In the middle of the night, in the vast, open expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, far from land and safety, lone sailor Steve Callahan navigates a ferocious gale. Giant, rolling swells tilt his vessel up and down in the darkness. Suddenly, a violent collision tears open the hull, and torrents of water cascade into the cabin. Subsequently, the boat, now irreparably damaged, starts to sink into the gloom.
In 1981 Callahan, an avid sailor originally from Unionville, Pennsylvania, set sail for England. Departing from Newport, Rhode Island, his vessel was a 21-feet-long sloop of his own design and construction. It was called the Napoleon Solo, and its first stop was Bermuda before heading east.
Indeed, the outward crossing was a success. However, on the return leg, Callahan’s luck changed drastically when his homemade vessel was destroyed in a gale. And it was the start of a life-changing ordeal that left Callahan with a profound respect for the wilderness, its splendor and horrors.
And yet, Callahan was born to sail. At the age of ten, he was assisting his brothers with the construction of pond barges from roofing boards and tar. Two years later, he was venturing out to sea. And he soon went on to teach himself how to navigate using the stars.
Before graduating from high school, Callahan contributed to the construction of a 40-feet-long vessel. And thereafter, he started to design boats of his own. Indeed, Callahan has never given up his fixation with sailing, despite the severe tribulations he has suffered at sea.
Callahan has in fact sailed some 80,000 miles over the course of his life. He has participated in races, led the delivery of boats and even lived at sea for some five years. Moreover, he has written widely about his experiences of the marine world and taught others about boat design.
But sailing is much more than an occupation or a passion for Callahan. For him, the act is a spiritual and philosophical endeavor. Where most people use sail boats for traveling across water, Callahan uses them for exploring the relationship between man and nature.
And when Callahan set sail on the Napoleon Solo in 1981, it represented the fulfilment of a childhood ambition. Writing for the British newspaper The Guardian in 2012, he described the transatlantic crossing as an “exhilarating” experience. “I’d been dreaming of doing it since I was 12,” he said.
On the return leg, Callahan departed from Penzance, Cornwall, in southwest England and took part in the Mini Transat 6.50 – a solo sailing race. However, bad weather destroyed several vessels and damaged scores more, including Callahan’s. He was then forced to drop out and make repairs in La Coruña, Spain.
Then, having patched up his vessel, Callahan explored the shores of Spain and Portugal before sailing to the Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands, both situated off the northwest coast of Africa. He then headed west into the great deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
Initially, the seas were calm and trouble free, and a week went by without major incident. Then, hundreds of miles from land, Callahan found himself in a raging gale. But he was unconcerned, as the Napoleon Solo had weathered far worse. Indeed, he was so indifferent that he went to sleep.
But then something large stuck the boat with a resounding crash – a shark perhaps, or a whale. The collision tore open a hole in the hull, and water started pouring into the cabin, waking Callahan. He could see, from the extent of the inundation, that the Napoleon Solo was rapidly going under.
“I felt an odd mixture of sensations,” Callahan wrote in The Guardian. “Fear, panic, even slight amusement at the fact that there was a camera attached to the back of the boat taking these dramatic shots of the storm, and my sinking boat, that no one would ever see,” he said.
Fortunately, Callahan had had the foresight to incorporate watertight compartments in the design of his boat, which helped to slow down its descent. Initially, however, Callahan panicked. But then, realizing his predicament, he “snapped into autopilot” and started gathering essential items for a life raft.
Indeed, it quickly dawned on Callahan that certain essential provisions – like food, water, flares and a sleeping bag – were now submerged under water inside the cabin. If he was to survive being at sea in a life raft, he would have to retrieve them. So he held his breath and dove into the darkness.
“The boat was almost completely submerged,” Callahan recounted of his experience in The Guardian. “But I held my breath and went under again and again. I remember the water below seemed so peaceful compared with the sea raging outside. It felt like entering a watery tomb.”
Callahan retrieved his survival kit. Other items included a cushion, navigation charts, a torch and, most importantly, a solar still for producing drinking water. Indeed, without this, he would not have survived more than a few days. He also packed a survival manual by Dougal Robertson called Sea Survival.
Finally, Callahan took refuge on his life raft – a nearly three-meter-wide circular inflatable with a canopy. He tied it to the back of the sinking boat with a rope. Waves continuously washed over the sides, and he spent the evening scooping out water with a tin can. Then, just before the morning light, the rope snapped.
“I was now adrift in the middle of the Atlantic, 800 miles west of the Canaries but heading in the opposite direction,” Callahan wrote in The Guardian. “All I had was a little food and enough water for a few days.” And it was then, that the sailor became introspective about his predicament.
Carried by the trade winds and the South Equatorial Current, Callahan’s raft floated west. And with his food provisions quickly exhausted, he had no choice but to sustain himself by spearfishing. In fact, this was not as hard it sounds, as all kinds of marine life soon started following his craft. Indeed, mahi-mahi and triggerfish became his prime staples.
“Ecology started to develop – pretty much anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology,” Callahan penned in The Guardian. “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.”
