Adrift: Forty years after seventy-six days lost at sea


The story of Steven Callahan who miraculously survived 76 days adrift, without food or water supplies, inspired many. Callahan’s entire ordeal is well documented and over the past few decades has become a reference point for survival training, films, books, and documentaries.

When Steven Callahan left Maine in January 1981 on Napoleon Solo, a 6.5-meter sloop he personally designed and built for the Mini Transat 6.50: a solo yacht race across the Atlantic, he was planning to fulfil a childhood dream and thought he had prepared for all contingencies. 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. Napoleon Solo 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.

Callahan was 29 when he started what he later described as an “exhilarating crossing” of the Atlantic and made it safely across the sea. His epic journey began from Newport, Rhode Island in 1981 in his small 21.3-foot boat which then sailed to Bermuda. And then to England which he safely reached. Callahan then left the famous British port of Cornwall for Antigua. Unfortunately, a wave of bad weather damaged Napoleon Solo quite badly. After a brief stop during which Callahan started repairing his boat, he decided to continue his journey through Spain and Portugal out of Madeira and the Canaries. After stopping at the Canneries, Napoleon Solo departed for Antigua on January 29, 1982. After a week into its voyage, Callahan’s boat collided with an unknown object which was most likely a giant whale. The collision caused major damage to the boat structure. Callahan was forced to evacuate to a life raft and spent the next 76 days lost at sea, an ordeal he described in greater detail in his book Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea.

Callahan had to abandon the main boat and leave it to sink after escaping to the life raft. 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. This decision to prepare for the worst contributed greatly to saving Callahan’s life. He survived on the little life raft, without enough food and water 800 miles west of the Canaries in the middle of the Atlantic with no direction.

Even though he was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, oddly, Callahan managed to handle things quite calmly. He realized that panic would only make things worse. The first thing he decided to do was make sure he developed some kind of mechanism to get water and food. At first, he had to disassemble the diesel just to learn the whole mechanism of how it works. He then collected drinking water from the sun’s remaining remnants and used another device to collect the water, together they produced enough water for him to survive a day. The next big challenge was to feed himself which Callahan achieved with remarkable success due to his determination and willpower. He managed to catch fish for food, but occasionally hunted birds with his spear gun. With no way of cooking prey in a small inflatable boat, he had to eat it raw, not particularly appetizing but ultimately helping save his life. After nearly 14 days in the middle of nowhere and with extremely limited food and water supplies, Callahan managed to find a passing ship. This was a ray of hope for him, and he quickly used his flare gun to attract the attention of the flight crew. Unfortunately, he failed to do so, and the ship just sailed away without noticing him. This made Callahan even more desperate and at one point he almost gave up on life. After more than a month had passed, Callahan wrecked his boat quietly while trying to fish for his meal, the entire side of the boat completely torn off. For the next ten days, he spent days and nights struggling to keep the fragile raft afloat and finally managed to fix the problem. On day 74, Callahan had only three cans of drinking water left, and any hope of survival was slowly fading before his eyes.

On the 75th night with almost no food and water, Callahan saw the lights on the island of Galante, which lies southeast of Guadeloupe. This brought all his hopes back and gave him courage again, the fishing group the next morning saw the poor man and rescued him to the island. After spending 76 days in the Atlantic, Callahan was eventually rescued but Callahan’s life since being adrift at sea has been a mix of highs and even more life-threatening challenges. It took about eight months for Callahan to fully get back on his feet after being found by three fishermen in the Caribbean.

In addition to authoring his book Adrift and articles about safety at sea, Callahan served as a technical consultant to director Ang Lee on the movie Life of Pi, about a survivor’s story at sea. Forty years after the rescue, Callahan has no regrets about making the journey. “Anything worth doing is not going to be easy. While we all want to have fun in our lives, fulfilment is what we all are really after. I still do not regret my 76 days alone in the raft. To this day, I feel enlightened by what I went through because it changed me for the better.”

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