Life in Salt: Sailor and Author Steven Callahan on How Paper, Rope and Knives Pulled Him Through 76 Days Adrift

by Owen James Burke

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Callahan’s illustration of his rescue, just offshore of Marie Galante off Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles Drawing: Steven Callahan.

“…in a really perverse way, they’re kind of gifts, these experiences.”

Days before his 30th birthday and in the throes of a gale, Steven Callahan awoke from his sleep to terrible sound, a prompt and jarring explosion that only exists, for most of us, in our dreams. His 6.5-meter (21-foot) vessel, Napoleon Solo, which he’d built himself, had presumably been struck by a whale, was taking on water and he knew he’d have to abandon ship at that moment. Within the midst of a violent flood of water into his cabin, he cut his rubber life raft loose and grabbed hold of a bag he’d packed for just such an emergency, which included a copy of Dougal Robertson’s Survival at Sea: A Manual, a small reserve of food and water that, along with his own ingenuity, helped saved his life. He was cast adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and at an average drift of less than 10 miles per day, was weeks from any regular shipping lanes with very little hope for survival.

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.

Since, he’s written a best-selling novel, Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, and has successfully charted over 70,000 more miles at sea. During our interview, the 62-year-old Steven Callahan bore the kind of clear, weightless eyes and youthful enthusiasm that could only be affixed to someone who has been given a second chance at life.


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“…it would be like being in prison.” Drawing: Steven Callahan.

Scut: I first heard about Adrift from my father because he took it along for his first open-ocean experience — the Newport-Bermuda Race — and recalled to me that he had nightmares the whole way through, so it had already entertained me before I’d even read it. Then he told me that he would not send me off to sea with his blessing without my having read it. I haven’t taken off to sea yet, but I’m grateful to have read it first. Thank you for writing it, first and foremost.

SC: Well, you’re welcome, but it was something, I think initially, I really needed to do for myself anyway…sort of an extension of what I did in the life raft, keeping all these little notes…When I came back I really wanted to create a story out of the chaos of events, and that was important to me and I think it helped me a great deal from square one, actually, before I even wrote the book: stepping ashore, people wanting to talk about it, me putting it into certain kinds of contexts and starting to write about it. Writing an article and extending that out, it just kind of helped me process the whole experience.

Scut: The flood of emotions you must have gone through seem like something few people could relate to.

SC: Yeah, it was a pretty intense time. I think anybody who goes through different kinds of survival experiences — it doesn’t matter what it was — there are a lot of positive things that come out for most people. I think, especially for the survivors that I’ve talked to — and I’ve talked to quite a few over the years — we come away from these experiences knowing how horrible they are and that we really would never want to go back there again, but at the same time there are elements of the experience that we miss. It’s a real, simplified experience. You’re right down to bare bones, you’re not distracted by a lot of, frankly, bullshit of life; little things that don’t really matter that much. Everything having to do with wants is flushed down the toilet, so you’re faced with very clear elements in your life, and there’s something quite neat about that…in a really perverse way, they’re kind of gifts, these experiences.

Scut: What was your most frightening moment?

SC: Certainly, it was the impact on the boat. That’s kind of the ultimate nightmare. Plenty of times through Adrift, I was sort of beyond fear. It was just depressing and oppressive.

Scut: Did you have occasion to laugh at all during the crossing?

SC: I may have chuckled a few times. Humor is important though, and I felt like I did maintain my sense of humor. There were a few things I kept in the log. The fishing kit, which is a joke, is this teeny piece of string and a little trout hook. Who the hell would ever think that’s going to keep you alive in the ocean? And, especially the patching kit, that says right on it, “Make sure material is dry before application.” It wasn’t really funny at the time. But you had to kind of recognize the humorous irony in such a thing.

Scut: Part of me romanticized about being in the lifeboat while reading Adrift. When were you first drawn to the sea, and what did it?

SC: I was always around the water. I grew up in New England 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 Geographic about 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.

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Napoleon Solo sailing wing and wing. Drawing: Steven Callahan.

Scut: What made you first realize that you wanted to sit down and write Adrift?

SC: When I was in the raft, like I said, it was always important for me to write, even as a kid, and I was sort of introverted, a loner, and a bit of an oddball. So, I always kept a journal and it was a good way of kind of having a personal sounding board, almost like creating another person to look back on yourself from a third person’s point of view. That was really important to me in the raft. so it was an extension of that, but, you know, for a good part of the voyage, and certainly at a lot of pique elements of it, I really wasn’t sure I was going to live through it anyway. I was kind of making plans about changing my life if I got back, that gave me a reason to hang on, but, formally thinking about ‘this is what I’m going to do’ — it’s not like I was on the subway waiting to get to some place and, ‘when I get to work, I’m gonna do x, y, and z.’ Instead, they were fanciful, dreamlike things.

Scut: In your writing, you kept bringing up the fact that you were having a hard time focusing on the present, or reality; how did you pull yourself back during so many times of despair?

