Steven Callahan was born in 1952 in Unionville, Pennsylvania. He spent most of his life involved with everything to do with ships, sailing and the ocean. A naval architect, inventor, and sailor, Steven also authored several books and contributed to publications such as Sail and Sailor magazines.
START OF THE JOURNEY
In 1981 Callahan left Newport, Rhode Island on a 21.3-foot sailing boat known as sloop. It was named Napoleon Solo and Callahan was the designed and builder of this ship. He also single-handedly sailed it to Bermuda, and then continued the voyage to England. In the fall of that year he left England and headed for Antigua as part of the Mini Transat single-handed sailing race. He did not finish the race and dropped out near La Coruña, Spain. Bad weather had sunk several boats in the fleet and damaged many others. Napoleon Solo also sustained damage but Callahan made repairs and then continued down the coast of Spain, Portugal and then out to Madeira and the Canaries. He departed El Hierro in the Canary Islands on January 29, 1982, and carried on to Antigua. There he encountered a storm which grew into a gale seven days out. During the storm, Napoleon Solo sustained heavy damage as a result of an impact by an unknown object. The ship began taking on water but did not sink outright due to watertight compartments Callahan had designed into it.
Unable to stay aboard Napoleon Solo as it filled with water and slowly became overwhelmed by breaking seas, Callahan escaped into an inflatable raft, measuring about six feet across. During the evacuation process, he managed to 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.
The raft drifted westward with the South Equatorial Current and the prevailing pattern of easterly winds known as trade winds. It didn’t take long for Callahan to exhaust the small food supply he salvaged from the sinking sloop. Once it was gone, he survived by living like an “aquatic caveman.” Using his spear gun he fished for and ate mainly mahi-mahi and triggerfish, along with flying fish, barnacles, and birds that he captured. Steven lost one third of his weight during his ordeal which indicates that food was scarce and had he not taken at least his harpoon his situation might have been much worse.
His raft became a part of an ecosystem that evolved around him 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. His system produced approximately one pint of water per day.
Callahan also had an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRBs) and many flares. None of this equipment however triggered a rescue. EPIRBs were not monitored by satellites at the time, and he was stranded in a too isolated a part of the ocean to be heard by aircraft. While adrift, he spotted nine ships. He saw most of them in the two sea lanes he crossed but his flares were not acknowledged.
Callahan realized that he could not rely on getting rescued but instead must, for an undetermined time, depend only upon himself. This led him to maintain a shipboard routine for survival. He exercised, navigated, prioritized problems, made repairs, fished, and improved systems, as well as built food and water stocks for further emergencies. Essentially, he exercised a survival skill of keeping the mind focused on tasks producing positive results. This prevented him from concentrating on the possibility of his demise which could spiral into a depression increasing his chances of death.
END OF THE ORDEAL
On the eve of April 20, 1982,, he spotted lights on the island of Marie Galante, south-east of Guadeloupe. The next day, on Callahan’s 76th day afloat in the raft, he was picked up by fishermen just offshore. They spotted the birds hovering over the raft that were attracted by the ecosystem that had developed around it.
During his journey, he faced sharks, raft punctures, equipment and physical deterioration as well as mental stress. Being covered with sores resulting from excessive contact with saltwater he was taken to a local hospital for an afternoon. He left the hospital that evening however, and spent the following weeks recovering on the island. Eventually he began hitchhiking on boats up through the West Indies.
Callahan recounted his ordeal in the best-selling book Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea (1986).
There is no doubt that having some equipment not only improved Callahan’s chances of survival but definitely saved his life. But there is no doubt that it was his attitude that was the winning ingredient. No matter how prepared he might have been to face a disaster, none of it would have mattered had he panicked when evacuating the Napoleon Solo, or if he had given up hope on the life raft.
Today, Steven Callahan is a perfect example of human capability when paired up with some basic equipment and the will to carry on.
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