July 2007

It Could Be Worse: Journey through Hell

Author: Craig Hysell

Sure the ocean is beautiful and makes all life possible on the planet. But she is also huge, merciless and unpredictable. Full of wild creatures, endless expanses and hull-shattering storms, the sea is the last place one would want to be alone, floating on a small life raft naked for two and half months and dying a slow, agonizing death. Because, as you might have guessed it, that’s when things couldn’t get any worse.

The Story of Steven Callahan
A good-natured and competent sailor, Steven Callahan was also a shipbuilder who taught college-level design courses. In 1980, he built his 21-foot sailboat, Napoleon Solo, from the hull up and sailed it across the Atlantic in the spring of 1981 with a friend.

Twenty-one feet will not even get you a first down in a football game, but the Solo made it across the Atlantic to England without much incident, and the boys shared a cold beer before Callahan’s friend departed back to the States by plane. Steven entered the Mini Transat by himself, a race that takes sailors from France down to the Canary Islands and back across the ocean to Brazil. The recipe for disaster had begun to brew.

Four days out of the Canaries—and two days before his thirtieth birthday—Steven woke up in the middle of a gale, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and his boat taking on massive amounts of water. He escaped with a life raft, a few emergency supplies, a drenched sleeping bag and the shirt on his back. As the Atlantic swallowed his ship, Callahan was forced to ride out the brutal storm for the next few days in a raft that measures five feet, six inches at its widest point. That would be the breadth of his home for the next 76 days.

The hells that Steven Callahan went through are quite possibly immeasurable. His deprivation was only matched by his ingenuity, his will to survive and his sense of humor. His starved and withered body became host to hundreds of saltwater boils—open sores caused by the abrasive effects of the sea. The sores would constantly heal, rip open and be stung by the salty ocean with a searing ferocity.

His legs atrophied; he lost a third of his body weight, battled a dozen sharks and stood on that precarious cliff of hope in the face of a sure and ugly end with every mistake or failure. His raft sprung leaks, his solar stills wouldn’t produce fresh water and it was an immense and constant struggle to haul in food to survive. Yet perhaps the most amazing moments of Steven Callahan’s ordeal came at the times when his savage desperation or deepest fears begged him to lie down and quit, time and time again. And time and time again, Callahan willed himself to live and try once more, think harder or, oddly enough, to notice the beauty of the sea.

For all those who feel they have it rough, Callahan’s memoir, Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, is sure to bring perspective back to the plights of most human beings on the planet, reminding us all that it could be worse—which, oddly enough, is something Callahan continually told himself on his mind-bending, body-wrenching journey through hell:

“My eyes fill with tears. I weep for my fish, for me, for the state of my desperation. Then I feed on its bitter meat.

“I find food in a couple of hours of fishing each day, and I seek shelter in a rubber tent. For the first time I clearly see a vast difference between human needs and human wants.

“My body is rotting before my eyes.

“If I were to search the most heinous parts of my mind to create a vision of real hell, this would be the scene, exactly.

“At sea I am reminded of my insignificance—all men’s insignificance. It is a wonderful feeling to be so humbled.

“I take comfort in the silent company of those who have suffered greater ordeals, and survived”—Steven Callahan, in Adrift

Steven Callahan is a prolific speaker and writer. He still sails to this day.

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