‘Adrift’ author recounts harrowing experience at Concord High School

  • Steve Callahan, the author of the nonfiction 1986 survival tale "Adrift," spoke to an auditorium full of Concord High School students Friday about his experience. NICK REID—Monitor staff

  • Steve Callahan (center), the author of the nonfiction 1986 survival tale "Adrift," spoke to an auditorium full of Concord High School students Friday about his experience. NICK REID—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, April 21, 2017

Author Steve Callahan recounted his racking experience adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for an auditorium full of Concord High School students Friday, capping a community-wide reading of his book.

It was the 35th anniversary of Callahan’s rescue in the Caribbean, which would become world-famous with the publication of his 1986 book, “Adrift,” telling the story of his feat of survival 76 days at sea aboard a raft.

Callahan recalled his state of mind when he hit something – maybe a whale, he’ll never know for sure – in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, causing the nose of his self-built, 21-foot sloop to collapse underwater.

He leapt up, floated his life raft and grabbed his “ditch kit” of vitals, but all the while a flood of paradoxical thoughts overcame his mind.

“Part of me was going through the drill, but my mind was very active, too. I had this voice saying, ‘You’re going to die … this is it,’ totally freaked out, and then this other voice in me telling it to shut the hell up and get on with it,” Callahan said.

Yet another thought managed to delight him, that a film camera on the boat was capturing it all, never to be seen. “I was kind of amused by that at the same time,” he added.

Through a library program called Concord Reads, the city joined together in something of a book club to read and discuss “Adrift,” living those experiences themselves through Callahan’s telling. At the high school, students had the chance to interview him and hear his personal humility.

At one point, Callahan said he was grateful there was no one with him on his journey, because it would have been impossible to desalinate enough water for the pair. On the other hand, he added, humbly ignoring his own expertise as a naval architect, that the other person surely would have been smarter than him.

His wits were enough, however, to sail 1,800 miles to the nearest island, his raft becoming a small ecosystem for birds and fish along the way. It was the frigatebirds overhead that ultimately attracted the fishermen who became his rescuers.

Anything floating in the ocean develops its own ecology, he said. Barnacles grew and fish began gathering around his raft within days, especially the dorado, which are known in restaurants as mahi-mahi.

They grow up to 6 feet and weigh as much as 85 pounds, but Callahan said he tried to stick to the smaller ones after a big fish early on “just about beat me to pieces.”

“Every time I caught one, it was a threat to me, because I’m catching fish with a spear in an inflated raft in the middle of the Atlantic,” he said.

Callahan came to have mixed emotions about catching fish as he “divvied” himself up operationally into the physical self, the rational self and the emotional self, he said.

“My physical part, it was dying, it was starving, it was dehydrated, so that physical part of me just wanted to consume all the water all the time and kill all the fish,” he said. “But the emotional part of me got very, very attached.”

The fish were his only companions and he came to regard them as if pets. Not only that, but he had a spiritual reverence for them and their habitat. “They were superior to me out there,” he said.

“I think I really got to understand how hunter-gatherer types of societies get so integrated with the physical environments upon which they rely,” Callahan said. “To me, (the fish) are the heroes of the story. I was out there dying as this kind of clumsy human observer of this amazing environment that somehow came together and made sense to me in the end.”

It became increasingly difficult for his emotional aspect to cope with the need to kill fish, he said, “or anything else for that matter.”

The dorado like to eat flying fish, Callahan said, and so do the frigatebirds that began to hover overhead each morning as the raft got nearer to land. Likewise, fishermen take their cues from the birds.

“They’re naturally literate. They see things in the environment that give them messages,” Callahan said, “so they saw the frigate birds and came out to find the fish.”

He added: “And there was me.”

One of the students who sat on stage interviewing Callahan was Hunter Cogswell, a sophomore whose English class read the book.

Cogswell said he’s had a long interest in survival stories and even has some sailing experience himself, so when he had the chance to meet Callahan, “I was probably one of the first to raise my hand to volunteer for this kind of thing.”

“It just kind of shows that you can adapt, and you can get through any situation,” he said, “no matter how much the odds don’t seem good, or how uncomfortable or miserable it is.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)