Steven Callahan's Solo Journey Across the Globe

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Surviving a disaster is one of the most challenging events that can occur during someone’s life. Surviving a disaster alone with no other companions or resources can be a multiplier of the risks or dangers of the situation. While some disasters are considered man made and others considered natural disasters, the events that combine these two individual entities are tough to overcome or to survive. With proper planning and perseverance, unfortunate situations can lead to a positive outcome.

The Event

In 1981, Steven Callahan set sail in the Mini Transat 6.50 single-handed sailing race from Penzance, England on his personal watercraft named Napoleon Solo (Callahan, 2002 p.19). Callahan (born 1952) is an American author, naval architect, inventor, and sailor that had significant experience in the marine industry. Unfortunately, bad weather during the race sank several boats in the fleet and damaged many others including Napoleon Solo. With the damage to the Napoleon Solo, Callahan was forced to withdraw from the race. While his race ended prematurely, Callahan was determined to continue his adventure. After making the mandatory repairs to his vessel, he continued his solo journey across the globe by way of the Atlantic Ocean. After resuming his adventure, Callahan encountered an emergency situation that would change his life. Callahan reports his emergency stated with “BANG! A deafening explosion blankets the subtler sounds of torn wood fiber and rush of sea. I jump up. Water thunders over me as if I’ve suddenly been thrown into the path of a rampaging river.” (Callahan, 2002 p.27).

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Terrain, Climate, and Weather

The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest of the world’s oceans with a total area of about 41,100,000 square miles (Ericson et al., 2018). Surface water temperatures vary with latitude, current pressure systems, and time of year. The temperatures can range from below 28 °F to over 86 °F (U.S. Navy, 2001). The Mini Transat race occurs in November to avoid the hurricane season, however, the water temperatures do start to lower. The average temperature of the Atlantic Ocean in November varies between 47-81°F based on location (NOAA, 2018).

Survival Gear

The inventory that Callahan had at the time of his disaster is probably what influenced his survival above all other factors. Callahan designed and built the Napoleon Solo to survive minor damages and still stay afloat by having separate air-tight compartments. Because of its skillful marine design, the Napoleon Solo sunk slow enough that Callahan was able to retrieve some of his survival supplies, including water, food, flares, and a short spear gun (Peake, 2012). In addition, to the items that Callahan was able to retrieve, the life raft (later named Rubber Ducky) had some supplies including a Tupperware box with pencils, paper, a bag of food, a sleeping bag, paddles, flares, sponges, a radar reflector, two solar stills, a first aid kit, a collapsible rubber basin, a 100-foot heaving line, charting tools, a flashlight, two signal mirrors, a raft patching kit, two can openers, seasickness pills, fifty feet of twine, and a single fishing hook (Callahan, 2002 p. 30). The small bag of food contained ten ounces of peanuts, sixteen ounces of baked beans, and ten ounces of soaked raisin (Callahan, 2002 p.30).

Survival Algorithm and Prioritized Needs

Identify: When Callahan lost his primary vessel, he was forced into a situation that he could not imagine. Luckily, he had the foresight to stock his boat with the essentials for survival. He first knew how to identify the risks and realities of the situation. He had the presence of mind to not hold out hope for rescue, but rather, to only rely on his own skillset to stay alive. Given the size of the Atlantic Ocean and his distance from the normal shipping lanes, Callahan was able to identify the severity of the situation and to plan for his survival needs accordingly.

Prioritize: In this situation, Callahan was forced to prioritize his survival needs. His first priority was not to drown and to have an ample amount of drinkable water. Callahan reported, “I would ask myself each day, which of the elements most critical to my physical survival needed the most attention: water, food, or raft? Did I have the maximum amount of water stored; had I caught enough food for a few days; had the raft developed any small problems that might become larger ones?” (Woodman, 2004).

Improvise: It would be nearly impossible to have enough supplies and resources to account for all emergent situations. His largest achievement for improvising came with the manufacturing of a water still. It was essential to collect and produce drinkable water. Callahan had the foresight to prioritize water as his immediate need for survival. Callahan had enough survival knowledge and skillset that he was able to adapt his Tupperware box in to an improvised water still. This was his first step toward being able to improvise and make his own survival tools and gear.

The Good and the Bad, Five Elements of Survival:

Personal Protection: The survival raft that Callahan was stranded on was critical to his survival. The raft included a double chambered bottom with an overhead rain cover (Appendix). The dual chambers were water tight and independent of each other (Callahan, 2002 p.37). The dual chamber kept Callahan well above the water level and provided a thermal layer between Callahan and the water. Callahan was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and a wrist watch (Appendix). It did not appear that Callahan had any eye protection. With the risk of optic blindness from the ocean glare, it would be imperative to have some form of eye protection. To keep warmth at night, Callahan did have a sleeping bag (Callahan, 2002 p.30).

Signaling: Callahan had a flashlight, several flares, and signaling mirrors. Unfortunately, Callahan’s use of an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and many flares did not trigger a rescue. EPIRBs were not monitored by satellites at the time, and he was in a part of the Atlantic Ocean not under surveillance (Callahan, 2002 p.40). Callahan’s failed signaling device forced Callahan to re-identify the situation and adjust his priorities for survival.

