It was the middle of the night. Steve was jolted awake in the middle of a raging storm. In the dark and stormy unknown of the Atlantic Ocean.
It had all started as a race. He had planned to race his sleek, 6.5m sloop, the Napoleon Solo, from England to Spain and then back across the Atlantic.
But on his way to Spain, he was forced to drop out when the hull of his craft developed a small crack. Beaten but not broken, Steve decided to sail solo across the Atlantic anyways.
But then he had to get back home. And that’s what he was doing right now.
In a panic, Steve realized that he was in a much worse situation than a mere crack.
Something enormous, perhaps a whale, had crashed into the side of his boat, tearing the hull wide open.
It was February 4, 1982. Two days before Steve’s 30th birthday.
Knowing he had to move quickly, Steve started packing his life raft.
It was raw instinct.
Sleeping bag: check.
Flare gun: check.
Emergency kit: check.
Diving in an and out of the cabin that was now completely underwater, he grabbed all the food he could find: a head of cabbage, a box of eggs, 10 oz of peanuts, 16 oz of baked beans, and 8 pints of water.
As he was underwater gathering more supplies, a wave smashed into the boat, slamming the cabin door shut from the outside.
He was trapped underwater. Helpless.
Gulping the last bit of air he could with the hatch lid still closed, Steve felt in his gut that this was it. His time had come.
The moments of his life flashed before him in an instant.
And that instant seemed to last an eternity.
Just when he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, the pounding waves changed direction — ripping the hatch back open, allowing Steve to swim back to his life raft.
Exhausted, he tied the life raft to the boat.
Right now he needed rest. He would get more supplies in the morning.
He woke up to find that his line had snapped in the middle of the night.
He was all alone — at least 450 miles from the nearest living soul.
Taking stock of his situation, he reasoned that he had enough supplies to last about 18 days.
After that, he’d be at the mercy of the sea.
Working quickly, Steve began to examine the solar stills he had salvaged from the boat. He found 3 of them.
And each of them had the potential to turn ocean water into 6 pints of safe, drinkable water each day.
Except none of them worked. None of them.
He was a dead man floating.
Knowing he’d be dead without fresh water, he took one of them apart to see how it worked. Using the odds-and-ends he had in the raft, he managed to get the 2 remaining stills working — a little.
Together, they were able to create 5 cups of clean water each day.
And that’s where he found himself — in the middle of the ocean with a few cups of clean water available each day
Days turned into a week. And one week into two.
By now he had exhausted his food supplies and had to figure out what to eat.
He noticed that barnacles had grown on the bottom of his life raft. And slowly, small fish started to eat the barnacles. And then slightly bigger fish started to eat the smaller fish.
And eventually, the fish were big enough to spear and eat.
Which worked perfectly until his spear gun broke.
So he tied his survival knife to the end of the spear and started stabbing away.
Two weeks turned into three. Three turned into four. Four turned into five.
Five weeks turned into six.
He was 44 days into his survival journey home when he accidentally ripped a hole in the bottom of the raft trying to spear a fish.
No amount of patching worked. After surviving the impossible, he was doomed to a slow but sure death.
But that wasn’t a fate he was willing to accept.
Every day, the raft leaked, and every day he blew it back up.
Every night before he went to sleep, he repeated the same process.
One day passed doing this. Then two days. Then three days.
And every day, while he worked to repair the hole that could end his life, sharks circled, waiting to strike while he worked to repair the bottom of the raft, arms submerged in the water.
He was enraged. Tired. Hungry. And thirsty. He wanted to just give up and die.
So he did what any reasonable person would’ve done in that situation. He threw a temper tantrum. Nothing he was doing was working.
He shouted until his voice was broken. He cursed and swore and challenged the universe to come at him.
It would be easier to just quit than to try to fix his hopeless situation.
But after he calmed down, he came to a moment of clarity and talked himself down: “Look, you’re going to be dead if you don’t do something that works. You have only enough strength left to try one more thing. Now figure it out.”
