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Survival / August 4, 2017

Cast away for 76 days

Written by: Stacey McKenna

On the night of February 4, 1982, Steven Callahan and his boat, Napoleon Solo, sloshed about in a storm that rocked the Atlantic. As waves tossed the craft, he battened down and anticipated fighting the tumultuous sea for days. Having secured all he could, he tucked in below decks to get some rest.

Shortly past 11:00 p.m. GMT, an explosion—probably, but not certainly, caused by collision with a whale—tore through the vessel, opening it to the surging ocean. Within seconds, Callahan leapt to his feet to find himself standing in waist-deep water. His boat was sinking.

Callahan battled morbid thoughts as he fumbled with his 100-pound life-raft canister. He was 450 miles from the nearest land mass, but winds and currents made that trip an impossibility. He would instead have to continue the 1,800 miles to his destination.

When his raft inflated, he loaded it with gear, floated it off the deck (now partially submerged), and dove after it. For the next 76 days, Callahan would make that raft home as it carried him across a mostly untraveled stretch of the Atlantic toward the Caribbean.

Callahan, second from left, with the three fishermen who rescued him. Photo courtesy Steven Callahan (www.stevencallahan.net).

Many years after his rescue, Callahan tests a life raft similar the one he used in his ordeal. Photo courtesy Steven Callahan (www.stevencallahan.net).

The Napoleon Solo

Callahan designed and built the Napoleon Solo for the Mini Transat 6.50: a solo yacht race across the Atlantic. In 1982, the year of his crash that race went from Newport, Wales to Bermuda. But his dream for the boat had as much to do with seeking a different way to live as with cutting the fastest track through the ocean.

“I’d always wanted to go across the ocean in a simple boat,” said Callahan. “Boats are the greatest tool to access the world’s greatest wilderness. I was attracted to the whole idea of being able to access the whole world without many resources [so I] built Napoleon Solo not as a race boat, but as a dwelling. My life was going down the tubes. I basically built this boat as an escape machine.”

She was a solid boat, and had held up to a full season of “shakedown” cruises in preparation for the race. A little over 21 feet long and just eight feet wide, Napoleon Solo was the marine equivalent of a dedicated dirtbag’s minivan. She was simple but comfortable (more so sitting than standing), and equipped with a chart table, kitchen, bed, and shorthanded sails that allowed Callahan to control almost the entire boat from the inside. Callahan also added watertight compartments to the boat’s forward.

He had dropped out of the race and was eight days into an independent Atlantic passage when the Napoleon Solo collided with (Callahan thinks) a whale. When that happened, the boat’s compartments weren’t enough to keep it afloat. But they gave Callahan time to salvage some much-needed supplies.

Solar stills like this one use the sun's heat to evaporate (and thus distill) saltwater. Photo courtesy of landfallnavigation.com.

A single spear gun likely saved Callahan from starvation. Pictured here is the Alpnea Whaler Roller gun.

Before his ship sunk completely, Callahan was able to make a few trips back for gear. First, he brought the knife he held between his teeth when he first bailed from the ship and a “ditch bag” with water and some basic gear. Then he grabbed a sleeping bag, and a cushion. He gathered the food that floated to the surface from the cabin: a box of eggs and a single cabbage.

The raft’s equipment bag was stocked with water, paddles, flares, sponges, a radar reflector, two solar stills, a first aid kit, a collapsible rubber basin, a 100-foot heaving line, charting tools, a flashlight, two signal mirrors, a raft patching kit, two can openers, seasickness pills, fifty feet of twine, and a single fishing hook.

His own emergency bag brimmed with more practical equipment, including a spear gun that would allow him to catch the dorados that would sustain his body and, on some level, his soul.

One day at a time

Callahan adapted quickly to life aboard his little raft. “Early on, I tried to adopt the attitude that this wasn’t the end of the voyage, but continued on a humbler craft,” he said. This humbler craft was made of reinforced black rubber, glued together, and, though intended to fit six adults, measured just five and a half feet in diameter on the inside. Callahan could barely sit up beneath the canopy’s highest point.

Still, Callahan maintained his optimism.“One of the most successful strategies for chronic longer term events is to normalize life as much as possible, to cling on to whatever routines one can. A lot of things change [in survival situations], so for me, it was, ok, I can get up, I keep a log, I start navigating. I started prioritizing for basic needs: food, water, shelter, all those kinds of things. So for me, keeping a log was a really important thing. And I had these little pads of paper that I’d pull out when it was dry enough, and I made some little sketches.”