Finding Food and Water: Callahan did have a minimum amount of food and water upon entering the life raft, but it was critical for him to evaluate his resources and improvise his inventory to obtain a sustainable amount of sustenance. A survivor must learn to adapt and modify their resources as needed to achieve their goals. Through the production of his water still, he was able to produce about a pint of fresh, drinkable water a day (Callahan, 2002 p.48). Without a fire or other form of water sterilization and desalination, Callahan would become dehydrated. A fluid loss of 1% of your body weight impairs thermoregulation; while difficulties concentrating, headaches, and sleepiness are observed at 5%, and furthermore, a 10% loss of body water through dehydration is life threatening (WHO, 2004). Callahan was also able to make a water collection device utilizing his space blanket (Callahan, 2002 p.139).

During the first few days of starvation the body uses its stores of liver and muscle glycogen (Altun, Akansu, Azmak, & Yilmaz, 2004). Total lack of food is likely to cause death in about 50–60 days as long as adequate water is available, although this depends on external and individual factors such as the original fitness of the individual (Knight, 1991 p. 412). Callahan was fortunate enough to have a small bag of food when he entered the water, unfortunately, this would not have given him enough sustenance to survive his 76-day journey. Callahan was fortunate enough to have a spear gun on his raft which allowed him to fish for Mahi-mahi. This protein source in combination with adequate water production and rain water collection allowed Callahan to survive. Callahan improvised a clothes line to help hang his fish in order to dry which he later named “the butcher shop” (Callahan, 2002 p.37).

Travel: Callahan’s travel was at the mercy of the sea currents and wind. His life raft had no mast or sail that could be used as source of wind power. The life raft was circular in design with no directional hull. Callahan mentioned that having a life raft with a directional hull would have cut his days stranded at sea in half (Callahan, 2002 p. 85).

Health: Mr. Callahan focused on his physical and mental health. The lack of proper gear and no source of fire is a dangerous situation. Hypothermia is defined as a core temperature below 35°C (95°F) with mild hypothermia occurring at a core temperature of 32 to 35°C (90 to 95°F) and moderate hypothermia occurring at a core temperature of 28 to 32°C (82 to 90°F) (Giesbrecht, 2000). Thermo-regulation can be contributed from four elements: individual characteristics, physical activity, clothing biophysics, and environmental conditions (Potter, Blanchard, Friedl, Cadarette, & Hoyt, 2017). Only the elements of clothing and environmental exposure could be controlled by Mr. Callahan. Staying dry and out of the sunny elements protected his skin from maceration and thermal injuries.

Improvising to Meet Your Needs

Learning to improvise while maintaining presence of mind were two major principles that Callahan used to survive so long at sea. Callahan utilization of his space blanket to collect rain water required some improvisation. Callahan rolled the cuffs of the blanket, cut button holes in the fabric in order to make gutters for the water to collect and drain in a certain direction (Callahan. 2002). On day forty-three, Callahan’s vessel sustained a four inch tear to the bottom floatation compartment (Callahan, 2002 p.109). Unfortunately, the conical plugs from the repair kit were too small to patch the hole (Callahan, 2002 p.110). Callahan failed on several attempts to repair the hole, he finally utilized some closed-cell foam from his sinking yacht seat cushion and placed it in the hole, sewed the lips together with thin twine and then places a cerclage string around the repair as a tourniquet to seal it (Callahan, 2002 p.131). His utilization of the Tupperware container to make a water still or his utilization of supplies to repair his vessel when damaged were critical in that very moment and during the long duration of the trip. Callahan stated, “By day 50, I’d been struggling for 10 days to keep the raft afloat with a pump after part of it ripped. I was at my lowest. I broke down and gave up. But then I got scared by the thought I would be dead in a few hours; I found a way to fix the raft and it felt like the biggest victory of my life.” (Peake, 2012). He was rational about his decision making during an extremely difficult time. All too often, victims of an event will make irrational decisions during the “heat of the moment”, such as, drinking dirty water from a stream during times of thirst. This irrational thinking might solve the immediate needs of the situation, but the long-term ramifications may have a larger impact.


On day 46, the New York Coast Guard canceled the broadcast that the Napoleon Solo was overdue, in essence, that the “active search has been suspended” (Callahan, 2002 p.116). Callahan was just half-way through his disaster at that point. After 76 days, Callahan was discovered by fishermen, who saw birds flying around his raft (Callahan, 2002 p.173). The rescue occurred just offshore the island of Marie Glante, south east of Guadeloupe (Peake, 2012). While Callahan lost approximately 44 pounds, he sustained no long-term bodily harm or injury (Callahan, 2002 p.178). While his story will go down in infamy, Callahan’s preparation, planning, and improvisation should be what gets the attention. For without this steps, Callahan could have become another statistic of the sea. While many people would have perished in this scenario, Callahan’s will to live kept him living day to day. In a survival situation it is important to live in the moment but to also have a grasp of the reality.

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