This Man Survived a Shipwreck and 76 Days Alone in the Ocean
All Steven Callahan had was a lifeboat and some basic gear
When Steven Callahan looked up at the stars, he thought he was watching heaven from a seat in hell.
He’d been drifting on a life-raft for weeks, alone like a wolf cast away from his pack. Every day, seawater burned his skin and sunlight dried up the few drops of sweat that broke out of his body. But his physical pain was nothing compared to what was going on inside his head.
Callahan would often think back to his divorce, failed career, and dead friendships. His memories often jumped back and forth until he’d drift to sleep with the same thought dancing between his ears:
If he wanted to fix his broken life, he had to survive this journey — a journey he’d started when he was just a kid.
A childhood dream turned into a deadly nightmare
Boats had always been part of Callahan’s life. When he was 12, he dreamed of crossing the Atlantic. By 20 he learned to design and build small ships. Nine years later, Callahan was ready for his dream sail.
He built Napoleon Solo, a 6.50 meter (21 feet) yacht, and took part in a race across the Atlantic ocean. The first part of the voyage happened in late 1981 and went just fine until Lady Weather got angry and damaged several boats of the fleet, including Napoleon Solo.
Callahan dropped out of the official event and stopped for repairs. The race was over, but not his journey. He wanted to keep running from his failures, and so he hit the sea again. “My life was going down the tubes,” Callahan said. “I basically built this boat as an escape machine.”
Eight days into his independent return voyage across the Atlantic, Callahan encountered a storm but didn’t worry much about it. He’d survived worse. After securing the boat, he went to sleep, but shortly after 11 p.m, he woke up to a bang.
Callahan stood up at once, with water was up to his waist and questions flooding his mind. Was it a large shark or a whale? Will the watertight compartments keep Napoleon Solo from sinking? Before he could answer his own questions, Callahan snapped into survival mode.
He immediately prepared the life-raft. While it floated over the deck of the sinking ship, Callahan held his breath and dove to salvage what he could.
“I remember the water below seemed so peaceful compared with the sea raging outside,” he said. “It felt like entering a watery tomb.”
Before Napoleon Solo disappeared into the darkness, Callahan managed to grab a speargun, some freshwater, a sleeping bag, a cushion, and some food. Good start for a man who was about to share a long dance with death.
Day one. Callahan was 450 away from the coast had left a week before, but the wind pushed his raft in the opposite direction.
At the time, the young man had no idea his next stop was 1,800 miles away.
Adrift for 76 days
Callahan knew if he wanted to survive for more than two weeks, he had to learn two things: speargun fishing and making freshwater. Lacking the latter had killed many ocean people but luckily for our hero, the raft included three water stills.
The catch? The stills were an early World War II prototype and had no instructions on them. Callahan had to break one open and reverse-engineer it to understand how it worked.
Soon he started to harness just over a pint of fresh water on sunny days. You’d think it’s great news until you realize humans need four to five pints a day to preserve their health. You need even more when surrounded by salty water and burning sunlight. Still, Callahan fought his thirst and drunk less than he produced. He also saved three cans of water in case the stills would break.
Enter the food problem.
Fishing with a speargun took Callahan 13 days to master. When he caught his first triggerfish, there were tears rolled down his dry cheeks. Was it joy or self-pity? Either way, he’d just bought himself a few more days.
The following day brought another breakthrough. Callahan saw a ship, and as his face beamed with excitement, he fired a flare and waited.
“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,” Callahan said. “After a month at sea, I’d drifted right through the shipping lanes.”
What came next were the tropical waters. Hotter and hardly crowded. What choice did he have?
On day 43, Callahan almost sunk again, and again it was because of a sea creature. He was finishing when a dorado fish damaged his spear and sliced a hole into his raft. He spent the following week using a pump to keep himself afloat and by the end of that week, he broke down.
That was it.
He’d fought but now he was exhausted.
It was time to join Napoleon Solo.
Then the fear of death struck Callahan like lightning and took over his body. He checked his gear another time and made a patch to cover the hole in his raft. He inflated, it held. Once again, he kept going.
“The next phase was just hanging on to life, really, looking at my watch, watching the minutes drag by,” Callahan said. “I had three cans of water left. My body and mind were shutting down; it was as if I could feel all the people who had ever been lost at sea around me. I had no more to give.”
Then came day 76. Three fishermen from Marie Galante, a small island in Guadeloupe, saw birds hovering over a particular spot not so far from shore. They thought it was fish and as they got close, they saw a tiny raft and a man in it.
During his deadly drift, Callahan lost a third of his weight and the ability to walk properly. Still, when he finally reached the hospital, they let him go within hours.
What he needed most was food, a shower, and a night of sleep on solid ground. For the first time in two and half months, he could close his eyes without worrying about every single decision he’d have to make the next day.
Six weeks later, Callahan was back in the U.S. He could walk by then and spent another six months rebuilding all the muscle tissue his body had sacrificed. In the meantime, he reconnected with his friend Kathy and they started to date.
“I didn’t have clothes to start with. We started to live together to share the $125 a month farmhouse,” Callahan said. “[We] got married in 1994, [been] together since 1982. She’s my best mate, sailing partner, partner in life.”
After romance, finances also took off. Every media outlet wanted a piece of Callahan’s story, filmmakers sought his advice, and agents suggested he write a book — which he did four years later.
Callahan’s Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, came out in 1986 and dominated the New York Times best-selling list for 36 weeks.
Steven Callahan had a hell of an adventure, and he did more than survive it.
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