When he boarded the raft, Callahan had enough food and water to sustain him for 14 days if carefully rationed. With some luck, and calm enough waters to pull his sea anchor, that would be long enough to reach the shipping lanes and a remote chance of rescue. Just a few days in though, he found that these rations left him weak and fatigued. Meeting basic needs soon became a daily, sometimes hourly, struggle as solar stills failed to transform seawater to fresh and speedy fish teased him but refused to succumb to his spear.

On day 13, he caught a trigger fish—colorful, armored, bitter fleshed—and wept. When he reached the shipping lanes, no rescue came. His journey would have to continue to the Caribbean.

The beautiful triggerfish is seldom eaten by fishermen because its tough skin makes it difficult to fillet.

Known in Hawaii as Mahi-Mahi, the Dorado is among the Atlantic's most highly-sought fish.

Eventually, Callahan developed some aptitude for fishing and for making water from his solar still. But the sense of mourning and gratitude he felt with that first catch never dissipated.

“To me, killing the fish was killing these incredibly spiritual creatures. They were sharing their flesh with mine. I didn’t really want to have to kill them any more than someone would want to kill their cat or dog,” he said. “We don’t have to think about that dichotomy in normal life. I’d always been an outdoorsy guy, connected to nature, so it wasn’t a surprise. But it was broadened. [It] gave me an awakening about other cultures that are really tied to nature. [It] brought that alive, and I think it would to anybody who was in that situation.”

Rock Bottom

The thing about edge-of-death situations, Callahan says, is that, “[You] have to make the decision [to survive] on an ongoing basis. You lose a piece of gear, you make a dumbass decision. Anything can kill you.”

Two-thirds of the way into life on the raft, Callahan found himself in a state of despair. He struggled to keep choosing to go on as everything around him seemed to fall further apart. “The lowest point for me was roughly on day 50,” he says. A week prior, on day 43, his catch—an particularly strong dorado—broke his fishing spear and sliced a hole into the raft’s lower airtight compartment. The compartment that kept Callahan’s body and supplies, including his solar stills, out of the water.

“After trying to effect a repair for a week… I’d lost a third of my weight, [I was] dehydrated, and on top of that [I had] all this work load. Not being able to fish properly, not being able to produce water properly, it was a depressing time. I really did lie down and think about giving up for a while, but decided no, and I went through my gear and made it work,” he says.

After a week of trial and error, he devised a patch and re-inflated the raft. It held. He kept going.

You won't find Marie-Galante on the cruise ship circuit---the fishing island is largely unvisited by tourists. Photo courtesy Steven Callahan (www.stevencallahan.net).

Callahan and his raft at the end of their journey on the beach of Marie-Galante. Photo courtesy Steven Callahan (www.stevencallahan.net).

More than three weeks later, after 76 days adrift, Callahan and his raft approached the eastern side of the Caribbean island of Marie-Galante. There, he was found by a trio of fishermen and a boat called Clemence.

“[Marie-Galante is] a sleepy little island, not a tourist island,” said Callahan. “But once I got ashore, word got out. There was a man [there] who adopted me, we were kind of soul brothers. [He was] into CB radio, talked to a friend in Guadeloupe, who put it out on the radio. It got to my parents within a few hours.”

Callahan left Marie-Galante by boat, catching a ride Guadeloupe, and then flights to St. Croix and the United States. It took him about six weeks to get back on his feet, and six months to begin rebuilding his lost muscle. But the experience had shown him he was stronger than he knew. Within a year, he completed a similar single handed sailing race to Bermuda.

Back in Maine, Callahan re-connected with an old friend, Kathy Massimini. “Neither of us had anything. We had these rusted out vehicles. I didn’t have clothes to start with. We started to live together to share the $125 a month farmhouse. [We] got married in 1994, [been] together since 1982. She’s my best mate, sailing partner, partner in life,” he says.

In 2012, Callahan was diagnosed with myeloid Leukemia, and though this year marks his fifth in remission, a range of intermittent health issues have kept him off the water since then. Next year, though, he plans to take sail with Kathy once more.

“[We] bought a new boat, a camp cruiser,” says Callahan. “[I’m] going full circle to my early sailing years. [We] live on the coast of Maine and there are these gorgeous waters and islands. It’s how I fell in love with Maine. In a very small boat. After doing offshore sailing for 40 years or so, I’m hoping to get into the coastal waters again.”

 

Do you have any questions or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected]

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about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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