‘76 Days’ at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival


The ending of “76 Days,” about Steven Callahan’s epic journey across the Atlantic in a 5½-foot-long raft, is no mystery. We know he survives because the very first face we see is Oprah Winfrey introducing him by asking us the question, “How long do you think you could survive if you were lost at sea with no food, water, or help in sight, and then forced to live on a raft?”

However, knowing that Callahan survives after drifting 1,800 miles across the Atlantic over the course of 76 days is certainly no spoiler. Director and producer Joe Wein’s riveting documentary brilliantly conveys not just the intensity of Callahan’s ordeal, but the enormous ingenuity and perseverance that helped him survive. Wein recounts the astounding tale by seamlessly blending gripping present-day narration by Callahan, animation, original 8mm footage, archival photos, and powerful recreations that Callahan helped to restage. Patrick Stump’s marvelous original music score amplifies the film’s immediacy.

In 1982, Callahan, about to turn 30, sets off alone from the Canary Islands to sail across to the Caribbean. After about a week of beautiful weather, on Feb. 4, some 800 miles out, he recounts, “I’ll never know what hit the boat for certain, but … my presumption is the whale was swimming along, minding its own business, and I gave it a headache.”

The weather was still rough, but believing all was relatively under control, Callahan went below deck to grab some sleep, stripping down to only a T shirt. Suddenly, he was awakened by an enormous boom, and a great wash of water rapidly started to fill the cabin. “Part of me is totally freaked out and feeling doomed. Oh, my God, the worst that I could imagine happening just happened, and there’s no way I’m getting out of this alive,” he tells us. Still nearly naked, Callahan goes into emergency mode, grabs a knife and bag of emergency gear, and then struggles to inflate the life raft. “It weighs about 100 pounds. You’re like on the back of a bucking bronco being almost swept off the deck by these breaking waves,” Callahan explains. Realizing he could not survive with just what he had, he got back on the boat and dived into the cabin, grabbing whatever he could before returning to the raft.

We travel with Callahan day after day after day on his grueling voyage in a life raft he couldn’t even lie down in, watching him solve each challenge in immensely resourceful ways. A tiny fraction of these include being able to produce just barely enough drinking water, fixing every life-threatening breakdown, fending off sharks, surviving brutal weather, and finally catching some fish. These aquatic creatures turn out to be far more crucial than just providing a food source.

“76 Days” is much more than simply recounting Callahan’s astounding physical effort to stay alive — and the heartbreaking near-misses of being found. He speaks to us of his interior journey, as well.

Early on, Callahan says, “Every failure or even possible failure of my life just haunted me and went over and over again … It was a pretty bloody dismal time.” In other instances, he has profound realizations. On a day when his equipment is working, and the weather is perfect, we hear him more contemplative, “What do I need in life? I’m surviving in a rubber tent in the middle of the ocean, working a couple of hours a day, fishing. How complicated was my life before compared to this?”

As one can imagine, he wasn’t always filled with such serenity. In one of the dire moments, severely depressed from not being able to fix his punctured raft, Callahan describes, “It really seemed like it was the end. I could kind of feel the presence of death right there.” Yet, within moments, he says, “I left behind a life that seemed pretty empty and meaningless. Getting my life in perspective about all my failures was really important, because it gave me the sense of, if I get out of this, I’ll have a chance to go back and reinvent myself, and discover a more meaningful purpose to my life. That’s what kept me going the whole time … I didn’t want to die in the middle of the Atlantic. Lost, never seen by anybody again, and have that be the possibility of my life.” Moments later, his life force comes rushing back, and he is able to stabilize the leak: “That was certainly one among the highest highs of my entire life.” But this was only about day 53, and there were many more harrowing experiences ahead.

Wein came upon Callahan’s book “Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea,” by happenstance in a bookstore, and was captivated by the story. He realized, “This really happened, and how he dealt with it. His skill as a sailor was very impressive to me, and then how he dealt with it emotionally and psychologically … I think this story resonates in a really universal way, and everybody has to deal with things that seem like insurmountable problems. I was very impressed with his state of mind, and how he handled himself.”

Executive producer Robert Sennott says, “His story is so hopeful and so persevering, and really touching when you think about what he went through.” As the credits rolled by, so impressive was Callahan’s journey and Wein’s brilliant portrayal of it that I found the only word I could utter was — “Wow.”

“76 Days” will screen on Saturday, March 23, at 10 am at the Capawock Theatre and on Sunday, March 24, at 10 am at the Grange. Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway co-founder Nat Benjamin will moderate a discussion to follow with film subject Steven Callahan and executive producer Robert Sennott.