True Survival Story
A Terrifying Crash
Steven Callahan, 29, was laying on the bunk of his boat, the Napoleon Solo, it was a seven-meter sloop he had built as the prototype of a small ocean-cruising yacht. It was nearly midnight, and a storm was brewing.
He had already sailed 1300 kilometers since leaving the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa and he hoped to arrive at the Caribbean island of Antigue ahead of his scheduled arrival of February 24. Steven was shocked when he felt a terrifying crash against the hull. Within seconds he was waist-deep in water. His sense of survival sprang in and he tried to cut his survival duffel bag loose. The boat listed steeply and Steven managed to escape through the hatch. The bow was completely submerged.
Yacht Before The Crash
Boat Disappeared Under The Ocean
He quickly cut the life raft loose and pulled the cord to inflate it. Leaping into the raft he kept floating close to his doomed boat. He managed to grab a floating coffee tin and two cabbages. He knew that it would not be enough to survive on and realized he had to make a final attempt to obtain his survival duffel bag. Tying his raft to the stern, he got back onto his boat and moved into the black water that filled the cabin. He had to surface for air continuously while cutting the duffel ties free. At last the duffel bag was free and he turned to leave. With horror he saw that his escape route was sealed shut by the water. He pushed with all his might and the hatch blew open. Steven escaped and climbed onto the raft. He hoped to return in the morning when there was more visibility and to collect more provisions. With a long cord he tied his raft to the stern of Solo. Just before dawn the cord snapped and his boat disappeared under the ocean.
The Survival Duffel Bag
Steven’s first thought was to try to keep warm. The waves reached to six meters in gale-force winds, and the sky remained rainy and overcast all day. His two meter, circular raft, was submerged under water, a few times. Saltwater sores developed on his knees and elbows as he bailed the water out with a coffee tin. The only joy he had was the contents of the survival duffel bag. He would have had no chance of survival without it.
In the bag was ten days supply of water, half kilograms of food, a spear gun, a beacon-sending radio, ropes and cords, two torches and three solar water stills, each that were capable of producing half a liter of fresh water daily by condensation. There was also a an air pump, a rocket gun and flares. Navigational charts and a sea survival book were kept dry in a plastic box.
At the same time of her son’s close escape from death, Doris Callahan was awakened far away in Massachusetts, his mother had a terrible vision of her son Steven. In her dream she could see Steven sailing alone in a small yacht in the mid-Atlantic, where he was clawing up through dark, murky water. His mother could not forget her dream and was anxious for the 24th February to arrive, to put her fears at rest.
He Studied The Chart
He studied the chart while listening to the signals that were broadcast from his radio. He discovered that he was more than 500 kilometers east of the nearest shipping lanes and weeks away from any potential rescue. He knew that he could live 10 days without water and 30 days without food. Steven rationed himself to 150 ml of water daily, and ate sparingly.
His parents, two brothers and sister, were constantly in his thoughts. They were a close knit family and he would have given anything to be with them, instead of this desolate ocean. He also thought of his small farm and boat building shop in Lamoine, Maine. He vowed that he would survive somehow. He send SOS signals for 36 hours, then he spotted a dorado, a dolphin fish. The amount of fish swimming around the raft increased. They circled and leaped, just out of spear-gun range. Although not much food was left, the presence of the dorado’s lightened his mood, as they were companionship and also a source of food.
A Shark Appeared
While he kept an eye on the dorado’s he worked desperately on the stills. He studied the chart and logged notations. He calculating his approximate speed by timing the passage of heavy seaweed, and thought that he was averaging 25 to 50 kilometers every 24 hours. He checked his direction nightly by sighting the North Star and the Southern Cross, and daily by marking the positions of the rising and setting sun. He was hoping to reach the shipping lane and the Caribbean.
A large shark appeared suddenly and began tearing at the ballast tanks, the water filled pockets which hang just below the raft. It retreated when he jabbed it with his spear gun. He was so thankful that he had managed to retrieve the survival duffel bag from the boat before it sank. The dorado’s were still there, swimming even closer.
