5 Realities of Being Lost at Sea (From a Shipwreck Survivor)
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 ...
It's About Managing a Parade of Overlapping Disasters
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.
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.
"Star Date 4315.7: Today, Ensign Gilly Buckwalter was killed and eaten by 'cannibals.'"
Well, maybe "normal" isn't the right word ...
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.
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 ...
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.
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).
"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).
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.
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.
Related Reading: Cracked is just, all about talking to people who've lived through unique experiences. Like this woman who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult. We also spoke with a man who joined Scientology's secret space navy and a woman who starred in one of those Weight Loss infomercials. If you've got a story to share with Cracked, you can reach us here.