SC: There was a battle within me, initially, between dreams and the real world. At first, the dreams and daydreams and all those things were pissing me off, frankly, because it was like these huge temptations, and they weren’t very realistic. Initially in the experience, while my life raft was together, more or less, and my tools were all working–and I had to concentrate on fishing during certain times of day–I would have these fairly lengthy periods of time where I would sit about, trying to conserve energy and heat and that kind of stuff. During those times my mind would start to wander through these dreams and I felt like it was a distraction from what was going on. it was also just this horrible temptation. It would be like being in prison, and starved with, just outside the cell, these tables full of food and comfort and all that kind of stuff. It was just too torturous.

Over time though, that relationship with dreams changed because the rest of life was so bloody awful. It was like, ‘well, if this is as close as I can be to this stuff, I may as well take advantage of it.’ I kind of clutched onto it, so that evolved over time.

But, generally speaking, sailing itself is a very zen-like experience. It’s a very present thing, and future and past don’t mean that much and the more tuned in you are to the wind, the shapes of the sails and your movement over the waves…every little nuance is important. I guess the survival experience is generally like that on steroids, which is another reason, why I think to a certain degree, we get attached to it, because it becomes a very spiritual experience. It’s very potent in that way…In terms of tuning in and tuning out, a lot of it had to do with what was going on around me. If you’re daydreaming and all of a sudden the raft’s being shaken around…it kind of shakes you out of your lethargy.

Scut: Speaking of spirituality, did you have any sort of spiritual breakthrough or find any spiritual guidance that helped you through the passage?

SC: I don’t know about a breakthrough, exactly. I’ve always had a hard time explaining my religion, if you will. I guess the best way of describing it is as a kind of scientific mysticism. I don’t see any conflict between theoretical physics and Buddhism really. I think for me, it was more of a clarification of that, and strengthening of those concepts without being connected.

[I was] given the chance by the environment to get more tuned in, and get the second chance to come back and be a little bit more of an integrated person. The dorado, to me, are just these wonderful natural symbols, that, for me, tie the whole story together because they fed me, they were my companions, they were dangerous — almost killed me — and were high spiritual creatures to me. In the end, they brought my salvation.

Adrift is really a fish tale…I’m in the middle of the ocean, and the fish are swimming around and playing and hunting, having a great time; and I’m dying. They’re a lot smarter than people really give credit to fish for. I was feeling — on a very visceral level — that I was completely at the mercy of everything and very integrated with it, in a very literal way. I always felt a responsibility to them and to the environment overall.

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Callahan with Rubber Ducky III, shortly after making land on Marie Galante. Photo: Edgar Callahan.

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 warmup 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.

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Callahan with his three rescuers. Photo: Edgar Callahan.

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.

Scut: What did you learn about yourself, and more generally, during the ordeal?

SC: We’re a lot more resilient and stronger than we think we can be. Pretty much all of the survivors I’ve talked to, the beginning of their experiences have been like ‘there’s no way I’m making it out of here.’

Equally important was really going through the process of learning, in a very stark and horrible fashion, my own weaknesses. It’s a process of self-knowledge that you don’t get through everyday life. It continues to this day, which is kind of interesting…this experience shaped my life. When I got ashore, I started writing a lot more, which has been a big part of what I’ve been doing for the past thirty-something years.

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Testing life rafts, an all-too-familiar task for Callahan. Photo courtesy of Steven Callahan.

One thing I’ve found as I’ve gotten older — I’m 62 now — is the richness of memory. I can say I learned things like how to spear a dorado in an inflated raft, but I think what I learned about survival, people, my place in the human universe, I just can’t put into words. I can try to explain how I would feel about my relationship with a fish when I caught it, but it doesn’t really do it justice. I’m murdering this thing, I’m sad and I’m grieving. I’m grieving for myself over the fact that I have to be brought to do this; I’m joyful that I have developed the skill to do this.

A lot of times, people will ask, “What did you think about out there?” and my kind of off the cuff, flippant remark is like, “Well, what did you think about the past two months?”…people are multidimensional.

Scut: You wrote that your relationships on land had left you “tired of the traumas of women and of love” — did you, and do you still, feel that sailing was the right answer?

SC: For me at the time, it was the right thing to do. There are a lot of times when I look back and kick myself, and I go, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’…that’s the multidimensional part of us. Being on a voyage is like that. You’re bouncing, you’re uncomfortable and you’re thinking ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But by the end of it, you pull into port, you tie up,  you go into the local pub and have a brew or two, and you say, ‘you know what? That was pretty cool. I want to do it again.’

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Callahan strung two pencils together in order to devise a sextant on the raft. Photo: Edgar Callahan.

Scut: Knowing what you know now, what are the absolute “must haves” for singlehanded passage making? Is there any one item you would not abandon ship without (excluding a life raft)?

SC: A good knife and something that floats. That’s about it really. A lot of people are really big on defining, ‘this is what you need to go to sea, or this is what you need to go to sea.’ There’s a quote: ‘it’s not the ships, it’s the men in them.’ If you look at it, people have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a dugout canoe, kayak, even a modified barrel, as well as the QE II and super yachts…It’s much more dependent upon the person, I think.