His mother could not forget the vision she had and told her husband that she would not rest until she knew Steven was safe. On the eleventh day, Steven speared his first dorado. That night he had a feast. The meat was delicious and during the following days he ate every bit of fluid and meat from the fish. He felt more confident that he might survive, providing that the dorado’s stayed close by. At last, on the fourteenth day, the solar stills began producing water. Steven managed to spear-gun a dorado’s, every third day. He lashed the shaft of the spear to the gun, making it into a hand-held spear when the rubber band that released the spear from the gun broke. The dorado’s moved closer. It was as if they allowed him to make the kill. They had got so tame. Steven’s family reported him missing to the Coast Guard, 12 days after he had missed his scheduled arrival.
Ships were notified, and a check of possible ports of departure and arrival began. When no trace of the boat was found By March 17, the Coast Guard called off the search. When 34 year old Edgar, the Callahan’s oldest son, arrived from Hawaii, he immediately organized a plan for the renewed search of Steven. Edgar had once been a commercial deep sea diver. He felt sure that his brother was still alive and said they just had to pinpoint his position.
One hot afternoon, he saw a full rainbow, inset with a smaller one. Its beauty on the glistening sea was overwhelming. Callahan had never been particularly religious, but at that moment he believed he saw the scheme of nature and felt hope for the first time.
While he was hauling in a dorado, the spear gun’s shaft broke, ripping a hole in the raft’s side. Then a storm hit. He tried desperately to close the hole with line after plugging it with foam from the boat cushion. But it continued to leak, and he had to keep on pumping air and bailing out the water continuously. He was exhausted and he paced himself while sleeping briefly, before resuming his struggle. As Steven worked with a torch tied to his forehead, a large shark zipped by. At dawn the shark was still there, circling. Within four days, his 52nd adrift, the storm was vicious. He broke down when he wrote in his log. ‘My body is rotting before my eyes.’
He cried out loud, Oh Lord, did I come this far to die?’ Moments later he struggled to his raw knees and began to pump air into the damaged tube again, and once again the foam plug was blown out. Then he had a brain wave. He would remove the handle from the utensil fork and put it through the top edge, then the foam plug and the bottom edge. He then tied off the tear and the handle held the lasing in place. He was overjoyed when it worked perfectly. At last the storm ended. Steven held the spear gun ready, too weak to strike a killing blow. His body was deteriorating. His sores were not healing and his fingernails had loosened. A dorado approached and rolled over on its back, revealing its soft underbelly. Steven killed it easily and thankfully.
Rescued At Last
After his brother, Edgar had worked night and day studying drift patterns and weather data. By doing this he could project the probable conditions and the most likely position of Steve’s raft. He predicted that Steve’s raft should be within a 320 kilometer quadrant northeast of the group of islands that rims the Caribbean Sea. The Callahan family cried and prayed together, when it was reported several days later that ‘Solo’s wreckage had been found on a Puerto Rican beach. But they decided not to give up. Steven’s father also felt that he could still be alive.
On day 76, the 21st of April, the water turned a deep blue, the dorado’s were joined by other fish. Steven could see the outline of steep cliffs. As he drifted nearer, he spotted a barrier of coral reef pounded by violent surf. He realized it could cut him severely. He stripped plastic and foam from the boat cushion, hoping that it might offer some protection against the coral. Steven waved frantically, when to his amazement, a boat came speeding into view. The three fishermen from Marie Galante, a tiny islet 130 kilometers south of Antigue, were astounded when they reached the raft. Leaping dorado’s surrounded the raft and Steven looked more dead than alive. The fisherman had seen the birds which signaled fish, hovering out to sea.
The Callahan Family Were Overjoyed
Steven was lucid and gave his name in a whisper. He weighed only 18 kilograms less than normal and several hours after being carried ashore he could stand without assistance, he was suffering from serious malnutrition, dehydration, exposure, sores and wounds. His ordeal has lasted 76 days. The dorado meat had kept him alive, without them he would have died.
The Callahan family were overjoyed when they heard their son and brother were alive. Steven says that the whole experience with the dorado’s was mystical, even spiritual. The vision that his mother had, also shows spiritual beings had been at work. Steven was very brave and determined, but surely his guardian angel was with him all the time.
© 2017 Anita Hasch