This book is Steven Callahan’s account of his time adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after the small sail boat he was racing from Europe to Antigua sank in the night in the middle of the Ocean, struck by an unknown force, perhaps a rogue wave or a whale.
I’ve read my fair share of books on survival/adventure, most recently the Little Prince author’s plane crash in the Sahara and the days he spent wandering and baking in the sun thereafter. These stories follow a pattern: risky activity, bad fortune, perseverance, good fortune, survival. There are always unknown questions gnawing at the minds of those in distress. Where am I? Where am I headed? What are potential rescuers doing? How much more can the human body take before it fails? How much pain, fear, regret and uncertainty can the mind take?
The most unique aspect of Callahan’s experience is the extent to which he had to use his brain while attempting survival. Adrift on a rubber dinghy he had to constantly patch up holes, repair the solar still that made sea water drinkable and devise new tools to hunt for fish, all with only meager scraps he happened to have on hand. At one point he was barely able to move and near delirious, but was forced to conceptualize an intricate blueprint to attach a fork to rubber and twine to patch a hole in his sinking rubber raft. His imagined blueprint must work; he hadn’t the energy for trial and error.
Usually survival seems to be more a test of raw will, whether staggering back from a desert or crawling down a mountain. Take another step. Don’t fall asleep. Keep moving. Rarely is one also developing blueprints while physically spent. I’d like to think I could will myself onward, it seems like an extreme extension of demanding exercise, which I always seem to persist through. I’m far less certain I could think my way out simultaneously.
Thrust into this battle Callahan observes that his mind, emotions and body, which used to act as one in harmony disengage and “the distinction between the parts of myself continues to grow sharper as the two-edged sword of existence cuts one or another of them more deeply each day.” Later he notes that “my mind applauds my performance while my body boos.” Every action, decision or thought pits one part of him against the other. The dorado fish that follows his raft become objects of intense jealousy, as they live a “simple, unmysterious, unapprehensive life.” Unlike humans there is “no plague of politics, ambition, or animosity.” His mind is saving him, but he recognizes it is also the source of his own torture.
On the TV show Alone, where people must survive by themselves for as long as they can, one of the contestants notes that you better be OK with yourself before you go out there. Your time will be spent in pain, not doing, just existing. When we stop progressing forward it seems all our mind can do is look backwards to our past. Some crack up, some have regrets and change and some are fine, exiting as they entered. Callahan fits in the second category. Reflecting on his life and his ex-wife he realizes his inflexible, unloving and cold nature were barriers to happiness, not strengths. He resolves to “embrace humanity despite its weaknesses and to forge new and meaningful relationships.” Humbled, he realizes that he is but a tiny part of the world and humanity and comes a bit closer to reaching the peaceful state of mind of the dorado, the simple-minded fish he looked at with such longing.
There is little regret expressed over the idea to sail solo across the Atlanic Ocean in a tiny boat. Life is defined by quality, not quantity. Callahan mentions that he does sail, but there’s no mention of traversing oceans or racing. This past week Rich Piana, a roided up bodybuilder who was addicted to being absolutely massive, died from what he put his body through at the age of 46. He went into a coma, but unlike Callahan he never came back. He knew the risks, but he genuinely loved that life and the money, fame, hot young girlfriends etc. Was the risk worth the reward?