When veteran sailor Steven Callahan first set out to sail across the Atlantic Ocean by himself, he figured that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
He would sail from Newport, Connecticut all the way to England and then make his way to the South, past Spain, a seemingly fairly easy trek for a navigator like himself. But his return trip home would prove to be a challenge of an entirely different sort. Steven’s next 76 days would become an adventure of a lifetime, and one rarely seen outside of storybooks…
Steven Callahan is what one would consider a true Renaissance Man. Born in 1952, Callahan grew up around boats. Steven and his brothers began building small barges out of roofing tar and old roofing boards from the age of 10. By 12, the bold young boatman was sailing out of sight of land. And by the time he graduated high school he had helped build a 40-foot boat.
Though Steven Callahan had spent much of his 60 years “messing about in boats”, he’s also dedicated a fair amount of his time to the pursuit of knowledge. He holds a university degree in philosophy. He’s also a writer who has spent countless hours writing about his favorite subject, you guessed it: boats…
Since the 1980s, Steven has written widely for the yachting press, has edited for Sail and Sailor magazines and authored a book about the story of four men who drifted for four months on an overturned, half-flooded boat. And if that sounds like irony to you, then congratulations, you know exactly what that word means.
Steven is an inventor that holds three U.S. patents on a number of nautical accouterments, including lifeboats. His own yacht, the Napoleon Solo was actually equipped with a number of these survival devices when he first set sail out of Newport, Rhode Island in 1981. Little did he know how important those few, life-saving devices would prove to be….
The Napoleon Solo, a 21.3-foot sloop he designed and built himself, was meant to take Steven Callahan on a one-man journey through the seven seas. He sailed the boat single-handedly to Bermuda and then continued the voyage to England with his friend Chris Latchem. Once he left Cornwall, England, he decided to take part in a sailing race.
The Mini Transat 6.50 single-handed race, sent a number of vessels sailing from Penzance, England to Antigua. Unfortunately, bad weather had decided to follow the racers and sank several boats. With little alternatives, Steven dropped out in La Coruña, Spain, made repairs, and continued sailing through Spain and Portugal, and eventually to the Canary Islands…
On January 29, 1982, Callahan departed from the island of El Hierro in the Canary Islands and sailed out, headed back to Antigua on his own. Seven days out at sea, a storm began to brew. Then, during a night storm, Callahan’s sloop struck something huge and solid. Before long, it began taking on water.
Hitting a Whale
Though he wasn’t sure, Callahan assumed he’d actually hit a whale during the storm. His vessel had become swamped. Thankfully, he had a few self-designed watertight compartments on the boat, which prevented it from sinking outright. Even so, he was now stuck out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean…
Steven was now completely unable to stay about his beloved Napoleon Solo. The waves were breaking all around the slowly sinking boat. It was time to find another option. All he had left was an inflatable six person life raft, which measured about six feet across. It wasn’t much, but it’d have to do for now.
Back and Forth
He still had to go back and get a few pieces of survival equipment from the other boat. Unfortunately, the middle of the Atlantic also happens to be the perfect place for sharks. Braving the perilous waters, Steven swam over to the yacht to retrieve a piece of cushion, a sleeping bag, and an emergency kit which included a very informative survival manual…
He was also able to retrieve a meager supply of food, navigation charts, a short spear gun, flares, a torch, and solar stills so he could create a rain catch for drinking water. The book he brought was called Sea Survival, a manual written by Dougal Robertson, who had also survived being alone on the ocean at one time.
Rations Run Out
As it turned out, Steven’s forethought at recovering his yacht’s supplies had been well-placed. Before dawn on the following day, a big breaking sea separated his life raft from the sinking Napoleon Solo. Steven drifted south on the Equatorial current, but he was already running out of food…
An Aquatic Caveman
Luckily, Steven was a fairly accomplished fisherman. Nevertheless, it is not easy to fish on the open ocean from a small dinghy. Callahan survived by “learning to live like an aquatic caveman” by eating primarily mahi-mahi, triggerfish, flying fish, barnacles, and even the occasional curious seabird.
Steven collected drinking water from the two solar stills he’d recovered from his former sloop. Though it only collected about a pint of water a day, it was enough to sustain him. He survived the blaring sun, increasing dehydration, and the almost constant interactions with hungry sharks swimming below his raft…
Though he used a mixture of EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and many flares, Callahan was unable to find anyone to rescue him. Planes rarely flew over his part of the ocean and none of the ships that sailed past his small vessel in the distance. Seven times he sent flares up, and seven times, he failed to be seen.
Count on Yourself
It was at this point that Steven knew he could no longer hope for anyone to rescue him. The only person he could rely on was himself. He kept himself busy by exercising often, prioritizing problems, making repairs, and finding food and water. But one day, when he’d almost given up, he saw some lights in the distance…
On April 20, 1982, he spotted lights on a nearby island. He realized that it was the island of Marie Galante, southeast of Guadeloupe. He was picked up the very next day by a group of fisherman that had been drawn to the raft by the clutch of birds floating above it. He had been at sea, by himself for 76 days.
The Man He Was
When it was all said and done, Steven had lost a third of his weight and had suffered loneliness and life-threatening danger for an almost unbearable amount of time. Yet, Steven Callahan had learned some valuable lessons and had experienced a world that few people have seen and lived to tell the talk about…
About the Experience
When he had finally come home and settled back into private life, Steven ended up writing a memoir of the experience which he called Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, which became a New York Times Best-Seller. His story was also featured on an episode of the television show I Shouldn’t Be Alive.
Steven was even asked to come aboard for the making of the 2012 movie, Life of Pi, which is about a young boy who gets shipwrecked and survives alone in a small life raft with an adult Bengal tiger. Callahan helped to design many of the sets and helped the lead actor to get into the right mindset for the film.