Just like in a cafe, we talk about everything. Nothing heavy. Just talk over a cup of coffee.

Friday, May 6, 2011


In 1982 Steven Callahan was crossing the Atlantic alone in his sailboat when it struck something and sank. He was out of the shipping lanes and floating in a life raft, alone. His supplies were few. His chances were small. Yet when three fishermen found him seventy-six days later (the longest anyone has survived a shipwreck on a life raft alone), he was alive -- much skinnier than he was when he started, but alive.

His account of how he survived is fascinating. His ingenuity -- how he managed to catch fish, how he fixed his solar still (evaporates sea water to make fresh) -- is very interesting.

But the thing that caught my eye was how he managed to keep himself going when all hope seemed lost, when there seemed no point in continuing the struggle, when he was suffering greatly, when his life raft was punctured and after more than a week struggling with his weak body to fix it, it was still leaking air and wearing him out to keep pumping it up. He was starved. He was desperately dehydrated. He was thoroughly exhausted. Giving up would have seemed the only sane option.

When people survive these kinds of circumstances, they do something with their minds that gives them the courage to keep going. Many people in similarly desperate circumstances give in or go mad. Something the survivors do with their thoughts helps them find the guts to carry on in spite of overwhelming odds.

"I tell myself I can handle it," wrote Callahan in his narrative. "Compared to what others have been through, I'm fortunate. I tell myself these things over and over, building up fortitude...."

I wrote that down after I read it. It struck me as something important. And I've told myself the same thing when my own goals seemed far off or when my problems seemed too overwhelming. And every time I've said it, I have always come back to my senses.

The truth is, our circumstances are only bad compared to something better. But others have been through much worse. I've read enough history to know you and I are lucky to be where we are, when we are, no matter how bad it seems to us compared to our fantasies. It's a sane thought and worth thinking.

So here, coming to us from the extreme edge of survival, are words that can give us strength. Whatever you're going through, tell yourself you can handle it. Compared to what others have been through, you're fortunate. Tell this to yourself over and over, and it will help you get through the rough spots with a little more fortitude.

Here is the story:

In his enigmatic seascape The Gulf Stream, the artist Winslow Homer shows a sailor adrift on a dismasted sloop. Hungry sharks circle the boat; a waterspout skips angrily across storm-confused seas. On the horizon, a sailing ship is beating to windward, clearly too distant to spot the derelict. What's worse, the castaway doesn't even appear to want help. Oblivious to both threat and hope, he stares blankly, with resignation, astern.

But at what? "I'll tell you," says Steve Callahan with a wry laugh. "At nothing. Nothing but the deepest, most inaccessible part of himself. You reach a point, adrift like that, when you know it will never end. You're doomed, a Flying Dutchman, to drift on forever and ever. Same sharks, same seas, same birds and sun and thirst. Always."

Callahan ought to know. Little more than a year ago he began an 1,800-mile, two-and-a-half-month oceanic ordeal as harrowing as the one Wins-low Homer envisioned. On the night of Feb. 4, 1982, two days before his 30th birthday, Steven Patrick Callahan was cruising alone in mid-Atlantic aboard his 21-foot-4-inch sloop Napoleon Solo. He had built the boat by hand the previous summer and entered it in the 1982 Mini Transat, a single-handed sailing race from Penzance, England to La Coruña, Spain, then on across the Atlantic to Antigua in the West Indies. Callahan had been forced out of the race in Spain when Solo (named for the Robert Vaughn character in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) developed a crack in her bow. Now, after repairs, he was sailing the Atlantic for the first time alone. "I was working on a novel while Solo sailed herself," he recalls, "writing stories and letters, scribbling pictures of sea serpents in bow ties, pigging out on fried potatoes and onions, just plain enjoying it all."

Then came disaster.

He was jolted out of sleep that night by a terrific crash. Tons of seawater cascaded into the cabin. The boat, he believes, had been struck by a whale, feeding blind on the surface and unaware of his presence. "This is it," he remembers thinking. "I'm going to die." He grabbed a knife from beside his bunk and fought his way topside, clad only in a T-shirt, a diver's wrist-watch and, ironically, a talismanic whale's-tooth necklace. As the boat foundered, he cut loose his six-man nylon raft and inflated it.

By the light of the full moon, he could see that Solo was down by her bow, swamped and awash but not yet sunk. Ten-to 12-foot seas washed over her deck, but Callahan decided to risk diving back into Solo's cabin to fetch what he could in the way of survival gear. "If she sank while I was down there," he says, "I'd die. But I'd die just as dead, and slowly, if I didn't have more than what was on the raft."