I had an EPRB Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon. Those were only monitored by aircraft at the time. Now they’re monitored by satellite, so that’s the first good piece of technological gear, other than a life raft. Most people are not in the life raft for more than 24-48 hours with this gear now, but there are a lot of very open, empty parts of the world…so there’s no guarantee that somebody’s going to pick you up.

For the longer haul, in terms of equipment, there’s hypothermia, and on the opposite end, things like sunstroke. They say that people need food, shelter, and clothing; it’s regulating body heat more than anything.

Solar stills don’t really exist anymore, but we have these really good reverse osmosis pumps, where you can pump freshwater out of seawater.

On top of those basic needs, there are kind of the psychological or emotional needs. For me, pencils and paper were really important. They allowed me to kind of keep this log and develop the attitude that it wasn’t the end of the voyage but a continuation in a bit more humble craft…you cling onto anything you can that still exists from the old life, and you create a new one. For me, it was really important to start exercising, to start navigating right away, to keep a log, and my sense of humor.

The way I describe it is that I learned how to live like an aquatic caveman for two months. Certainly, all wilderness survival is like that. You get down to real basics — that adaptability — to be able to look at something and say, ‘That was cool in a normal life, but that’s useless now. How can I use this right now? What are its qualities?’

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The Napoleon Solo, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1981. Photo courtesy of Steven Callahan.

Scut: Do you still prefer to be alone at sea, or do you feel safer or better if you have a companion?

SC: I like having someone else onboard. I think it’s a little safer. You can keep a watch on deck all the time, but fundamentally, everything has its ups and downs. When you’re sleeping, if you’re single handing, it’s more of a conscious sleep. You get tuned into things in a different way, than if you feel that you have all these people, or backup systems. I don’t even know if it’s necessarily safer. Certainly, in the life raft, if i’d had somebody else, at least one of us would have died, because I didn’t have enough water for two people.

Scut: What would you do differently (or have you done differently), knowing what you know now about an Atlantic crossing; a larger or different boat design?

SC: I’m not sure if I would do that much different —

Scut: That’s what I had hoped to hear.

SC: I think that maybe now I’ve become a little bit more conservative and I think that Solo was maybe built a little light…but otherwise, not much, it’s sort of the same approach. When you’re going out there, you realize you’re completely alone, and you’re vulnerable and you can die. That’s part of it. Why do you go anyway?

A storm at sea can be incredibly terrifying, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Even if you’re not enjoying the moment, there are parts of it that you can really appreciate. As hard as it is, we can gain from these experiences. I certainly did.

Scut: Do you have any more seaborne adventures on the horizon?

SC: I don’t know yet. But, both [my wife] Kathy and I would like to do another offshore trip.

Scut: If you had to recommend one book about the sea, which would it be?

SC: Whom the Sea Has Taken, by William Willis who was very big into raft voyages in the 50s. This guy William Willis was a real old sea dog and ended up disappearing at sea. At age 65, he built this raft called Age Unlimited that he sailed across the Pacific.

But then again, I think overall, the thing that captured my heart the most is Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way, about his singlehanded, round-the-world voyage during the 1964 Golden Globe Race, which spawned a huge number of fantastic stories. He set off in this 40-foot steel boat. He is an oceanic mystic, there’s just no two ways around it. He grew up in Vietnam sailing junks and all this kind of stuff, and had a very unusual life. During this race, he got so into the ocean and so into feeling at home there, that there’s this romanticism that is just fantastic. He started going back to England. He’d rounded Cape Horn and was starting the final leg, and just couldn’t handle it — the whole ideal of it. So, he turned around, went back around the Cape of Good Hope, and went on to Tahiti. So he went one and a half times around the world. His book is fantastic, as far as I’m concerned.

You told me that you romanticized a lot about being in the raft when you were reading Adrift; I get exactly the same thing with everybody I read when I was a kid. I loved Robinson Crusoe which was based on a real life character, Alexandre Selkirk. I had quite a decent collection of ocean survival books written by the Baileys (117 Days Adrift at Sea), and the Robertsons — Dougal Robertson wrote the survival book I had and I read Survive the Savage Sea, which is a real classic. Having read those, and having put myself in those situations — mind game-wise — helped me to be prepared for my journey. Look at the third world — or two-thirds world — where people live really challenging lives everyday, and somehow they don’t complain, they just get on with it. That’s inspirational, and it’s a really important of survival when you’re in that situation.

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Callahan was called on by Director Ang Lee to bring a sense of reality to life ‘adrift’ in his adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Photo: Callahan and Suraj Sharma on the set of Life of PiCredit: Peter Sorel, Courtesy of Fox Entertainment.

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Photo courtesy of Steven Callahan.

Steven Callahan resides in Maine with his wife Kathy, where he still designs ships and offers consultation services. Since surviving and writing Adrift, he’s built and sailed several other boats of wildly varying designs, and continues to write and edit for Cruising World and a number of other sailing publications.

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