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Sinking survivor designs life raft

Steve Callahan: My ordeal would have been reduced to two weeks  

by Tammy Oaks

LONDON, England -- After being lost at sea for two-and-a-half months, Steven Callahan has used his ordeal to design a craft that would help sailors survive similar situations.

The clam, he says, is a utility craft that functions better in the water than a conventional life raft.

Now his design has been taken on board by nautical manufacturers HydraNova Boatworks almost 20 years after Callahan's ordeal in a life raft.

Callahan, now 50, was 800 miles west of the Canary Islands on a single-handed Atlantic voyage when his self-designed boat, the Napoleon Solo, capsized causing him to abandon the vessel.

He still does not know what hit the 6.5 metre Solo but he has always suspected it was a whale or large sea creature.

Callahan told CNN: "There is a stage of recoil that hits. You escape the sinking boat but once you are in the life raft, disorientation sets in.

"You start asking yourself 'How can I make a life here?'"

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There were times Callahan did not think he would survive the ordeal, as getting the basic requirements for food and water was a struggle.

In an effort to normalise things as much as possible, he set up a daily routine. He exercised every morning and came up with ways of measuring time and distance.

Perhaps the single most important factor of his journey was the school of fish that followed him across the ocean.

"The fish offered me real companionship. They nourished me. They almost killed me. And in the end, they brought me salvation," he said.

The fish that escorted Callahan were Dorados, or Mahi-Mahi. He outlines the relationship that grew between him and the fish in his book Adrift.

"I have so much respect for them. They were superior to me in that realm," Callahan said.

He made a makeshift spear to catch the fish that swam near his raft. Eventually, he said, the fish learned the range of the spear and stayed that distance from him.

At one point, a large fish broke the spear and rammed it against the bottom tube of his raft, almost sinking it.

Callahan sails his new 11 1/2-foot dinghy  

Callahan learned that when he pressed his knees in the bottom of the raft the fish would gather to rub or hit the bottom, allowing him to reach some fish with his spear.

"The fish learned I was quite dangerous to them. Still, they stayed with me. At the end of the voyage, I would even drag my hands through the water to cool down and touch them," he said.

The fish caused birds to gather which ultimately led to his rescue when a fishing boat spotted the birds and assumed fish were present. The boat ferried him to an island off Guadeloupe on April 21, 1982.

While surviving and hoping for rescue Callahan says he realised the limitations of a traditional life raft and considered how his needs could have been better served.

"I didn't set out to design a new life raft but realised a boat was needed that fulfills functions as or better than a life raft. The clam is a utility raft."

The clam offers the basics of what he found necessary while at sea. A canopy sits over the raft which protects sailors against the sun and rain. The bottom is made of fibreglass, which offers some protection from marine life. Most importantly, a sail can be hoisted that allows sailors to navigate their way instead of just drifting downward.

Callahan's voyage would have been shortened considerably had he been able to sail the life raft he used 20 years ago.

"I could have reached across wind at a modest 3 knots and reached Cape Verde in Africa in two weeks rather than two-and-a-half months," he said.

But Callahan's ordeal did not kill his love of the sea and he and his wife, Kathy, are now planning to spend the next few years living on a boat -- equipped with two clams.




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