Lost at Sea! | Yankee Classic

The incredible story of Steven Callahan of Ellsworth, Maine, the only man in history to have survived more than a month alone and adrift in an inflatable life raft.

By Yankee Magazine

Jun 18 2020

Originally published in Yankee in January 1986.On January 29, 1982, Steven Callahan, a boatbuilder and sailor from Maine, left the Canary Islands in his 22-foot sloop Napoleon Solo, bound for Antigua. For six days the sailing was perfect. But on February 4 a gale blew up, beginning one of the greatest adventures in the history of sailing. The following account was excerpted from Callahan’s book Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, published by Houghton Mifflin.It is about 22:30 (10:30 p.m.) Greenwich Mean Time. The moon hangs full in the sky, white and motionless, undisturbed by the tempest and the tumultuous sea. If conditions continue to worsen, I will have to head more southerly. For the time being I can do nothing more, so I lie down to rest. I am clothed only in a T-shirt. A watch circles my wrist, and around my neck is a slab of whale tooth on a string. It is the most I will wear for the next two and a half months. BANG! A sudden, deafening explosion blankets the subtler sounds of torn wood fiber and rush of the sea. I jump up. Water thunders over me as if I’ve suddenly been thrown into the path of a rampaging river. I fumble with the knife I have sheathed by the chart table. Already the water is waist deep. The nose of the boat is dipping down. Solo comes to a halt as she begins a sickening dive. I hold my breath, submerge, feel for and slash at the tie-downs that secure my emergency duffle. My heart is a pounding pile driver. The heavy work wrings the air from my lungs and my mind battles with my limbs for the opportunity to breathe. Terminal darkness and chaos surround me. Get out, get out, she’s going down! I rocket upward, thrust the hatch forward, and catapult my shaking body onto the deck, leaving my package of hope behind. Less than 30 seconds has elapsed since impact. The bow points toward its grave and the sea washes about my ankles. I cut the tie-downs that secure the raft canister and recall the instructions: throw the bulky 100 pounds overboard before inflation. Who can manhandle such a weight while on a bucking circus ride? I yank! The first pull, then the second, nothing, nothing! I scream at the canister, “Come on, you bastard!” The third pull comes up hard, and she blows with a bursting shush. A wave sweeps over the entire deck, and I simply float the raft off. There it thrashes about on the end of its painter. I dive into the raft with the knife in my teeth. I see my vessel swallowed up. Waves bury her and pass. Solo’s white decks emerge. She’s not going down … not yet. Wait until she goes before cutting the painter. Even though I have canned water and other gear in the raft, I will not live long without additional equipment. Wait and salvage everything you can. I pull up to the side of the boat, climb aboard and, between towering crests that wash over me, lower myself into the hatch. The water below is peaceful. The hatch slams shut behind me. I feel for the emergency bag and cut away the lines that secure it. I gasp for air. The bag is freed but seems to weigh as much as the collected sins of the world. While struggling in the companionway, pushing and tugging at the gear, I fight the hatch, which beats against my back in the passing seas. Heaving the bag into the raft requires all the strength I have. As it tumbles into the raft, I reenter the hatch. I submerge to retrieve my bed. Bundling up my wet sleeping bag is like capturing an armful of snakes. I slowly manage to shove, pull, and roll the bag into the raft. My God, Solo is still floating. I gather up items that float out of the cabin one by one: a cabbage and a half, a coffee tin, and a box containing a few eggs. I have successfully abandoned ship. With a slip-knot I tie Solo’s line to the handhold webbing that encircles the inside of the raft. While frantically tying all of my equipment to the webbing, I hear rumbling well to windward. It is a big wave to be heard so far off. I listen to the growl. It builds like a crescendo, growing stronger and stronger until it consumes all of the air around me. The fist of Neptune strikes and with its blast the raft is shot to a snapping, staggering halt. It squawks, screams, then there is peace. Quickly I yank open the inspection port and stick my head out. Solo’s jib is still snapping and her rudder clapping, but I am drifting away. Her electrics have fused and the strobe light on the top of her mast blinks good-bye to me. I watch for a long time as the flashes of light become visible less often, knowing it is the last I will see of her, feeling as if I have lost a friend and a part of myself. I am adrift about 450 miles north of the Cabo Verde Islands, but they stand across the wind. I can only drift in the direction the wind blows. Downwind, 450 miles separate me from the nearest shipping lanes. Caribbean islands are the closest possible landfall, 