Working mainly by feel and memory in the surging blackness, he hauled out his sodden sleeping bag, a floating cushion, a couple of cabbages, a box of eggs, an empty coffee tin he later used as a bailer, and a carefully stocked emergency package. At one point the hatch cover slammed shut under the fist of a wave and Callahan figured he was finished. But then the sea relented. As the wave receded, the hatch was sucked back open just in time for him to breathe.

Exhausted, Callahan secured his raft to the floating hulk with a long line and waited for dawn before trying another dive. But during the night heavy seas tore the line loose. Callahan watched the erratic flash of his water-shorted masthead light dwindle into the distance as the raft drifted away from the Solo.

He was, by his reckoning, 450 miles west of the Canary Islands, 800 miles north of the Cape Verde Islands, and another 450 miles east of the nearest shipping lanes where he might be picked up. For food, he had 10 ounces of peanuts, 16 ounces of baked beans, his eggs and cabbages, and 10 ounces each of corned beef and saltwater-soaked raisins. Worse, he had only eight pints of fresh water. With the supplies he had salvaged he figured he could survive a maximum of 18 days. But in his emergency kit were three "solar stills," balloonlike devices that "sweat" fresh water from seawater—when and if they work. By sheer chance, he also had a spear gun, purchased in the Canaries. Unable to find room for it in Solo's crowded cabin, he had stowed it in the rolled-up raft. It was to prove a life-saving decision.

Put to the test, his solar stills proved defective. Callahan dissected one to see how it worked and eventually got two of them functioning. Instead of producing 32 ounces of water a day, each balloon yielded only 20, but it was enough. Callahan also rigged a Rube Goldberg lash-up of tarps to catch what rainfall he could. "Even at that," he says, "I was thirsty all the time."

Drifting westward, carried by the North Equatorial Current toward the Antilles, 1,800 miles from the wreck of the Solo, Callahan's raft became a tiny pelagic ecosystem. Barnacles grew on the bottom, attracting small fish which in turn drew larger ones. On the 10th day came fish he could eat—first flat-bodied, pouty-mouthed triggerfish, then a flashing, iridescent school of dorados, one of the world's most prized gamefish. Dorados have a predilection for flotsam, and these took up residence under Callahan's raft for the duration of the voyage. He took to calling them his "little doggies"—they have a toothy, canine grin—and could recognize individual fish from the scars on their bodies where he had hit them with his spear gun but lost them. He killed one every three or four days, with a touch of regret that did not spoil his appetite.

Sharks too were occasional visitors to Callahan's world, rasping their sandpaper hides against the thin nylon skin of the raft. One hammerhead liked to mouth the protruding ballast tanks—bulbous, water-filled stabilizers on the raft's bottom. Callahan learned to discourage the sharks by poking them with his spear point, but the spear gun itself had proved useless. Almost immediately he'd lost the rubber sling that propelled the spear shaft. Then a particularly agile doggie unscrewed the barbed spear point in its dying gyrations. Callahan lashed a knife to the shaft and carried on.

On his 44th day adrift, his fishing nearly cost him his transport. A skewered dorado punched the spear shaft into the raft's bottom tube, ripping a four-inch hole that refused to stay patched. "It leaked air, slowly," Callahan says, "and every time I repatched it and pumped it up, it would blow out again. This went on for a week. The weather was blowing up dirty. The sharks would close in when I worked on the patch with my arms underwater. Finally I threw a tantrum, screaming and crying like a 5-year-old. I couldn't find a solution, but I couldn't live if I didn't. There was a kind of duality in my mind. I could see myself being childish and I disapproved of it, but I couldn't help it. Finally I said to myself, in this absurd little debate, 'Look, you're going to be dead if you don't do something that works. You have only enough strength left to try one more thing. Now figure it out.' "

Then it came to him. A fork in his Boy Scout mess kit could be jammed through the nylon he had bunched at the spot of the rip and bent inward to lock the seal. He slept on the idea, and in the morning, with the last of his strength, carried it out.

It worked.

For three more weeks Callahan drifted westward, killing and eating fish, distilling and catching water, scooping golden sargassum weed from the current and eating the small crabs, shrimp and fishes he found in it. To avoid taking in too much salt, he ate sparingly of the weed itself, occasionally stroking the cool blue sides of his doggies, who by now had grown used to him despite his spear. Shooting the North Star at night with a rude sextant he had fashioned of pencils, he reassured himself that he was no more than 18° above the equator and hoped that the current would carry him into the web of West Indian islands that at that latitude span the entrance to the Caribbean like a net. "There was no joy in this," he recalls. "I was constantly wet, a suntanned prune. Cold by night, hot by day. Where my skin rubbed against the raft, it sloughed off and the salt stung the sores." On his forced high-sodium, low-potassium diet, he grew weaker and weaker. His feet swelled up like kelp bulbs. "I couldn't stretch out or stand, and my legs cramped. It was like living forever in a half-filled waterbed, with a couple of kangaroos kicking the bottom."

