Survival at Sea

''It's . . . so awesome and so incomprehensibly complicated and incredible,'' says Steven Callahan, a young yachtsman, ''that I do not ever expect to even understand it.''

He is speaking of his experience drifting alone on a nylon raft for 76 days after being shipwrecked on the Atlantic.

''For example, in the raft voyage, several things happened which, if not miraculous, certainly border on the miraculous. Many things happened to me that I could so easily abstract meaning from - coincidences which saved me, coincidences which caused me trouble. So many things fit together that to me it is a great mystery.''

For example, with no impending sense of danger whatever, just before leaving the Canary Islands he bought a spear gun for no special reason except that the price was right and he thought a small one might come in handy when he reached the Caribbean.

Soon after his raft hit the water, fish schooled about him and followed him throughout his perilous, 1,800-mile passage, providing both food and companionship.

Fishermen who had never fished on the turbulent, windward side of Marie Galante Island in the French West Indies picked him up at the end of his ordeal. Even if Mr. Callahan had made it to land through treacherous coral reefs by himself, some believe he might have perished, exhausted, on a deserted beach.

The fact that he is home at last, looking fit and healthy, sitting on the pleasant terrace of his parents' house in Dover, Mass., relating his saga of survival, seems to be something of a marvel in itself.

On this sparkling day, sunshine filters down through tall trees.The property reaches downhill to a pond where the love of the water was born in a small boy. Everything here radiates a sense of well-being. The draining trial through which Callahan and his family passed this year seems worlds away.

Still, it is sobering to hold in one's hands that spear gun, a flimsy, toylike gadget, a knife tied to its tip with weathered twine. Or his jury-rigged sextant - three ordinary lead pencils lashed together. By shooting the stars with this makeshift device, he was able to fix his approximate position throughout the journey from off West Africa to the Caribbean.

Callahan first began sailing with his scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts, Arthur Adams. ''The first time I went out with him,'' Callahan says, ''everything felt right.'' At 16 he was soloing on day-trips. By young manhood, he was sailing with others on coastal voyages hundreds of miles long. In 1974 he made his first offshore passage - to Bermuda.

By 1979 he was a jack-of-all-trades in the marine industry, first building, then designing, sailboats for his own company. As a hobby, he was writing for sailing magazines and was a constant sketcher.

Always at the back of his mind was ''Tinkerbelle,'' Robert Manry's book about crossing the Atlantic in a 131/2-foot boat. ''That really inspired me,'' Callahan says. ''The romanticism of it seemed fantastic. It just sounded like a life style I would enjoy.'' Since age 12 his goal was to cross the Atlantic in a small boat either single- or double-handed.

''Most people are never alone in their lives for more than even 24 hours,'' he says. ''One amazing thing about sailing is that you are in a totally different environment, unaffected by man. The sea is so immense that it makes even the biggest, most powerful boat look tiny. . . .''

''You have total freedom within your environment. But you also have total responsibility. You can't expect that somebody is going to run out and get you out of whatever predicament you get yourself into. You've got to deal with it.''

Last year a lot of things began to coordinate for Callahan. After one try in which his mast snapped in a gale, in June 1981 he successfully completed a single-handed passage from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda. This qualified him to enter the ''Mini Transat'' transatlantic single-handed race from Penzance, England, to Antigua, British West Indies.

But by the time he reached England, sailing across with Chris Latchem, a friend from Montreal, he had already fulfilled several of his long-term objectives. He had designed a 21-foot, 4-inch cruising sailboat of modern, laminated-wood construction, and had built it with the help of his wife, Frisha, and friends and neighbors. He had proved his sailing ability by double-handing Napoleon Solo across an ocean.

The race itself, therefore, seemed somewhat anticlimactic. Despite gale-force winds and forecasts of worse to come, the race began on schedule Sept. 26. Five boats sank. Everybody was having problems.Callahan dropped out of the race, putting in at La Coruna, Spain, to make repairs.

From there to the Canary Islands his cruise on Napoleon Solo was leisurely and uneventful. Ahead of him lay a solo voyage back home.

The big transatlantic races are all monitored by radio and satellite by whoever sponsors them - a yacht club, a newspaper (such as the London Observer), a country. But when an individual sailor launches forth on his own, he is totally alone. Except possibly for some passing ship, no human help is at hand in case of emergency.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, he mailed a letter to his family saying he would arrive in Antigua about Feb. 24. That evening he set sail from the Island of Hierro in the Canaries. On board he had enough food and water for three months.

The first week was ideal sailing. He did what he relishes: reading, writing, drawing, taking photographs.

