Fiction is full of stories of shipwrecked people winding up on deserted islands (like Tom Hanks in Cast Away), or, more implausibly, getting stuck for months on a raft in open water (like in Life of Pi). Well, surprisingly, real life is full of those stories, too.
We spoke to Steve Callahan, who took off from the Canary Islands in 1982 to sail to the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, completing a circuit of the North Atlantic that he began in 1981. Eight days in, a whale rammed into and sunk his boat. Steve managed to escape to a life raft with supplies and drifted across the Atlantic for 76 goddamned days before he was finally rescued. We asked Steve how such a thing is even possible, and he told us ...
#5. It's About Managing a Parade of Overlapping Disasters
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Right after a disaster strikes -- in my case, when my boat sank and I found myself adrift on a tiny life raft -- there's a period of recoil, the shock of feeling like your entire life has been flushed away. Ever see those movies where they say your life flashes before your eyes? Well, it happens. All your failures, everything from not making the JV jai alai team in high school to betting that the Red Sox would win the '86 World Series, come back to you. You think of people you treated badly. Some people don't make it out of this stage.
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This year, thousands of people will die with the How I Met Your Mother finale as their last memory. Don't become a statistic.
I was adrift at sea for two and a half months, so I had no choice but to move on. After the initial shock (which for me lasted about two weeks) came survival mode. I fished, got water, made tools, and lived like an aquatic caveman. You've probably heard the saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention." Well, survival situations are that, but on PCP. You don't have a choice -- you die if you aren't creative.
Remember, in a survival situation, you are on a knife edge over a chasm. It is painful and dangerous, and -- maybe you shouldn't have been walking across knives in the first place -- there's no time for regret now. Your entire day becomes a series of nigh-catastrophic threats. If the raft springs a leak, this suddenly moves to the top of the "things to do to not die" list. However, that list is never only one item long -- hypothermia, for example, is actually one of the deadliest threats you face in a lifeboat. It can end you in hours, even minutes. The first few nights were the roughest -- it was cold out, and I was wet. Then it was way too hot, and I went from all clothes and blankets to no clothes and pouring water over myself to remain cool.
And you can't even yell at your kids for touching the thermostat.
Water was usually the second priority, and I had just enough to survive (a pint and a quarter per day, less than recommended) collected from rain and solar stills (solar stills being the devices that raise seawater to Waterworld levels of drinkability using condensation to separate out the salt). Food is a distant third priority. A lack of water will kill you after several days, but it takes a whole month to starve -- you won't live long enough to suffer the unthinkable agony of starvation unless you're lucky.
Then there were all of the miscellaneous annoyances, like sharks gnawing on the ballast tanks. It's never just one disaster at a time, is the point -- you have a lot of plates to keep spinning if you want to remain alive. And if you're wondering how a person doesn't have a mental breakdown after a while, well, that brings me to the most important tools I had on the raft: pencil and paper. I always used writing as a sounding board in journals, and it helped me distance myself from the situation. That alone let me maintain a regular routine and something that approached a normal life.
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"Star Date 4315.7: Today, Ensign Gilly Buckwalter was killed and eaten by 'cannibals.'"
Well, maybe "normal" isn't the right word ...
#4. You Get in Touch With Nature ... in Very Weird Ways
I'm going to take a stand here and declare that people are not meant to live in the middle of the ocean. No land, really dark nights, and the chance of a rogue wave hitting you are all big "NO HUMANS HERE PLEASE" signposts. But I had grown up in the wilderness and spent a lot of time out at sea -- I was probably more prepared for this than most. Even so, those weeks in the ocean utterly changed my relationship with the sea ... and the fish.
"You wish you were half the soldier Ensign Buckwalter was!"
After a few weeks, my raft gathered all sorts of life. It was almost like a mini-island out there, so there was algae and barnacles and fish gathering around me like I was an even less powerful Aquaman. I formed a relationship with those fish. I could identify them individually by remembering distinct colorings, scars, and behavior, and the same ones came back day after day.
Yes, I relied on them for food, but we got into this love-death relationship. Fish are friends and food. They are not packages of meat -- you are aware of their existence. I looked at them as my superiors. While I was suffering, they were swimming around, making love, and looking like they were having fun. They were in a much better position than me, and in the context of our environment they were almost smarter than me. Over the weeks and months, the fish fed me, almost killed me (by ripping a gash in my raft), and ultimately saved me by attracting birds, which lured fishermen from Guadalupe who know that birds can signal the presence of fish. This little mini-ecosystem that formed around my raft island led civilization to find me again, and wound up saving my life.
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Kind of like if Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo! was written by Bear Grylls.
If that makes it sound like I started to get a little bit loopy out there, well ...
#3. You Go a Little Bit Nuts
My dreams changed dramatically out there. Every time I slept, I dreamed of what my body needed. It wasn't just food, but oddly specific food. I never dreamed of steaks; it was always fruit and fats and bread. This is probably because I had plenty of protein from the fish, and also the ocean's notable lack of orchards.
My sense of taste also changed, and by that I mean I started to see fish eyes as candy.
Like this, only with fish eyeballs.
Obviously I started eating fish. You know, it's not like you're going to run into a cow swimming around out there. But by the end of the voyage I looked forward to the eyes and liver, because they had all sorts of vitamins my body was begging me for, and that made the fish taste so unbelievably good. I ate delicacies you find only in exotic seafood restaurants not because I had to, but because I wanted to. You tell yourself it's gross, but you suddenly want it, because fish meat and water are driving you mad, and also you might be dying of some sort of deficiency.
This aspect is something that a lot of movies don't really touch on -- the way your body drives you to do the things that need to be done, whether you want to or not. When you read survival books by people who were never in critical situations, they try to explain survival as "the will to survive," as in having the courage to not just curl into a ball and give up. But survival is not a noble or admirable thing that only the most awesome humans pull off -- it's something we are hardwired to do.
"Hey. Hey, Steve. Hey. You're dying. Quit it."
People think they could never do what I did, but once in that situation, many of them would go from their normal city brain into a survival state of mind faster than they'd think. Your body is good at guiding you toward the things that will keep it from croaking, and so suddenly you're hungry for fish eyes.