Steven Callahan had dreamed of crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a solo trip since he was 12 years old. He designed a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) sloop called Napoleon Solo and at the age of 29 set out to do just that.
However, on the return journey, disaster struck and 450 miles away from the Canary Islands, Napoleon Solo sank. What followed was a harrowing 76 days alone on a life raft that Callahan named Rubber Ducky.
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Late one night, a little more than a week into his trip, Callahan woke up to a large bang and water crashing into the hull. He tells The Guardian he thought the bang was most likely due to a collision with a whale or a large shark, but he never found out for sure.
It was immediately apparent to him that the boat was sinking because of the amount of water that was entering so he packed the life raft with as many essential survival items as he could by diving into the submerged cabin again and again.
By the time morning dawned, Napoleon Solo had completely sunk, and Callahan was left alone on Rubber Ducky, a 6-foot inflatable raft.
The first order of business was survival. After a few days on the raft, Callahan was able to get his solar still, a device that creates pure water through condensation, to work. This produced just over a pint of fresh water a day.
He had originally been worried about how he would find food, but he tells NPR “pretty much anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology.” Weeds and barnacles grew on the underside of the raft and eventually an entire school of dorado, or mahi-mahi, also made it their home.
Callahan became so well acquainted with the fish that he could recognize individual members of the school from how they would bump against Rubber Ducky’s hull. Despite their close relationship, every few days, he would kill one of them for sustenance.
Around Day 14 of Callahan’s journey, he spotted another ship and lit a flare, hoping to be seen. Devastatingly, the ship continued on, and he says that by the afternoon of each day, he would feel a profound despair.
He also had much time to ruminate and came to regret many of the decisions he’d made in his life. As the voyage dragged on, Callahan entered hotter, more tropical waters and dehydration became almost unbearable. One of the hardest parts of the voyage for him was the physical discomfort that came from saltwater sores, hunger, and thirst.
Around Day 43 of his voyage, Callahan suffered his most severe setback when a 4-inch hole was ripped into Rubber Ducky’s hull by a dorado while he was fishing. According to the Los Angeles Times, it took him 10 days of struggling to patch the hole with some fishing line and a fork. He says that moment felt like “the biggest victory of my life.”
Callahan attributes his eventual rescue to the dorado who saved his life time and time again while he was stranded. Fishermen off the coast of Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean Sea, were attracted to Rubber Ducky’s school of dorado by the birds circling above, who were also hunting the fish.
Callahan, who’d finally been spotted, waited patiently for them to haul in the catch before he was rescued. In all, he had traveled about 1,800 nautical miles in Rubber Ducky.
It took Callahan six weeks to be able to walk properly again after two and a half months of continuously sitting in the raft. For a time after being rescued, he also retained a tendency to conserve water and always carried a little bit of food with him just in case. However, Callahan eventually went on to make a full recovery and move on with his life.
On his website, Callahan displays explanations for several boats that he designed after his ordeal, including improved versions of the Napoleon Solo and an inflatable dinghy that he would have much preferred being stranded on than Rubber Ducky.
He works as a marine consultant, wrote a book about his time at sea, has written many articles, and is an accomplished public speaker.
Callahan has even worked as a survival consultant on the 2012 film Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee, which is a fictional story about a boy who is stranded at sea for 227 days after a shipwreck. He recounts the experience to Boat U.S., explaining that he helped design the survival manual the titular character uses when he is stranded as well as several of the props to make sure they realistically could have been made with the materials on board.
Callahan also advised the production team on a variety of topics ranging from how the sea and the boat would naturally interact to how Pi’s clothes and appearance would change over time as he spent a longer and longer time adrift.
Callahan’s story reflects an impressive resilience of the human spirit. Although he endured an incredible ordeal adrift at sea for 76 days, he has continued designing ocean vessels and sailing. Callahan became an author, a consultant, and an important part of an Academy Award winning film. He did not let that trial, however difficult, define the rest of his life.