Engrossing tale of shipwreck, survival, and rescue at sea

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 234 pp. $15.95. Uninsured and with nearly everything he owned on board, Steve Callahan left the Canary Islands early in 1982, bound for Antigua. He had designed and built the boat he was sailing, the Napoleon Solo, and his goal was to complete a circumnavigation of the North Atlantic, which he had begun with a crossing from Massachusetts to England.

``I am experiencing a rare time for a sailor, a week of peace,'' he writes in an early chapter of his book. But late one night, as a gale swept over the ocean, the Napoleon Solo cracked open and, as water rushed in, Callahan grabbed what he could and set himself loose in a rubber life raft.

So begins Callahan's harrowing account of his experience as the only man in history to survive more than one month alone at sea in an inflatable raft.

Afloat in what he later named Rubber Ducky III, Callahan originally figured on a 15-day survival, assuming his eight pints of water and three pounds of food lasted -- not to mention the raft itself.

Rocking between states of despair and hopefulness during his journey, the author acknowledges that one of his greatest challenges was controlling his numerous ``selves'' -- the physi-cal self, in pain almost constantly; the emotional self -- the one that weighed the choices, made the decisions, quelled the other selves and hoped to remain in charge. ``I am much more aware of my inner conflicts now,'' he told this writer in a recent interview. ``I try to balance things better than I did before.''

Hunger and thirst pushed at him constantly. His solar stills yielded minute amounts of water, often quite salty. When his original food supply was exhausted, he began fishing with jury-rigged gear, catching triggerfish at first and then dorados, which he cut into small sections and hung up to dry on a line inside the canopy of the raft. He kept himself firmly on ration.

He also contended with fear: fear that the dorados and sharks would destroy his raft; fear that his meager supplies would not be replenished, that his diminishing strength would finally give out; fear that his rational self would lose ground to the insistent hounding of the other selves; fear that fear would overtake him.

But there were moments of peace for him, too. He writes, ``My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most important kind. I value each moment that is not spent in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst, or loneliness. Even here, there is richness all around me. As I look out of the raft, I see God's face in the smooth waves, His grace in the dorado's swim, feel His breath against my cheek as it sweeps down from the sky. I see that all of creation is made in His image.''

As Rubber Ducky III labored toward its eventual destination, some 1,800 nautical miles from the Canaries, the Callahan family alerted the Coast Guard. Because their assistance proved more frustrating than helpful, the family consequently initiated their own search and rescue (SAR) operation. ``On the whole, the Coast Guard does a pretty good job,'' Callahan says, ``considering their limited funds and the numbers of people needing assistance. In my case, though, they did some pretty absurd things.'' He paused. ``I think it's extremely important that people who are voyaging know that the Coast Guard probably won't go out and look for them and, secondly, that people can organize their own SAR operations.''

Callahan's rescue finally came off the Caribbean island of Marie Galante at the hands of three fishermen who normally never fished on that side of the island. ``I feel as if I have struggled with a most demanding puzzle,'' he recounts in his log, ``and after fumbling for the key piece for a long time, it has fallen into my fingers. For the first time in two and a half months, my feelings, body, and mind are of one piece.''

The reader breathes a sigh of relief, just as this interviewer did upon meeting Steve Callahan. He really is all right. He really did make it. When one meets him, one senses why. He is calm and quietly self-assured. And very knowledgeable about the sea. ``The sea,'' he says, ``teaches you to make do with what you've got, plus what surrounds you in the environment.''

The author feels that most people have a very idealized picture of sailing. ``They conjure up tropical climates, romantic sunsets, pia coladas. It's really different -- most of the time it's extremely hard work, and that's if nothing breaks!'' He laughs. ``When you're sailing well, though, it's very much like I picture it is to play a musical instrument -- you become one with the movement and the flow of it.''

Callahan has not built another boat since the Napoleon Solo. ``If you saw my bank account, you'd know why,'' he explains. ``It's a luxury to be able to have a boat and to make ends meet.'' In addition to work as a naval architect, he writes for sailing magazines, and delivers boats for people. So far, the longest delivery has been between the United States and England.

Something the author has found very surprising about his book is the number of people who readily identify with his story. ``The details of their particular survival stories may vary,'' he says, ``but the point is they've gone through it.

``And, you know, they really do surprise themselves with their ability to endure.''

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