Reeling from a divorce and in an effort to clear his head, Steve Callahan did one of the things that he knows best — took to the sea.

Callahan planned out a momentous trip of sailing aboard his 6.5-meter sloop, the Napoleon Solo, from Maine for the Canary Islands.

It is easy to see why someone would want to sail to the Canary Islands. (Credit: Balate Dorin)

What he didn’t know is that he was about to get more time to clear his head than he originally thought.

To Clear One’s Head

The trip to the Canaries was uneventful. Callahan was an experienced sailor who had been on the water his whole life. It was the trip back where a curve ball causes a bit of excitement.

Callahan in the Napoleon Solo off the Canary Islands. (Photo: Steven Callahan)

A gale arrived, and though Callahan truly wasn’t worried – gales are nothing new to those familiar with sailing – what he didn’t count on was the creature that punctured a hole in the boat’s hull.

A whale? A shark? Whatever it was, it was big, and as freezing water filled the Napoleon Solo, Callahan realized that his only chance of survival was to take to the life raft.

Twice he dived into the submerged ship to retrieve essential survival supplies for his raft. He grabbed food, water, a spear gun, and a copy of Sea Survival by Dougal Robertson.

As the Napoleon Solo sank beneath the waves, Callahan took stock of his situation — he was lost at sea.

Callahan’s “Avon” life raft. Photo taken in April, 1982.

In the Sun and Water

Callahan’s biggest threat was the lack of fresh water. The rubber lifeboat had a few solar stills on it, but it was days before he figured out how to get them to work. It required dissecting one of them just to learn the process.

A solar still attached to the back of a boat. (Photo: bwsailing)

The stills produced a meager 2 pints of water a day, leaving him chronically thirsty. When he could, he collected rainwater to supplement his stores.

For food, Callahan used his spear gun to kill birds, triggerfish, and sharks, all of which he ate raw. Nine times, ships came within hailing distance, yet not a single one managed to see his flares.

By Day 40, a hole appeared in the life raft. Callahan was forced to spend the next 10 days constantly pumping out water in an attempt to stave off death by drowning, hypothermia, or becoming food for the sharks.

He eventually managed to patch the hole, but his trials were not over.

Ashore Once More

It was Day 76 that he was finally rescued by three fishermen in the Caribbean.

A photo of Callahan from a news article shortly after his rescue.

Months of rehab passed by before Callahan was able to walk and take care of himself once more.

Callahan went on to write Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, his memoir of the adventure, before returning to the life of a sailor once more.

Callahan has continued to put his nautical expertise to use since the incident. (Photo: Steven Callahan)

To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category. Interested in survival, check out our survival category or dive deeper into the sea with How To Survive When Stranded at Sea.

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