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A survival lesson at sea; a life reborn

Steve Callahan knows the importance of being prepared.

The solo sailor earned a spot in the record book a decade ago when he survived 76 days in a life raft after his small sloop sank off the Canary Islands.

That ordeal, which he later recounted in the best seller Adrift, made the former Boy Scout a reluctant authority in ocean survival.

"I think it is difficult to become an expert," Callahan said by phone, coincidentally, 10 years to the date his sloop sank. "Every situation has its own set of circumstances that make it unique."

But there are things boaters and sailors can do to help stack the odds in their favor. And Callahan, 40, will share some of those hard-earned lessons Sunday in a lecture at the Holiday Inn Surfside on Clearwater Beach.

On Feb.

4, 1982, a few days before his 30th birthday, Callahan found himself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean battling 10- to 12-foot seas.

He had built his 21-foot sailboat, Napoleon Solo, by hand. His goal: complete the Mini Transat, a single-handed race from England to the West Indies.

Unfortunately, a crack in the sloop's hull forced Callahan to drop out of the race in Spain. After repairs, he set out alone to recross the Atlantic.

"Those weeks sailing down the coast of Spain and the Canary Islands were some of the best times I have ever spent in a sailboat," he said. "But I was broke. Everything I owned was on the boat, so I had to get back to the Caribbean to pick up work."

But late one moonlit night, his dream trip turned into a nightmare.

"There was a tremendous crash, and water started pouring into the boat," Callahan said. "It looked like on of those old movies when the submarine gets hit by a depth charge water coming in all over."

Callahan still doesn't know exactly what happened: "It could have been a whale, or a great white shark."

It took just 60 seconds for the boat to fill with water. He scrambled above deck and cut loose his nylon life raft. He realized that he'd need more supplies to survive in the open sea.

"So I dove back inside and grabbed a ditch kit, a sleeping bag and piece of cushion," he said.

At one point, waves crashing over the sloop slammed the hatch shut, nearly sealing Callahan inside a dark, watery tomb.

The sea sucked the hatch back open and allowed him to escape again to the raft, which he tied to the hull. But that night, the waves tore the raft loose. At dawn, he was floating alone in the Atlantic.

"On one hand, there is the part of you that says you are going to make it," he said. "Then there is another part of you that says you are going to die in a few hours."

Once you overcome the disorientation and fear, Callahan said, you settle into a survival routine.

For him, that meant making freshwater with a "solar still," spearing an occasional dorado for dinner and keeping track of his progress with a crude sextant fashioned from pencils.

There were sharks: "Sometimes they'd just come up for a look and leave. Other times, they'd rub up against the bottom. One night, a shark almost lifted the raft out of the water."

Callahan kept up his spirits by practicing yoga: "The best way to describe life in a raft is like living in a water bed with a couple of kangaroos."

More than once, he spotted ships on the horizon. At times, they were less than a mile away, but there was never anybody on deck to see his signals.

Then, during his 75th day at sea, he spotted an island. The next morning, he was rescued by fishermen. He had drifted 1,800 miles.

His reintroduction to civilization became a new survival experience.

"It was like being reborn," he said. "I had lost everything that I had owned. Now here I was starting all over again."

Callahan moved to Maine and began writing about his experiences. He occasionally lectures about ocean survival, covering everything from what gear to pack to readjusting to life after rescue.

"That is where the movies always leave off at the rescue," he said. "But for some people, that can be the most difficult part."

Callahan's lecture, sponsored by Cruising World magazine and Boat Owners Association of the United States (BOAT/U.S.), begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at BOAT/U.S. Marine Centers in Clearwater (11477 U.S. 19 N, phone 573-2678) and in Tampa (8203 N Dale Mabry, phone 933-5515) or by calling 1-800-937-BOAT. Tickets also will be available at the door at the Holiday Inn Surfside, 400 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach.