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Adrift solo in the Atlantic Ocean for 76 days! Steven Callahan's incredible story of survival

Steven Callahan's sailboat was damaged during a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1981
76 Days
Steven Callahan's sailboat was damaged during a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1981

New documentary of the true story premieres at Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

A six-foot-wide inflatable life-raft was all that Steven Callahan had to cling to when his sailboat was damaged during a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1981.

The incredible true story of his survival during 76 days adrift is the subject of a new documentary, 76 Days.

"The middle of the night...something hit the side of the boat, and the boat basically stopped pretty quickly, and was getting quite full of water very fast," Callahan told KCLU.

"I figured, 'Well, she's going right down. She might take me with her'." said Callahan.

"I got the life raft inflated and bailed out and boats sort of half sunk. The whole boat was totally underwater and the aft was sticking up a little bit, but there were like three, four meter waves, so they were sweeping over the whole boat. I couldn't stay aboard, but I could get back aboard and got some equipment. And before daylight, I got broken away from the boat, went drifting off and spent basically the next two and a half months living like an aquatic caveman," he said.

Documentary 76 Days premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
76 Days
Documentary 76 Days premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The incredible journey may have been over 40 years ago, but the memories were still fresh and raw as they set about recreating scenes for the film, said Callahan.

"It's one of these situations where I appreciate having the experience. It means a lot to me, and if I go back to certain parts of it, some of the most precious parts of my life rest in that experience as well as some of the most kind of horrible. And I don't want to linger in the horrible bits too long, but it's good to know that they're there," he said.

The documentary’s director, Joe Wein, said he was captivated when he first read about Callahan’s life or death struggle.

"I was immediately just gripped by it and just kind of curious how someone stranded in the middle of the ocean and a life raft could possibly survive floating across the whole ocean over two and a half months?," said Wein.

"I was really surprised by the emotional and the human spirit and grit and creativity involved in this journey and the universal aspect of it. I mean, everybody has to deal with huge problems over their life, and the idea of getting across the ocean and the big plan of how you're going to do that. And then the moment, day by day of real time, of how you're going to do that," he explained.

There's a limited amount of actual footage so Wein and Callahan set about recreating and reconstructing the visual aspects for the documentary.

"He did happen to have eight millimeter footage of when he crossed the ocean the first time the accident happened on the way back, and he did have old photos and illustrations and that kind of stuff," said Wein.

"I took a really unique perspective, which is kind of just how I sort of imagined it, you know, because you can't help but vicariously put yourself in the position, like, if it was me in that boat, what would I do? So this movie puts you in that seat," said Wein.

"For the recreation, I actually had a camera mounted to me, and we got an original raft and all the original equipment, and Steven went with me to the Virgin Islands and made sure that everything was set up correctly. The raft was correct. All the equipment was correct. Everything that he re-rigged is correct. So he had it all right, and we got this like really intense P.O.V. where he's explaining it. And then sometimes we can go to this recreation and sort of be him in the raft," said Wein.

76 Days makes its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday and has an encore screening on Monday 12th.

Caroline joined KCLU in October 2020. She won LA Press Club's Audio Journalist of the Year Award in 2022, 2023 and 2024.

Since joining the station she's won 10 Golden Mike Awards, 6 Los Angeles Press Club Awards, 2 National Arts & Entertainment Awards and a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Writing.

She started her broadcasting career in the UK, in both radio and television for BBC News, 95.8 Capital FM and Sky News and was awarded the Prince Philip Medal for her services to radio and journalism in 2007.

She has lived in California for eleven years and is both an American and British citizen - and a very proud mom to her daughter, Elsie.