1,800 nautical miles away. Even if conditions are steady, it may take 90 days to reach the Caribbean. I wrote to my parents that I might arrive in Antigua as late as March 10, 34 days from now. No one will search for me before then, if they ever search at all. Just one other man in history has survived alone and adrift for over a month. Poon Lim lived in a solid raft for an astounding 130 days after his ship was torpedoed during World War II. One hundred thirty days! Don’t think about it. Twenty days … someone will see me within 20 days. I have hope if the raft lasts. My life raft is a standard Avon six-man model composed of two multisegmented inner tubes, one stacked on the other. The inside diameter is about five feet, six inches. Spanning the top tube is a semicircular arch tube that supports the tentlike canopy. One quarter of the canopy is loose to form the entry. The only spot with full sitting headroom is directly in the center of the raft. I can wedge myself against the outside perimeter so my head pushes up into the canopy, or slouch down to brace myself across the bottom. The thin rubber floor ripples and rolls, resembling a waterbed. Kneeling, I hold on with one hand while using the coffee tin to bail with the other. Each time I finish, there is another convulsion, another flooding of my cave, and the whole process begins again, The work is warming but fatiguing. There is no rest. The continual motion and the stench of rubber, glue, and talc from the new raft nauseate me, but I am too exhausted to throw up. For three days the gale howls. Waves glitter in the sun and the wind blows white beards of froth down their blue chests. During the day the sun brings a small spot of warmth to my frigid world. At night, the wind and sea rear up more viciously. Even in these subtropical conditions, the water temperature falls below 65 degrees, so I risk dying from hypothermia before the sun rises. Naked and sore, wrapped in a clammy foil space blanket and a sodden sleeping bag, I shiver and find sleep only in snatches, as my whole world rumbles and shakes. Continually drenched, my skin has broken out with hundreds of salt water boils. They multiply quickly under my wet T-shirt. Gouges and abrasions cover my lower spine, buttocks, and knees. Their tenderness often awakens me with the searing pain of rubbed-in salt. The morning of February 8 brings a slight calming of the gale. Waves continue rolling down upon us, some still 15 feet or more in height. But they have lost their curling heads and do not smash the raft as often. I mark my one-liter clear plastic jug with shallow knife cuts and ration myself to a half-pint of water per day. To take only a mouthful every six hours or so is difficult. I have decided not to drink seawater. The salty liquid may be an immediate relief, but the high level of sodium must be urinated away, drawing even more fluid from the body’s tissues, soon leaving a withered corpse. I have two solar stills, inflatable balloons that are supposed to evaporate seawater. In sunny, tropical, calm conditions they should produce two pints of fresh water each day. When I blow the first balloon up and put it in the water as instructed, it travels at about the same speed as the raft. Sometimes it surfs ahead on a passing wave until it comes to a sudden halt at the end of its leash. After a few minutes, it collapses and refuses to stay inflated. My spirits sink. I try the second still. It stays blown up. After an hour the collection bag contains almost eight ounces of water. I pick up the container and take a swallow. Salt! With six pints of water left, I have a maximum of 16 days to live. Perhaps I can catch some rain. A fin suddenly slashes through the surface in front of the raft. I leap to the opening, fumbling with one of the paddles to beat it off. I see the sleek form cruising underneath me. He is small, a four-foot oceanic bullet. It is not a shark. It is a dorado, a fish widely known for agility, strength, beauty, and good eating. Quickly rummaging through my emergency bag, I claw out the spear gun and arrow. My stomach growls. Four days on a pound of food. I tremble with excitement. A few of the fish cruise by about six feet away, just out of range. But in their curiosity, they swing closer every now and then. Surface refraction makes it difficult to aim, and the lurching raft is a poor platform from which to shoot. My few attempts miss widely. Hunger continues to gnaw as the sun sets. On 10 February, my sixth day in the raft, the wind blows hard, tumbling us about. At least we are headed more westerly, directly toward the islands. My body feels weak. The still produces only salt-ridden water, and I argue with myself not to drink more than a half pint of my reserve each day. The dorado are beautiful, but tease me by staying just out of range by their quick evasive maneuvers. I bend over the tubes and look down deep into the sea. There are no fish, no weeds, only empty blue. Suddenly a shape appears 40 yards to the side, gliding with incredible speed right for the raft. A 10-foot beige body with an