April 07, 1986

On the night of Feb. 4, 1982, Steven Callahan's 22-foot sloop Napoleon Solo was sunk in mid-Atlantic by what he thinks was a collision with a whale. Callahan, a naval architect and blue-water sailor who was then nearly 30 years old, was single-handing from Spain to the Caribbean, and as Solo foundered, he was barely able to get his life raft into the water. Then began a 2½-month "trial by water" as severe, poignant and existentially trying as any ever endured by a lone man seeking what Conrad called the ocean's "disdainful mercy." Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95) is Callahan's able account of that ordeal. It is a no-nonsense, eminently practical survival manual that deserves a place beside Bowditch and the tide tables in every cruising ship's book locker, and at the same time it is a study of unwilled alienation—the internal war against madness as a form of easeful death—as chilling as anything ever written by Camus or Dostoyevski.

The venue of Callahan's trial was a flimsy, canopied tub of black and orange rubber, 5½ feet in diameter, called Rubber Ducky. His main survival tools were a spear gun and two frail solar stills—plastic balloons that distill seawater into potable water one slow drop at a time. Unfortunately, one of the stills didn't work. A few other items that seemed unimportant when he threw them into his duffel bag before the sinking—a Boy Scout mess kit, a square of closed-cell foam cushion, a handful of pencils and a few pads of dime-store paper—would help save his sanity and his life. Things that seemed necessary—like Very flares and pistol, a radar reflector and an emergency position transmitter—would prove totally worthless.

Although Callahan saw nine ships during his 1,800-mile drift in the North Equatorial Current, fired his flares, blipped his transmitter and mounted his reflector, none of the ships saw him, not even the one that came within a mile of his raft. He made better use of the pencils, which he was able to lash into a rude sextant that allowed him to monitor his progress. He used the paper to keep a log (and with it his sanity) and found the foam padding served well to mute the blows of the sharks and dolphinfish that continually bashed against the bottom of his raft. He jury-rigged a patch with a slotted fork from the mess kit to repair a hole he had inadvertently punched in the raft's lower tube while spearing fish.

Early on, Callahan discovered that his raft was becoming a pelagic ecosystem all its own because of the shade and subsurface "cover" it offered. First triggerfish, then dolphinfish (also called dorados) were attracted to the raft. Small but edible barnacles grew on its bottom. The triggers fed on the barnacles, and Callahan, using his spear, fed on them. They were bitter and leathery. The dorados, though, were not just beautiful companions; they were very tasty, even raw. "I don't know why the dorados are bumping," he wrote. "It is as if they were dogs pushing their begging heads under a human hand for a piece of meat, a scratch behind the ear, or a playmate. I call them my little doggies or doggie heads."

For all his affection for dorados, Callahan found most every part of them worth eating, especially the minuscule bits of fat in the belly steaks and around the pelvic and pectoral fins. For dessert, he sucked slowly on the nuggets of liquid along the backbone. Sometimes flying fish provided a delicious change in menu, and three times he caught and ate seabirds. All told, during the ordeal he lost 44 pounds. Wherever his body touched the rough skin of the raft, it was covered by sores and the raw wounds stung at the splash of seawater. But worst of all was the loneliness. He imagined, for sanity's sake, that his mind was the ship's captain, and his hungry, desiccated body the crew, always verging on mutiny. Many times he wanted to quit, let the sea take him.

Finally, Callahan and his rubber world fetched up near the island of Marie-Galante 25 miles east of Guadeloupe. Fishermen saw the cloud of seabirds over his raft, figured there were fish working under the birds, and found him. While he waited, they caught and killed the school of "doggie heads" that had helped keep him alive during the long test. It's the way of the sea, and this splendid little book with its clear, useful line drawings (by the author) and its well-chosen, dead-honest words is a powerful description of that infernal, eternal way.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)