My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
This is every sailor’s nightmare – to be cast adrift in a life raft in the middle of an ocean with no food, little water and almost chance of rescue. That is what happened to Steven Callahan when his 21-foot sailboat Napoleon Solo, which Callahan built himself in the early 1980s, with the intention of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, sank after hitting something.
Though his ordeal happened a long time ago, the book has become something of a classic among sailors. So when I finally came across a copy, I had to curl up down below and try to “enjoy” his victory vicariously. And if I could learn anything to improve my own safely and preparedness, so much the better.
Having crossed the Atlantic and arrived safely in England, Callahan decided to sail back to the Caribbean from the Canaries alone. He had gained considerable experience from his earlier passage, great confidence in his tiny vessel, but he was well aware that danger is always near at hand.
He writes: “Disaster at sea can happen in a moment, without warning, or it can come after long days of anticipation and fear. It does not always come when the sea is fiercest but may spring when waters lie as flat and imperturbable as a sheet of iron. Sailors may be struck down at any time, in calm or in storm, but the sea does not do it for hate or spite. She has no wrath to vent. Nor does she have a hand of kindness to extend. She is merely there, immense, powerful, and indifferent.”
Callahan’s moment of disaster came shortly before midnight during a storm off the Azores “My boat slues around the rushing peaks, her keel clinging to the slopes like a mountain goat, her port side pressed down against the black, rolling ocean. I lie on my bunk, slung upon the lee canvas, hanging as if in a hammock.
“BANG! A deafening explosion blankets the subtler sounds of torn wood fibber and rush of sea. I jump up. Water thunders over me as if I’ve suddenly been thrown into the path of a rampaging river…Already the water is was it deep. The nose of the boat is dipping down. Solo comes to a halt as she begins a sickening dive. She’s going down, down!”
Thus begins Callahan’s nightmare of two and half months adrift in a tiny liferaft. He is 1400 nautical miles from the nearest land, out of the shipping lanes and alone. That he survived – as demonstrated in this excellent account – is a miracle of circumstance and his own mental resilience.
After 14 days, he does see a ship, fires six flares, but no-one onboard the freighter sees him.
“I should have realized that I wouldn’t be saved by the first ship to pass my way. The Baileys had to wait until the eighth. It is not good business to bank on a check that is supposedly in the mail. I will be saved only when I feel the steel of a deck under my feet.
“Dougal Robertson said not to count on shipping: “Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of…the survival voyage.”
Dougal Robertson and his family survived 38 days at sea after their sailboat was holed and sunk by whale whales. Robertson wrote “Survive the Savage Sea” and “Sea Survival, a Manual”, which has since become a primer for ocean survival.
Callahan begins to take in hand his own situation – to stop dreaming of rescue and to start facing and tackling the demands of an alien his reality.
One week later, he writes: “I cannot complain too much as the morning has been relatively good. The raft is moving well, the sun is out. My second dorado lies slain before me. My cleaning of the dorados has become more thorough. I don’t waste anything. I eat the heart and liver, suck the fluid from the eyes, and break the backbone to get the gelatinous nuggets from between the vertebrae…I am feeling O. K., but I am very conscious that my spirits fall and rise with the undulating waves.”
Callahan surveys because he becomes an active participant in his own survival; practising yoga on his water-bed home, living through several gales, much depression and a serious leak that threatens to sink the life raft from under him. He even manages to catch seabirds with his bare hands.
“Adrift” is an engrossing account because it’s so detailed and straightforward. You can’t help feeling almost as if you’re in the raft with him – or at least able to wonder just how well you yourself might survive. It’s an uncertain pleasure.
On the 76th day of his ordeal, Callahan nears land. But getting ashore has its own hazards. A landing on coral could be fatal. At last he hears a small engine, then sees three “incredulous dark faces” peering from a 20-foot homebuilt wooden fishing boat that has come from the tiny French island of Marie Galante (named for one of Columbus’ ships). The three fishermen are Jules Paquet, captain, Jean-Louis, his brother and Paulinus Williams.
Catching fish has allowed Callahan to survive. And it’s the congregation of frigate birds swooping over the fish that attracted the fishermen to investigate and to find him. Each is a gift of the other. And Callahan is well aware of this. Rather than urging his rescuers to take him to land, he waits while they fill their boat with a bumpy haul of dorados. “They found me; but not me instead of their fish, me and their fish.”
Callahan says to the fish: “Yes, we are here, my friends. You do not seem betrayed. Perhaps you do not mind enriching these poor men. They will never again see a catch the likes of you. What secrets do you know that I cannot even guess?
“I wonder why I chanced to pack my spear gun in my emergency bag, who Solo stayed afloat just long enough for me to get my equipment. Why, when I had trouble hunting, did the dorado come closer? Why did they make it increasingly easier for me as I and my weapon became more broken and weak, until in the end they lay on their sides right under my point? Why have theory provided me just enough food to hang on for eighteen hundred nautical miles? I know that they are only fish, and I am only a man. We do what we must and only what Nature allows us to do in this life. Yet sometimes the fabric of life is woven into such a fantastic pattern. I needed a miracle and my fish gave it to me. That and more. They’ve shown me that miracles swim and fly and walk, drain down and roll away all around me. I look around at life’s magnificent arena. The dorados seem almost to be leaping into the fishermen’s arms. I have never felt so humble, nor so peaceful, free, and at ease.”
Safely ashore once more, and after months of a slow adjustment back to adequate food and water, Callahan asks:
“What I learn from the voyage? My beliefs about the indifference of the sea, about the relative nature of good and evil and of all human values, about the equality of God’s creatures, and about my own insignificance were only reinforced. But I have come to know that the fulfilment of goals is not enough in itself; it must be shared to be rewarding. In addition, I now see that paradoxes in life are common and that making decisions often presents a dilemma, though the decisions are not usually as crucial or as apparent as in a survival situation. Perhaps even more important, knowing starvation and thirst, knowing critical deprivation and desperation from first hand, has given me new empathy for the millions on this earth who know nothing else.
“The accident has left me with a sense of loss and a lingering fear, but I have chosen to learn from this crisis rather than let it overcome me. Each of us if lucky if we must face only one serious crisis in our lives. And in those times when I feel alone and desperate,l I take comfort in the silent company of those who0 have suffered greater ordeals, and survived.”