A View Of Heaven From A Seat In Hell

A new documentary is being made about a solo sailor’s 76-day ordeal on a liferaft. Steven Callahan recalls the horror to Dick Durham.

You’re alone, at night, there’s a gale blowing, you are 800 miles from dry land and your boat is sinking. Does a reporter really have to ask you how you feel?

I do, and Steven Callahan answers:

“Part of me was freaking out saying, ‘You’re gonna die, You’re gonna die’, but we are multi-dimensional animals and another part of me was amused as I had a camera set up taking dramatic pictures. I put fear aside and focused on practicalities.”

It was 29th January 1984 and Steven was seven days out from Tenerife on passage to the Caribbean in his 21ft cold-moulded, home built sloop, Napoleon Solo, when he hit what he believed was a whale.

He had time to deploy his six-man liferaft, Rubber Ducky III, made of circular rubber tubes 5ft 6ins in diameter and draped with a canopy.

Today, at his home in Maine, USA, Steven has taken time off from advising a new documentary of his ordeal, to talk to Ocean Sailor.

Looking back on his 76 days of hell drifting across the Atlantic, Steven, now 69, says: “The initial impact was bad. Your whole, old world has gone, you are completely disorientated. There is no room for denial in a situation like that, you have to come to grips with what is real and grasp the exact nature of the problem.”

And that is exactly what he did, concentrating on deploying a sea anchor to stop the raft capsizing in the heavy breaking seas. After two days he noticed two small holes in the flexing floor which he believed he made by sitting on his clasp knife when he first tumbled in. His black humour was put to the test again when the patching instructions advised ‘the repair must be dry’.

“I had always been an extremely persistent person when something failed. I would look at things even when they hadn’t failed and ask myself where was the weakest point?”

Steven’s youthful life as a wild camper and mountain climber had given him stamina and grit, while his later years’ training as a naval architect had ensured his capability in building Napoleon Solo, which he’d sailed across the Atlantic alone for the 1981 Mini-Transat Race.

So, Steven used his cigarette lighter to dry the pinched together tears before applying glue, patches and even Band-Aids.

He ripped up a useless chart of the Indian Ocean, screwed it into balls and tossed them into the sea, measuring the time they took to drift away and deducing that, with the current, he was making 17 miles westing a day. This, he reckoned, meant 22 days to reach the shipping lanes by which time his eight pints of freshwater would be gone. So, he hauled in the sea anchor to increase his drift speed.

On Day 14 he spotted a ship, but alas she did not spot his flare. A day later another ship passed by without seeing him either. He reckoned he had reached the shipping lanes, but to no purpose.

He passed through them and by Day 40 realised, with grim humour, that this was the day his liferaft’s guarantee ran out.

Forty-three days out, disaster struck when a dorado fish fought Steven’s spear gun, snapping off the head of the spear and ripping a hole in the lower liferaft tube with the barb.

With just three inches of freeboard, Steven rolled the edges of the four-inch tear together and tied it up into a puckered mouth with twine. He then reinflated the raft bringing the hole up out of the water, but 15 minutes later it had deflated again. For the next two days, Steven battled to apply a more effective tourniquet, as sharks glided by noting his closer proximity to their world. Over the next eight days, three more times the patch failed and three more times Steven fixed it.

“My wife, Kathy, later said they should make a new James Bond film about my journey called ‘Exceedingly Difficult To Kill’.”

Funny as that now is, at the time, Steven became exceedingly depressed.

“The low point was at Day 50. I came very, very close to giving up and dying. I was an incredible wreck. I went through all the bad decisions I had made in my life. I beat myself up for being terrible at relationships, terrible at business, but at my lowest ebb I fought back mentally and I decided to make a last-ditch attempt at survival.”

Still, he had to live, still, he had to fight, still, his battle against all the odds kept him distracted from despair.

Using two pencils as a makeshift ‘sextant’ he worked out a rough latitude from the horizon and the Pole Star.

I had a view of heaven from a seat in hell,” Steven told me.

After 61 days he drifted into a mulch of trash: plastic bottles, gobbets of tar and a discarded fishing net within which were tiny crabs and shrimps which he ate by the mouthful.

As the colour of the ocean water became lighter, Callahan knew he was getting closer to shallow water. His 1,800 mile drift ended when a fishing boat off Guadeloupe picked him up after 76 days afloat.

Re-assessing his ordeal, Steven told Ocean Sailor that the important lesson to learn in such a situation is to have an idea of an overall goal, but to focus only on the small steps which will add up to it.

“Never imagine how long it will take, or assess how far it is you must go, just concentrate on the minute, then the hour.”

As we talk, I mention that Steven’s philosophy is rather like the Wimbledon final that my wife is watching on TV.

Steven, who has lectured on survival techniques and psychology to the US Naval Academy and the New York Yacht Club, said “There is a huge similarity between survival and sport. With Zen-like wisdom of insecurity, you deal with it piecemeal. When you are in the ‘zone’ or groove you are totally focused on the now. I learned so much more about myself.”

Steven, who has worked as a consultant on blockbuster survival films, both of fiction and fact, such as The Life of Pi and In the Heart of the Sea, said: “I can’t recall one survivor who thought they could make it at the beginning of their experience, nor a single survivor who has ever regretted his ordeal. We all learned that we were a lot stronger and more resilient than we ever thought.”

David Wilkinson, the first sailor to buy a Kraken 50, discovered the same strength during his voyage aboard the Bligh Bounty Boat, a recreation of the 18th Century voyage of William Bligh aboard his 23ft launch with 17 castaways across 4,254 miles of Pacific Ocean from Tofua, in the Friendly Islands to Timor, in the East Indies. We interviewed David about his remarkable ordeal in the July 2020 edition of Ocean Sailor (Click here to read the article).

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