#2. The Sea Is Different (and Much More Horrifying) Than Movies Show
Since my ordeal, I have been involved with several survival films -- there aren't all that many people out there with my, well, firsthand experience with the subject. For example, I was on the set of Life of Pi, working with director Ang Lee and helping make sure things were authentic in the character's raft. It's a fantasy movie, but we tried to make it as realistic as we could, including some things that nautical movies just never seem to get right (or rarely do).
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"The tiger is supposed to be Siberian, you two-bit hack!"
For example, the water. To filmmakers and airplane passengers, the ocean is just a big, gray, wet expanse. When you're actually on that raft in the middle of the ocean, the water is clear and filled with fish and barnacles; it's this massively deep, dynamic, living body that's under you. Most movies blend shots of the ocean with scenes filmed on a sound stage filled with water (you're not looking to drown the actors or get your whole set wiped out by a rogue wave, after all). It all comes out looking like a shallow, lifeless pool. We tried to make the sea come alive, giving the surfaces and skies huge variety to make them resemble actual ocean surfaces, and I think we succeeded.
As for survival, most movies like Cast Away get the general human elements right -- we see Tom Hanks slowly adjusting, figuring out fire and masturbating in bushes. (That happened in Cast Away, right?) It's more the physical nuts and bolts of ocean-set survival films that get it wrong, mainly because it can be too horrible. When I was found off the coast of the French Caribbean islands, I was covered in salt water sores, which are open ulcers that form on the skin. Despite being out for less than three months, I had lost a third of my weight (Hanks lost about a quarter of his weight for the Cast Away role, for comparison).
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Tom Hanks got $20 million to do so.
We really couldn't show Pi as he would have appeared after 229 days adrift. People would run screaming from the theaters. In short, the open ocean is far more wondrous and complex than what film can convey, and what happens to your body is way more disgusting than can be shown if you want a PG-13 rating.
#1. You Learn to Appreciate Life ... and Blind Luck
Water, like the husband in a Lifetime Original Movie, is unpredictable and violent. My boat and supplies deteriorated at an astonishing rate. I had line and knives, but I had to fix my raft with no glue or duct tape or, well, anything else that would actually be useful. I had a patching kit, but the instruction included the words "material must be dry prior to application," which is not terribly helpful on a boat that is constantly trying to sink.
The fish often broke my spear, and at one point the fish I had speared broke the shaft and rammed the tip into my raft Ben-Hur style, creating a big hole. I had to scramble to fix it, managing to roughly cover the hole with available material. It took 10 days and nearly killed me in the process.
"Oh yeah? Well, this one time I needed to change a flat tire. I called AAA all by myself and everything!"
I was very, very fortunate to make it through. When I talk to other survivors, I hear the same thing -- we don't consider ourselves heroic, and to a large degree only luck separates us from the ones who never make it out to tell their story. And, yes, it changes how you think.
It's a wake-up call. Many survivors suddenly have their priorities straight. The cliche is that you come out stronger ... because you do. You learn things about yourself -- what your weaknesses are and what you're willing to do (see: ravenously eating fish eyes like they're Skittles).
What doesn't kill you only gives you strangely specific food addictions.
In the midst of the chaos at sea, there can be moments of wonder and beauty, too. During one amazing night, the sky was filled with stars, and the fish twinkled with bioluminescence. I wrote in my journal that night: "It's a view of heaven from a seat in hell." And that pretty much summarized my experience. Tiny bits of wonder peeking through the awful struggle to stay alive.
Steve Callahan is also an author. Evan V. Symon is the interview setter-upper guy at Cracked, who, in addition to being a contributor to the De-Textbook, is one of many moderators on Cracked to be part of a super fantastic podcast.
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