Going solo: A book review of ‘Adrift,’ by Steven Callahan
November 23, 2013
The life of a sailor is not for everyone. A certain meditative quality is required, for no matter how large the crew, many hours are spent alone, contemplating the vastness of the ocean. The boundless main has long lured travelers, bent on exploration or new beginnings. Over time, some have seen the ocean as merely something to cross or to conquer; others have considered it a friend or a foe, a being of intensity and might, uncontrollable and infinite. Of the ocean, Longfellow so beautifully expressed, “Only those who brave its dangers comprehend its mystery!” To truly examine the riddle of the ocean, one must leave the safety of land behind and surrender oneself to its briny embrace.
So, in 1982, when “Adrift” author Steven Callahan set sail from the Canary Islands in “Napoleon Solo,” an aptly named sailing ship of his own design, he was intent on navigating the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean westward to the Caribbean, a feat many deemed foolish. In his case, the venture was lambasted as doubly foolish, for he was determined to make the journey alone.
For Callahan, though, sailing the ocean waters was the equivalent of a spiritual journey. When Callahan set out on the odyssey that became the basis for his gritty and compelling book, he saw himself undergoing a pilgrimage.
From the safety of shore, he had said, “To go to sea is to get a glimpse of the face of God.” Unwillingly, though, his transcendent journey quickly becomes a fight for survival, almost delivering him to his own personal God. A violent tempest quickly turns Callahan’s steady journey west into a topsy-turvy battle with the elements that pummels him down and leaves him floating in a small, round life raft with a scattering of rescued items from his dying “Napoleon Solo.”
For 76 days, he ruminates on the looming visage of God, locked in a macabre dance with his own fading humanity and with the surrounding sea life, which both nourishes and imperils him.
Written in a diary format and with many illustrations sketched by the author, “Adrift” grabs the reader like a hook in a fish, with such clarity and earnestness that the story will linger after the last pages are turned. Callahan suffered much, as is expected, and his survival is extraordinary. Extraordinary, too, are the many small details that contributed to his ability to resist all that the indifferent waters threw at him. His powerful will to live becomes purely instinctual as he leaves behind his reason and his sanity as the effects of starvation and dehydration, exhaustion and loneliness begin to take their toll.
Drawing on all his skills as an engineer, a seaman and a navigator, Callahan uses what little he can salvage from his rapidly foundering boat and endeavors to make the life raft, dubbed “Rubber Ducky III,” as comfortable as possible. Finding food and a source of drinkable water become paramount, but the will to fight grows harder to summon the weaker he becomes. A catch-22 ensues, as he exerts more energy to do more tasks to help him gain more energy to do more tasks — a challenge that he repeats, with growing frustration and with diminishing results.
Resorting to hand pumping the raft to keep it afloat, he perseveres, beating back countless curious and hungry sharks, and tries to minimize his knobby knees and bony joints on the floor of the raft from tempting inquisitive fish with rows of teeth, capable of causing irreparable damage to the delicate framework of his makeshift home.
Still, in spite of facing circumstances no one should ever have to experience, Callahan walks away from his adventure with a new perspective on life, stating, “… whether you crawl into a hole or walk a high wire, nobody gets out of here alive. We cannot grow without challenge. Challenges routinely produce crises that severely test us. However, crises also offer us the greatest opportunities.”
Steven Callahan spent 76 days drifting across the Atlantic, and every second undoubtedly felt like an eternity, but reading “Adrift” is such an immersive and absorbing experience that the book is over way too soon. Out of his misery, a master tale of adventure is born.