unmistakable broad hammerhead tells me all I need to know. Maneater. My heart pounds in the moment it takes to reach us. I hold my spear gun tightly. If I shoot, I will lose the arrow. The shark slides by just below the surface. It circles back, faster now. My mouth is dry, my arms shake, cold sweat leaps from my skin. It closes on the raft, then melts into the blue as quickly as it came. The vision will last forever. February 16-17: For two days the going is slow under the baking sky—14 or 15 miles each 24 hours. I measure my progress by crumpling bits of paper and watching to see how long they take to reach the end of the man-overboard pole I have let trail behind the raft. It is 70 feet astern, 1/90 of a nautical mile. Hunger wrenches my insides. My mouth burns. But I have fixed the solar still, and it produces 20 ounces of water a day. I begin to rebuild my stock while drinking a full pint for each arc of the sun. The calm is also good for visibility. Should a ship pass, the glowing orange canopy will be more easily spotted. In my 13 days adrift, I have eaten only three pounds of food. My movements are slower, more fatiguing. My fat is gone. Now my muscles feed on themselves. I have missed my targets so many times that I am slow to take aim. Casually I point the spear gun in the general direction of a swimming body. “Take that!” Thump. The fish lies stunned in the water. I too am stunned. I hoist him aboard. Foam, water, and blood erupt about his flailing tail. His clublike head twists spasmodically. All my strength goes into keeping the spear tip from ripping into my inflated ship as his heavy, thrashing body whips it about. I leap upon him and pin his head down into the 1/8-inch-thick plywood square that serves as my cutting board. A big round eye stares into mine. I feel his pain. The book says press the eyes to paralyze the fish. My captive’s fury increases. Hesitantly, I plunge my knife into the socket—even more fury. He’s thrusting loose. Watch the spear tip! There is no time for sympathy. I fumble with the knife, stick it into his side, work it about, find the spine and crack it apart. His body quivers; his gaze dulls with death. I fall back; behold my catch. He is not blue as when in the sea. Instead, the body of my treasure has turned to silver. I sit, a thousand miles away from companionship, money, and luxuries, yet I have a feeling of wealth. Fifteen pounds of raw fish dangle from clothes lines I’ve rigged in one half of the raft. The solar still is beginning to glisten with condensation: coins tossed to this beggar by the aristocratic sun. Hunger has been satisfied, my thirst is tolerable. I can live at least another 10 days, enough to cover the 220 miles left between me and the shipping lanes. February 18: My dreams are broken again by a dorado flapping outside. Grabbing my gun, I rip open the tent flap. My eye catches sparkling lights on the dark horizon. A ship! She looks to be traveling across my bow, maybe four miles off. I rummage for my flares and gun, stand, point the wide barrel to the heavens, and let her rip. An orange sun pops into the sky, belches smoke, and softly illuminates a small parachute as it dangles toward the sea. The lights of the ship are at a closer angle. I whoop and holler, “She’s seen me!” I wait and then let flare number two fly. My spirits blaze in the light. I duck inside and begin throwing my knife, water, and goodies into the sack. What a relief to forget about sipping water. I take several healthy swallows as I glance out. The ship is approaching a little to the south of me. Glowing ports and a brightly lit bridge emanate warmth and companionship. Saved! I fire a third flare. “I’m up here!” I yell. With such a flat sea, perfect visibility, and the ship on a mile off, the watch couldn’t miss seeing me. The ship’s bow continues to cut purposefully toward the lightening dawn. Her wake is highlighted as it sweeps astern under her escaping cabin lights. The rumble of engines and a plume of smoke trail behind. I set off a hand flare, still confident that I have been seen. Wakes from the ship rock the raft, and I ride them out standing. I’m sure that she’ll turn and approach from the windward. There is a faint smell of diesel in the air. Perhaps I have a last chance. I fire a fourth parachute flare. Then I collapse. She’s missed me. A light, frigid shower begins to fall upon my body as I watch the horizon until only a wisp of smoke can be seen. (Ed. note: Callahan saw and signaled right ships in all, none of which saw him.)March 3: It is sunrise of the 27th day since I began my voyage in what I have now named Rubber Ducky. I poke my head out of the canopy, turn aft, and watch the rising sun, noting its position. Refiguring my position with crude instruments, I put myself about 1,000 miles away from the nearest island, Guadeloupe. Average speed, 25 miles per day. Total passage time, 70 days. The earliest predicted arrival date that I had given parents and friends to expect me in Antigua was February 24, now seven days past. The late arrival date, march 10, was still seven days