Decades ago during the late ’70s, Steven Callahan’s life was falling apart; he and his wife were separating, and he was disenchanted with society, so he decided to build a boat. He named it the Napoleon Solo, and it was his escape machine.
Wanting to fulfill his childhood dreams, he decided to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1981. At 29, Callahan was an accomplished sailor, and he made it across without problems. It was exhilarating.
Then, the nightmare began.
On the return trip, there was a heavy storm, but Callahan wasn’t too concerned.
Then something large—he assumes a whale or shark—slammed into his boat and left a gaping hole.
He woke up covered in water. The boat was sinking fast.
“I felt an odd mixture of sensations: fear, panic, even slight amusement at the fact that there was a camera attached to the back of the boat taking these dramatic shots of the storm, and my sinking boat, that no one would ever see,” he wrote.
He thought, “This is it, I’m going to die.” Then he suddenly snapped into autopilot.
He swam through the lower level of his sinking vessel to grab some essentials—food, water, flares, a spear gun—and it felt like entering a watery tomb. After clambering out, he threw himself onto an inflatable rubber raft tethered to the boat.
He was all alone, in the middle of the ocean. At the time, Callahan was about 800 miles west of the Canary Islands, but unfortunately, he was headed in the opposite direction. He estimated he had enough food and water for a few days.
All he could do was wait for rescue and wallow in regret over every failing of his life.
“I desperately wanted to get through it so I could make a better job of my life,” he wrote.
A few days turned into two weeks, and then he saw a ship. He lit a flare, but the ship ignored him. Weeks turned into a month, and he drifted into hotter climates. He was constantly hungry and tired. Ships passed, but none close enough to notice him. He had to learn “to live like an aquatic caveman.”
Callahan quickly saw firsthand that anything that floats in the ocean would develop its own ecology. Fish would gather around him, and weeds and barnacles would grow. He felt spiritually connected and became quite attached to the fish that surrounded him.
To him, they “were kind of symbolic of the magic and mystery of life and the sea.”
They kept him company, they fed him, but they also nearly killed him, at one point putting a hole in the bottom of his raft. That spear gun came in handy.
“Life is profound that way,” he said.
Time kept passing, and by day 43, part of his raft had ripped and Callahan was struggling to keep it afloat with the help of a pump. Sharks were circling.
He was terrified and had practically given up. “I broke down and bawled like a baby,” he said. He struggled, barely keeping afloat, and by day 50 he managed to stabilize the raft.
“It felt like the biggest victory of my life.” So he clung to it. His 30th birthday and come and gone while he was stranded on the raft.
The next few days, he just drifted about. “My body and mind were shutting down.”
Another month passed. By day 74, Callahan saw lights off in the distance. The next day, fishermen were approaching.
Callahan would routinely throw fish guts back into the water, and some days this would attract bigger fish, or birds. The fishermen noticed the birds from a distance, and, thinking they were hunting a big school of fish right there, began to approach.
Instead, they found Callahan—malnourished and down 40 pounds, exhausted and haggard, but clinging to survival. He patiently waited for rescue as the fishermen hauled in their fish first.
That evening, he was taken to the hospital, and spent a week there recovering. A few years later, he wrote about the staggering ordeal in a memoir, “Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea.”
Callahan doesn’t carry this experience around like a burden.
“My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most important kind,” he said.
“I value each moment that is not spent in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst or loneliness.”
Years later, when director Ang Lee started working on the film “Life of Pi,” he asked Callahan to come on as a consultant.
“I didn’t see a trace of the traumatic,” Lee told Express. “All I see is courage. He can make even the most painful experience sound interesting and serene.”