drive away sharks.

“I explained how, after almost three months on the raft, my reflexes were so quick I once plucked a passing minnow straight from the water and popped it in my mouth as a snack.

“They loved the image, so Ang had Suraj incorporate it into his character.

?They called me ?the Real Pi? but Pi was Spiderman-at-sea compared to me.?

Inevitably, the project brought back disturbing memories of his own perilous journey.

Like Pi?s unlikely relationship with his tiger Callahan grew surprisingly attached to his ?little doggies,? able to recognise individual fish nudging the raft although he killed one every few days to survive. ?Battling depression and constantly in pain he plunged into despair on day 43 when a speared dorado tore a hole in his raft, threatening to sink him as the sharks circled.

?I broke down and bawled like a baby,? he says. ?When you?re by yourself there?s no one to calm you down.? It took Callahan 10 days of desperate attempts to improvise a patch using fishing line and a fork. Maddeningly during this period he spied seven ships but none spotted his tiny raft.

?I went completely bananas,? he says. ?There was no joy in this. I was constantly wet, a suntanned prune. Cold by night and hot by day. Where my skin rubbed against the raft it sloughed off and the salt stung the sores. I was thirsty constantly, virtually all the time.?

Yet like Pi Callahan found a renewed spirituality and inner strength in the depth of his misery. In the log he kept while he was adrift, he wrote: ?My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most important kind. I value each moment that is not spent in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst or loneliness.

“For me, it became quite the personal voyage because it’s a continuum of my own experience all those years ago. And to me, it’s kind of amazing that the ocean that kept me alive would allow me to go down this path where Ang asks me basically to help him bring a kind of authenticity and believability to this film and always lobby for reality, and in that way, to make the ocean, as he said, a major character, which really it had never happened before as far as I know. I mean, most people set stories on the ocean but he wanted to bring out its diversity and its wonders as well as its horrors and scariness and trials and tribulations that it can place upon the human being.”

On his shipwreck 34 years ago and his diagnosis of leukemia

“To a large degree, you know, the survival experience has enormous commonalities. Initially, its like, ‘Well, you know, there’s a very good chance I’m gonna die here pretty quickly and I’m not ready to die.’ And … I feel like I have fixed a lot of things in my life and … I feel pretty filled with what my life path has been, which is quite different from years ago. But I had my 30th birthday in a life raft, I had my 60th birthday right in a hospital bed, but through it all, the same as while adrift, my wife and I have always found reason for finding gifts within the experience. Just that preciousness of life that we seem to capture in the most desperate of times.”

Steven Callahan has written a best-selling novel, Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea

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