On Thursday, Feb. 4, the wind shifted, coming out of the north and growing stronger. By midnight an almost full moon lit up the sea. Callahan had been sleeping for half an hour. He doesn't know what smashed into his boat - most likely a whale, he believes. In 30 seconds Napoleon Solo was still floating but swamped, bow and companionway underwater.

He was out of his bunk and on deck like lightning. He grabbed a knife and tried to fetch his emergency duffel, but there was no time. He slashed loose the life raft, yanking at its firing head. The raft inflated and, knife in teeth , he leaped in.

A sailor's maxim is: Stay with the boat no matter what. Boats often stay together when you think they won't. Solo was full of water but still floating. Air pockets kept her stern high enough to give Callahan the grit to risk being dragged under. Despite 6- to 9-foot waves sweeping over her, he reboarded, diving into the cabin for his all-important duffel, sleeping bag, anything he could grab and wrestle into the raft.

''I was in there for several minutes trying to get things out. I'd come up and get a breath of air in between waves. Once the pressure of the water slammed the hatch back and I couldn't get it open. . . . Then all of a sudden, whoosh, the wave passed and, whoosh, air sucked in.''

His plan was to reboard at dawn to see if he could plug the holes or at the least get water, food, and clothes. But the seas grew. Just before daybreak, the 30-foot line holding him to Solo broke. The raft drifted away and his long odyssey began.

At a point 800 miles west of the Canaries, Callahan was 450 miles from the nearest shipping lanes between New York and South Africa. He figured it would be 20 days before his family would begin suspecting he was in trouble. He had almost no food and only enough water for perhaps two weeks. But he did have three saltwater stills to desalinate seawater.

Callahan began keeping a log. Every day he would evaluate his situation: With what I have now, I can survive X number of days. ''At the beginning, my chances of making it even to the shipping lanes were very, very slim. Making it to the Caribbean was probably one in billions.''

But soon life began to form around the raft; an ecosystem evolved. ''Anything floating at sea becomes an island,'' Callahan explains. ''Barnacles start growing on it. These attract fish. Fish attract other fish. I would pick up seaweed and there'd be little crabs or shrimp in it.''

First, triggerfish showed up. They tasted awful, he says. Then a school of some 50 dorado suddenly appeared. Highly prized as a delicacy, these brilliant blue game fish are common in tropical waters worldwide, ranging from 3 to 6 feet in length. These were about 20 pounds each. ''

They came closer and closer to the raft until I could spear them. I was their island. They would go off to fish, then come back. During the night they would surround the raft, cruise right along with me, just stay there all night long.''

The dorados' beauty buoyed him. Seeing them leap 3 or 4 feet out of the water was a tremendous joy. He came to recognize them individually. ''Each one definitely had a personality. Some just loved to come up and bang the bottom of the raft hard. Others would hit it, but softly. . . . ''

By the end of it I could reach down and touch them. They would shy away, but then come back again and again.'' He called them his ''doggie fish.'' He hated to kill them. ''But I was very hungry.'' Toward the end, when he was getting weaker, ''they were almost making it easier for me to catch them. I'm not sure why they were doing that.''

(Louis Garibaldi, curator of the New England Aquarium, says, ''We don't know why the dorado, tuna, and some other fish have this habit of schooling under floating objects. . . . But even if some are being caught, the rest will not leave.'')

Sharks? Oh yes, those, too, but of different species and behavior. ''When a hammerhead shark came racing in one day, the fish all scattered. But when other sharks would come up, the dorado would stay right next to them, almost as though they had invited them in for tea,'' Callahan says.

He hoped that if he could last until he hit the commercial shipping lanes, someone would spot the bright orange cover on his raft or see his flares. He sighted seven ships. Two came within a tantalizing mile of him. No one saw him.

He was not angry or bitter, but terribly disappointed. As days dragged into weeks, he could see he was slowly starving on his deficient, raw-fish diet. He could sleep - he couldn't help doing that. But there was no rest, just constant apprehension. If a shark raked its sandpaper hide across the bottom of the raft just once too often, that would be it.

On March 15, his 43rd day adrift, the situation greatly worsened. A powerful dorado jammed the point of the spear into the raft, ripping a four-inch hole in its bottom tube. Water rushed in. The top tube became unbearably spongy.

Callahan struggled for a week to close the hole. Every time he pumped in air , the pressure broke his patch. The weather worsened, and sharks moved in closer as he worked with his hands underwater. ''

I'd tried everything I could possibly conceive of to make the repair and nothing, nothing worked. I saw no answer. At that point I broke down for a while and yelled and cried, even though I felt I was just being stupid and acting like a five-year-old.

''A couple of times I had what I consider tantrums. There's nobody there to give you advice. Nobody to calm you down. This was the time when I probably would have died in a couple of days if I hadn't found a solution.