Meanwhile, after a few days of tinkering, Callahan got his solar stills functioning. Between that and various other rainwater collection contraptions, he managed to sequester more than a pint of fresh water every day. And although it was significantly less than the daily recommended intake of 15 cups, it kept him alive.
After about two weeks, Callahan spotted a ship. He fired a flare to get its attention, but nobody saw it. “Every morning came with a bit of hope, but by each afternoon I was in despair. I did see a handful of ships, but none of them saw me. After a month at sea, I’d drifted right through the shipping lanes,” he wrote in The Guardian.
In addition to flares, Callahan used an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) to alert nearby vessels to his presence. Today, EPRIBs are observed by satellites. However, in 1982, the technology was more primitive. No satellites kept watch for such distress signals and Callahan’s EPRIB went undetected.
As days turned to weeks, Callahan had ample time to reflect. He concluded that his life had been a failure. His relationships with other people seemed to have been problematic. His marriage had ended in divorce, and his sailing business had tanked. And now, he was failing at his favorite endeavor.
Speaking to National Public Radio (NPR) in 2013, Callahan compared his life up until then to a “really bad B-grade movie.” He said, “Even though I fulfilled these childhood goals of crossing the Atlantic in this small boat, it all just seemed pathetic…” But despite his understandably low morale, the sailor didn’t give up.
Indeed, not every moment of Callahan’s journey was full of regret and misery. Without a flicker of light pollution, the night sky and its scatter of stars appeared to him in perfect clarity. Indeed, he subsequently described the view he saw one night as “a view of heaven from a seat in hell.”
Soon, however, Callahan drifted into tropical latitudes. But the sun was merciless as temperatures soared. Indeed, he became chronically dehydrated. And the constant soak of salt water left uncomfortable sores on his body. Day by day, the open ocean ground him down, but he had no choice but to endure.
Then, around day 40, Callahan’s raft was punctured. And for the next ten days, he vainly used a pump to try and keep it buoyant. But the struggle broke him, and he surrendered. However, it was then, while contemplating his imminent death, that he quickly scrambled to try and repair the raft, and he finally succeeded. “… It felt like biggest victory of my life,” he wrote in The Guardian.
As Callahan entered the third month of his journey, his grip on life became extremely tenuous. He stared at his watch and counted the minutes. And then, after more than 70 days of aimless drift, he solar still broke down, depriving him of essential fresh water. And as his body began to give up, he seemed to sense the ghosts of all those who had died at sea.
But as fate would have it, Callahan’s time was not yet up. And on the evening of April 20, his 75th day at sea, he glimpsed the flicker of lights on a nearby island. That island was Marie-Galante, a small and sparsely inhabited dependency of the French island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies.
The following day, a group of fishermen found Callahan just off the coast of Guadeloupe. Thanks to the ecosystem which had developed around his raft due to the fish guts the sailor had been throwing overboard, several sea birds had been hovering nearby, drawing attention to him. Callahan’s ordeal was over, but he was still far from well.
In fact, Callahan had lost a third of his body weight. He was swathed in sores and he could not use his legs properly. Indeed, he spent the afternoon in an island hospital, but was discharged later that evening. But it would take him a further six weeks to be able to fully recover his ability to walk.
However, Callahan said he took some positive lessons from the whole experience. “I still don’t regret my 76 days alone in the raft,” he wrote in The Guardian. “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.”
Indeed, after Callahan’s rescue, he went on to write about his experiences in a book called Adrift: Seventy Six Days Lost at Sea. It became a New York Times bestseller and has now been published in 16 languages. Furthermore, National Geographic Explorer called it one of the best adventure books of all time, while the American Library Association awarded it as the “best book for young adults.”
However, the book was just one of Callahan’s many literary ventures. In Capsized, he wrote about four sailors who survived four months off the coast of New Zealand in a half-sunk trimaran in 1989. Callahan has also worked as a senior editor for Cruising World magazine, and has been published in The Boston Globe, International Wildlife, High Technology and several other publications.
And from 2009 to 2012, Callahan worked as a consultant for film director Ang Lee who was adapting the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The book tells the story of a man lost at sea, and Lee hoped that Callahan would bring authenticity to his adaptation. Moreover, he hoped the intrepid sailor would provide the insights necessary to make the ocean itself into a character.
However, at the age of 60, Callahan found himself in a new battle for survival, this time against cancer. He told National Public Radio in 2013,“I had my 30th birthday in a life raft. I had my 60th in a hospital bed, but through it all… 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.”
Thankfully, Callahan survived. And today he lives with his wife Kathleen Massimini in a home they built together in Maine. And although the sailor has traveled widely enough to feel at home all around the world, Maine, with its fine views of the stars and its plentiful nature, has a special place in his heart.
Ultimately, Callahan is a spiritual explorer. “Some people go to church,” he wrote in Adrift, “I go to sea.” Indeed, it is easy to see how, in the great expanse of the ocean, the world’s largest and most inhospitable wilderness, stripped of the trappings of civilization, alone, with nothing but memories and death, the truth of one’s existence dials into focus.