Zachary Mayo, an American marine who was knocked off his aircraft carrier, survived for 36 hours by inflating his trousers and using them as a lifebelt, but that was in the Indian Ocean, where the water temperature was in the upper 20s. An experiment was done on the effects of the cold. The subject was told to open an emergency flare: it took him three seconds. He was then placed in a bath for half an hour at 14C - chilly, but warm enough to swim in. He was asked to open a flare again: it took him half a minute.
Mayo's achievement was, shall we say, out of the ordinary; Steve Callahan's was scarcely believable. He had been sailing since he was 12, and was, said Ray Mears in Ray Mears' Extreme Survival (BBC2, Thursday), something of an "adventurer". Well, yes indeed.
A few years ago he was competing in a transatlantic race when his boat sustained some damage. He called in at the Canaries, and with his repairs done he decided he would make the crossing anyway, even though he was out of the race. He told his friends and family he thought he would be about a month. So there he was, happily headed for the West Indies. Next thing he knew, something hit him, "T-boning" his boat. He thinks it was a whale. "The water came thundering in like a river," he said.
Instead of abandoning ship straight away, he dived back down to retrieve some equipment, what is called a "ditch kit". Once in his life raft, he gathered together the gear he had. A bit of food, eight pints of water, a fishing kit, some flares, some pencils and a knife was pretty much the measure of it, apart from three other items that saved his life.
One was a solar still to convert seawater into freshwater; another was a speargun; the third was the Manual to Sea Survival, written by Dougal Robertson, who spent 38 days adrift with his family in 1972. Thirty-eight days. Had he known what he was in for, Callahan would have settled for that. "Forget it," he told himself. "You're not going to get out of this." He was two to three months away from the West Indies. "It was the old Ancient Mariner thing," he said. "Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink." When you can only have a sip every few hours, he explained, water comes to dominate your existence - your time is measured out between those tiny gulps.
Still, he had some water, and he had his speargun. It took him two weeks to break his duck, though - a fortnight during which he must have wondered if he would ever eat again. "When I caught the first fish I just broke down and wept... it was a signal that I'd been reduced to the lowest level of my existence." Later that day he caught another, a dorado - the sort of fish, as he said, "you'd pay good money to eat in restaurants."
Once you have caught your fish, there is only one way to ensure you extract the maximum amount of nourishment: eat all of it. Every bit. "Those parts of the fish that were most disgusting to me, those were the parts that became the most delicious," he said. "There was nothing that tasted better to me than fresh fish eyes - they were like nuggets of fresh fluids. Your body seems to know what it needs."
Psychologically, things improved after a fortnight. "I began looking at myself as an aquatic caveman - I could live indefinitely out here. And the next step was to say, `I can get out of here'."
Then the sharks began to take an interest. The dark outline of the raft was perfect for attracting them. Still, he was able to fend them off with his speargun, so that was all right. For obvious reasons, spearguns and inflatable rafts do not make the best travelling companions, and it was only a matter of time before he had speared a fish which swam under and into the raft. Oops. "I knew I was in really big trouble then."
He tried a cork bung lashed with fishing line to repair the tear, but every time he re-inflated, the cork would pop out. It was the Myth of Sisyphus made nautical - no sooner had he blown it up than he had to start again. It was impossible to sleep, impossible to fish. The raft, now "a bag of water", slowed right down. "I realised I'd be dead in a matter of hours."
Finally, he broke off a fork prong and stuck it through the cork to anchor it to the rubber; he used seaweed attached to a piece of rope to work out how far westward he had drifted; he tied three pencils together for a makeshift sextant. On the 75th day, he said let there be light, and there was light. A lighthouse, to be precise. "I had a whopping party," Callahan said, "which for me was to drink a pint of water." It was probably the wildest party in recorded history.Reuse content