hence. If a search is made then, I will still be out of range, way too far to sea. At least my fishing has improved, and as I prepare my dinner, I choose a balanced meal: a few chewy dried stick, which I regard as sausages, an especially prized fatty belly steak, and a piece of backbone bacon with its thin strips of brown, crunchy flesh. I crack the backbone apart and drop gelatinous nuggets of fluid from between the vertebrae onto my board. A noodle runs down the spine, and I add it to the gelatin, making chicken soup. Sumptuous tenderloin steaks come from the meaty back above the organ cavity. The real treats are the organs, when I have them. Biting into the stomach and intestines is like chewing on a tire, so I don’t bother with them. All else is consumed with delight, especially the liver, roe, heart, and eyes. The eyes are amazing, spherical fluid capsules an inch in diameter. Their thin, though coverings are quite like ping-pong balls. My teeth crush out a squirt of fluid, a chewy dewdrop lens, and a papery thin, green-skinned cornea. I save the bulk of my water ration for dessert. Since I have rebuilt my stock, I can afford to drink a half pint during the day, three quarters of a pint at dinner, and still have a couple of ounces for the night. I slowly roll a spoonful around in my mouth until it is absorbed rather than swallowed. When I return, ice cream will be no more pleasurable. By the night of March 6, it is blowing like hell again. Water dribbles in constantly through the canopy. I bail out. Two hours later, Ducky is knocked down again. I sit among the floating debris, exhausted, giving in, no longer able to keep cool. Beating my fists in a splashing tantrum, I yell,” You goddam, son-of-a-bitch ocean! Why me? Why does it have to be me? I just want to go home, that’s all. Why can’t I just go home?” What I do not know is that this same day, perhaps at this very moment, my father is calling the U.S. Coast Guard to notify them that Napoleon Solo is overdue. Some time before, my mother had a nightmare. She had seen me clawing through black waters, struggling to gain the surface. She awoke with a start, sweating, shaking, and had been tense ever since, awaiting word from me. After a few minutes the fire inside me subsides. I set about the endless, heavy work of bailing and wringing things out. Perhaps when I get back I will have a picnic with friends and neighbors, barbecue, and hills of ice cream. People will ask me what it was like. I will tell them that I hated it, all of it. March 14:  I have managed to last 40 days. It is a little disconcerting to realize that Ducky is guaranteed for 40 days of use. If she fails me now, do you suppose I can get my money back? I’ve lasted longer than I had dreamed possible in the beginning. I’m over halfway to the Caribbean. Each day, each hardship, each moment of suffering has brought me closer to salvation. The probability of rescue, as well as of failure, continually increases. I feel like there are two poker players throwing chips into a pile. One player is rescue and the other is death. Somebody is going to win soon. March 19: A head appears directly under my spear point. I thrust down and drive clear through the body, which immediately becomes a somersaulting monster. The plastic gun tip explodes, lashings fly apart, the arrow’s metal butt is snapped cleanly off and the arrow flips forward with a splash. A horrendous sound like the ripping open of a huge, stiff zipper meets my ears. The dorado has run the sharp tip into the bottom tube of the raft. It’s a gaping hole about four inches long. I try to roll the lips together, but Ducky continues to sink. Finally, the bottom tube lies flat. Rubber Ducky has settled so that she is supported by her top tub. There is now only three inches of freeboard. Waves slosh in over the top. If I cannot repair the damage, I will not last long. It will be impossible to stay dry. My legs will stick into the sea, and passing sharks will grab them. I won’t be able to dry fish. I find my hand tools and set to work as fast as I can. For five hours I try to seal the gap. It’s impossible. At night, I take my flashlight and tie it to the top of my head like a miner’s helmet, so that I can go on working. The beam shines down on the still water. It is suddenly eclipsed by a huge gray shape sliding by just inches from my hands, which I jerk from the water. The shark is about 10 feet long. He lazily swings around the raft, breaks the surface for a moment, then submerges. I do not see him for some time. I again bend to work. It’s still no good. The patch leaks almost as fast as I can pump it up. I fall asleep, rolling around in my soggy ship. I awake at dawn, ready for another try. At last, Ducky requires only 40 pumps every two hours, but I hear a constant hiss. It is March 22, my 46th day. The New York Coast Guard cancels the broadcast that Napoleon Solo is overdue. They notify Lloyd’s of London, Canary Island authorities, and the Miami and Puerto Rico Coast Guard stations that the “active search has been suspended.” March 28: I feel great! I have