Seven times in the course of the 76-day drift he spotted ships, twice within a mile. He fired his flare gun but there was no one on deck to see it. He wasn't bitter. "That's the way it is," he says. "My anger and frustration couldn't bring them topside to see me." Three times he turned on his EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon), hoping its signal would reach ships or aircraft. To no avail. Finally, on the night of April 20, he saw the glow of lights on the horizon before him. An island. By dawn he could see it, some 10 miles dead ahead, rising black-green in the rolling sea, a thin line of surf creaming at the foot of dark cliffs. Anxiously, Callahan began to wrap himself in plastic sheets to prepare for what looked like a rough ride through the surf, which in his weakened condition could have proved the most dangerous part of his journey.

Then a boat hove into view—a blue-and-yellow, wood-hulled fishing boat with high flaring bows and a crew of three. The fishermen had been attracted by the swirl of birds over Callahan's raft, a sure sign of fish. As they pulled alongside, astonished to see the raft and its bearded, half-naked, emaciated cargo, one of them cried out, "Hey, mon, whatcha doin'?"

Callahan told the men to proceed with their fishing before they took him ashore. "They work hard for a dollar down there," he says simply. For the next two hours the fishermen hand-lined and killed every last one of Callahan's doggies. As he rode in to the island of Marie Galante in their boat, the dead fish lay all around him. He recognized most of them. "I had mixed feelings," he says. "They had come 1,800 miles with me, saved my life, and now they were being rewarded with death and the fish market. That's the sea for you."

Today, almost a year later, Callahan looks back on his ordeal with a cool that verges on the philosophic, a fitting attitude for a man who graduated from Syracuse University in 1974 with a degree in metaphysics and wryly describes himself as a "mystical realist." "A lot of people expected the experience to have changed me," he says. "Actually, it only reinforced beliefs I already held. I know now what it feels like to be starving, really thirsty, to have one chance in a billion. But in terms of my general outlook toward the ocean—and life—it strengthened those."

The son of an architect, Callahan was born in Needham, Mass. and raised in the Boston suburb of Dover. He began sailing as a Boy Scout, read Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World and Robert Manry's Tinker-belle, and determined at the age of 12 that, more than anything, he wanted to be a solo sailor himself. "Sailing feels right to me," he says. "Through it I've found roads into everything from engineering and astronomy to art, literature and metaphysics. Thanks to the raft experience, I've even gotten into ichthyology and oceanography."

Since 1977 Callahan has made his landfall in Lamoine, Maine, in a small, book-filled house overlooking the salt marshes near Mount Desert Island. Divorced since his return from the raft adventure ("We'd separated before I left on the Mini Transat," he says), he now lives with peppy, black-haired Kathy Massimini, a nurse and aspiring writer, and Viadonna's Little Neck, the 3-year-old Maltese dog he calls "Sweetmeat" for short. "Dogs make marvelous gurus," he deadpans. "You can talk and talk and talk, and they just sit there watching. Wisely."

Long a contributor to various yachting magazines, Callahan is currently some 60 pages into a book-length account of his raft ordeal, though he has yet to sell it to a publisher. He works, between stints at the typewriter, at the Yacht Design Institute in Blue Hill, Maine, where he concocts plans for new boats and this summer will teach a survival course. He has gained back the 40 pounds he lost in the North Equatorial Current, and today, at 5'10" and 150 pounds, looks trim and fit—his condition enhanced by his having split some four cords of firewood to heat his house for the winter. If there is any unhappy aftereffect of all he has been through, it may be the abundance of unsolicited mail. "I try to answer it personally," he growls wearily, "but I'm thinking of working up a form letter. Most of the mail has a religious connotation, and one woman barraged me with what felt like a hundred pages of scripture. But even that was better than the homosexual from Kansas City who wanted to know what my sexual fantasies were."

For all the attention his ordeal has brought—he appeared on Tonight last November—it hasn't generated much cash. Napoleon Solo, worth about $30,000 by Callahan's estimate, was uninsured. Right now he is boatless, and to a man with the sea in his blood, that is like being a Pavarotti with laryngitis. Pinned to the door of his studio in the house in Lamoine is a quotation from the old English adventure writer Arthur Ransome, "The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.... You must build to regain your freedom."

It is only a matter of time—and of money—before Callahan will start building again.

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