I came very close to just giving up, saying, 'OK, that's it. . . .' Then all of a sudden, boing! I slapped myself and said: Look! you are going to die if you don't find the answer. Keep calm. You're not in immediate danger. Think again! Think again! Think again! Go through all the equipment you have and see if there is any way you can figure out a solution.

''And then the answer came. It just dawned on me that a Boy Scout fork in a utensil kit I had thrown into my duffel bag a long time before was the answer. All I had to do was ram it through the end of the nylon I had gathered up around the hole and fold it inward. It fit so perfectly! It even had holes in the handle right where they should have been, so that made it easy.If that hadn't worked, I wouldn't have had enough strength to do anything else.''

Once this crisis passed, day-by-day surviving increasingly taxed Callahan's strength.Meanwhile at home his family were having their own battle with fear. On March 9 Edward M. Callahan Sr. had notified the US Coast Guard that his son was missing.

For two weeks the Coast Guard's Search and Rescue Branch, Atlantic Area, broadcast an alert that Napoleon Solo was overdue and unlocated, requesting hearers to keep a sharp eye out for it. There was no response.

The Coast Guard simply does not have enough men or equipment to search the vast reaches of the Atlantic. On March 22 the broadcasts were terminated. Emotionally this was a crushing blow to the family. But from the Coast Guard's point of view, based on years of rescue experience, there was little hope left. Only ham radio operators kept the alert alive. ''The ham radio operators of this world are marvelous,'' says Callahan's mother. ''They are deeply concerned citizens. We felt we had someone helping us. Without them, it would have been a terrible, vast emptiness.''

On April 1 Callahan's older brother, Ed Jr., left his work in Hawaii and flew home to give full time to the search.

With the help of sailing friends, Ed and his father gathered weather, wind, and current data and correlated it, plotting Steve Callahan's possible drift course. By their reckoning, on April 9 or 10 he was in a quadrant off Antigua. Later, they estimated that Steve was the within about 100 miles of that projected location.

The family again appealed to the Coast Guard, this time urging it to search with satellites. Several years down the line the Coast Guard expects to have this capability, but at present, its spokesmen say, satellites are not available for this use. No further search was made.

By mid-April even Callahan's sailing buddies felt there was little hope. Then came a devastating report that the wreck of Napoleon Solo had been found off Puerto Rico.

But the family refused to give up. ''We wouldn't accept that report!'' Callahan's mother exclaims. ''The strongest feeling I have ever had in my life was that Steve was still out there.''

A spokesman for the Coast Guard explained that a ham radio operator asked the Coast Guard on the West Coast what the status of Solo was. In checking it out, he says, someone in the Miami Coast Guard center unfortunately confused Solo with the wreck of another boat.

The Coast Guard insists it never broadcast that inaccurate report. But it concedes that this mistaken information was given to the ''ham,'' who, it says, did broadcast it. It took some time to get that false information off the air.

A week later, the family's hopes were at rock bottom.

But at 12:30 p.m. April 21, the Callahans' telephone rang. A ham radio operator in Pompano Beach, Fla., relayed the news that Steve had been picked up off Marie Galante Island by three fishermen.

Callahan had lost 40 pounds. He had begun to wonder if he would ever make it ashore. The last of his three water stills had worn out, leaving him only with what rainwater he could trap in make-do systems.

Then on the night of April 20, he awoke to see lights dead ahead. His joy was immense. By morning he was about 10 miles from shore. He began wrapping himself with plastic as protection from the coral in case the raft ripped and capsized.

Frigate birds had seen the dorado schooling under his raft. And the fishermen, who didn't even hail from Marie Galante, saw and followed the birds, a sure sign of fish.

''I had turned on my emergency beacon,'' Callahan says. ''I thought that air traffic would probably pick up the signal. Then I heard the motor, looked out, and there they were. It was great! I was yelling and screaming! It was fantastic!''

The fishermen were just as incredulous, taking the survivor and his raft ashore to the awe of the islanders.

''The fish were, in essence, my salvation,'' Callahan says, ''because it was they who attracted the birds. Now you can say, well, this doesn't mean anything. But to me the fact that the fishermen had never fished in that area before, that they saw the birds and came right to me because of the fish, this is significant to me.''

By that evening Steve was walking unaided. Since then his life has been a series of interviews. He is going on with his life. He plans to record his saga in a book and if possible make a film of his truncated part in the ''Mini Transat'' race.

Callahan's mother says the effect she sees that his shipwreck and survival have had on him is that he is more helpful and thoughtful of others than ever. ''I always thought he was super,'' she says, ''but he's going to be a much better man from the whole thing.''

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