finally succeeded in patching the bottom tube! The night I lost Solo and again last evening, there seemed no escape from death. The first time, over a week passed before I saw there was a possibility that I might crawl out of this hellhole. This time it is much worse. I feel as though I have been twice to hell and back. I will never last another one. I am close now. I can feel it. For days the Atlantic has been barren, but now I see a huge clump of sargassum weed riding the waves. As it comes nearer, I dog-paddle over and pull the weed onto Ducky. There are things crawling, and fishing line tangled in it. Another bundle bobs up ahead. I grab the second, then a third, then a fourth. The ocean is thick with the weed. I pick through the vegetation for food: tiny shrimp fish, slugs, and clicking crabs. We drift through a line of weed piled up like autumn leaves. The sargassum is laced with trash—old bottles, baskets, clotted clumps of oil, flasks, fishnet webs, ropes, crates, floats, plastic foam, and faded fabric. The highway of trash stretches from south to north as far as I can see. For hours we wade through it. It is miles wide. Night falls as Ducky and I continue to drift through the pollution. In the morning the water is lighter blue and sparkling clear. I’m convinced I have reached the shallower waters of the continental shelf. April 20:  The evening skies of my 75th day are smudged with clouds migrating westward. A drizzle falls, barely more than a fog, but any amount of saltless moisture causes me to jump into action. For two hours, I swing my plastic buckets through the air, collecting a pint and a half. Then I try to sleep. I arise to look over the black waters that occasionally flash with white lines of phosphorescence from a breaking wave or the flight of a fish. A soft glow looms just to the south of dead ahead. And there, just to the north, is another. A fishing fleet? They do not move. My God, those are not ships! It is the nighttime halo of land. Standing, I catch a flip of light to the side. A lighthouse beam, just over the horizon, sweeps a wide bar of light like a club beating out a rhythm—flash, pause, flash-flash. It is land. “Land!” I shout. This calls for celebration! Break out the drinks! In big healthy swallows, I down two pints. I swagger and dance and feel as lightheaded as if it were pure alcohol. Dawn of the 76th day arrives. I can’t believe the rich panorama that meets my eyes. It’s full of green. After months of little other than blue sky, blue fish, blue sea, the brilliant, verdant green is overwhelming. To the south, a mountainous island, lush as Eden, juts out of the sea. To the north is another. Directly ahead is a flat-topped isle. The northern half is composed of vertical cliffs against which the Atlantic smashes. To the south, the land slopes down to a long beach above which a few white buildings perch. Close as I am, I’m not safe yet. A landing is bound to be treacherous. If I hit the northern shore I run the risk of being crashed against the cliffs. To the south I’ll have to rake across wide coral reefs before I hit the beach. Even if I get that far, I doubt I’ll be able to walk or even crawl to get help. One way or another, this voyage will end today. I hear something new. It grows louder. An engine! I leap up. Coming from the island, a couple hundred yards away, a white, sharp bow pitches forward against a wave, and then crashes down with a splash. The boat climbs and falls, getting closer and closer. It’s small, maybe 20 feet, and is made of roughly hewn wood painted white, with a green stripe around the gunwale. Three incredulous dark faces peer toward me. I wave to them and yell, “Hello!” They wave back. I am saved! The three of them are about my age and seem perplexed as they loudly babble to one another in a strange tongue. It’s been almost three months since I’ve heard another human voice. In a few minutes I figure out that one of them is speaking English with a calypso beat and a heavy accent. “Whatch you doing, man? Whatch you want?” “I’m on the sea for 76 days.” They turn to each other. Perhaps they think I embarked in Rubber Ducky as a stunt. “Do you have any fruit?” I ask. “No, we have nothing like that with us,” one replies. As if confused and not knowing what they should do, he offers instead, “You want to go to the island now?” Yes, oh definitely yes, I think, but I say nothing immediately. The present, past, and the future seem to fit together in some inexplicable way. I know that my struggle is over. I have never felt so humble nor so peaceful, free and at ease. Their boat rolls toward me and then away. Tiny letters on the quarters spell her name: Clemence.The fishermen took Callahan to the island of Marie Galante, near Guadeloupe, where he was given food and medical care. He had lost 44 pounds, about a third of his body weight, but was in remarkably good shape in view of his ordeal. He returned to Maine, where he still lives and works, designing boats, delivering them across the ocean occasionally, lecturing on marine survival, and writing for the marine press.