The next morning he had an idea from this Boy Scout days. He used a fork to twist the nylon he had bunched around the gaping hole to seal it off.
And he drifted like that, shivering all through the night, burning up during the day, floating along with nothing to see but an endless expanse of blue ocean and the fish that swam around him.
Day after day. After day. After day. After day. After day. After day. After day. After day.
One monotonous day after another.
He saw hope passing in the distance in the form of a ship.
Digging through his supplies, he grabbed the flare gun and launched one towards the boat. If they could just see the flare, they would surely come and rescue him.
Except they didn’t.
And then there was another ship. Same story. And a different, third ship. Same story.
Seven different times, a ship passed close enough for Steve to see them — but none of them stopped to help.
Three times he turned on his emergency beacon, hoping a passing ship or airplane would pick up his signal.
Except they didn’t.
A normal person would go crazy in a situation like this — drifting alone in the middle of the ocean, covered in salt sores, and ignored by passing ships.
Steve knew this. And so he knew he had to figure out how to keep himself sharp.
So he developed a daily routine.
Exercise — he found a way in spite of his weakened state and swollen feet.
Restock the water.
Check his food supplies.
Measure his current location.
Do algebra in his head.
And think about the deeper meanings of life.
It sounds a bit nutty — but he came up with a series of tough questions to keep himself focused each day:
- Which of the elements most critical to my physical survival need the most attention: water, food, or raft?
- What specifically are the most basic elements of the problem that I am currently facing, and what among my limited resources would address that specific need?
- How can I be a better person, to be of more help to others, to be a willing participant in my society? What is the worst-case scenario if I do this?
- What are the beneficial elements of what is happening right now? Am I doing the best I can?
Every day he ran through that routine. Wake up. Exercise. Restock the water. Check his food supplies. Measure location. Do algebra. Think about the deeper meanings of life.
He was determined to keep his mind straight. One day at a time.
Day 44 turned into day 56. Day 56 turned into day 67.
Day 76 was April 20th. Against the blackness of the clear night sky, Steve saw the glow of lights off in the distance.
It was an island. It was hope. But it could also be death.
To get to land, Steve would have to travel through the crashing surf and wash ashore, a relatively easy task for a grown man, but an impossible task for someone who spent two and a half months living on a starvation diet.
As he braced himself for the struggle ahead, another boat came into his view.
But this wasn’t like the seven other boats before. It was a small three-man fishing boat that had headed his direction when they saw all the birds hovering over the water — a sure sign of good fishing.
They found those birds hovering over Steve Callahan. And rescued him.
He had drifted 1,800 miles in those 76 days — all the way down to Marie Galante, a 9.5 mile-wide island in the Lesser Antilles.
As he would later write about his survival: “it was one in a billion.”
And maybe he was wrong about that.
The Navy SEALs have a rule: “When your brain tells you that you’ve given everything that you have, you’ve only given 40%.”
It would have been easy for Steve to quit when the rope broke from his boat.
It would’ve been easy for Steve to quit when the solar stills quit or when he ran out of food or when the raft got a hole or for any other of the thousands of reasons that floated through his brain every second of every day.
But he kept going.
Each new excuse to quit was an obstacle to overcome. Each boat that passed him was one boat closer to rescuing him.
He didn’t have anyone to depend on. Nobody was going to save him but him.
He didn’t have time for excuses. He had to get tough and figure things out — or die.
The same is exactly true for you. And your dreams,
- When you think you’ve given everything that you have, you’ve barely gotten started.
- When you think you’ve saved as much as you can, you’re still got 60% more.
- When you think you’ve invested everything you have into your relationships, you have more to give.
You’re not even half as strong as you could be.
When you think you’ve worked all you can, you’re walking away from 150% growth.
You’re tougher than you think you are. You’ve got more potential. More power.
You don’t have to be afloat for 76 days on the angry ocean, surrounded by sharks, to dig a little bit deeper.
You can start today. Right now. This moment.
You just have to decide to be tough. And keep moving forward.