SANTA BARBARA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2024 REVIEW! Documentary 76 Days features Steven Callahan recounting his 1982 ordeal of surviving in a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean for 76 days after his boat sank. Callahan was sailing solo across the ocean, returning West from Europe in a boat he’d designed and built called “Napoleon Solo.” He was a skilled veteran sailor, comfortable at sea.
One night, while he was sleeping, a whale collided with the boat and smashed it such that it sank in a few minutes. He scrambled to collect a few items from the rapidly sinking boat and managed to get the emergency life raft deployed. He had gone to sleep with no clothes on except a t-shirt, so he found himself essentially naked on the life raft.
Callahan detailed his adventure in his book Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea, which served as the basis for the film. The documentary footage is a blend of stock images and found footage, original stills from the voyage, and POV reenactments. Callahan kept the objects he could save before the boat sank and displays them as he recounts episodes of survival in his days at sea. The film’s through line is him taking the viewer through an oral history of the time he was adrift.
Callahan learns to fish and generate water using emergency desalination stills as the days and nights wear on. After a month, his body was deteriorating along with the raft, which was designed to last a few days. Somewhere in the seemingly hopeless situation, he focused on solving one problem after another. He lived each day without assuming he’d be rescued, simply trying to get to the next day. He was able to navigate to some extent, hoping to reach shipping lanes or the Caribbean islands.
“…while he was sleeping, a whale collided with the boat and smashed it such that it sank in a few minutes.”
Director Joe Wein marvels at Callahan’s persistence in his comments on the film’s website: “On that raft with nothing but over 1,800 miles of unpredictable ocean to cross and his problems completely and utterly overwhelming, what did he do? Throughout his story, it was always the same thing. He did the ONE thing in front of him he COULD do. Whatever that was. Then the next. Then the next. Focusing on one puzzle at a time and facing each triumph and failure as it came. Steven was forced to challenge his limitations in ways he had never dreamt of. And eventually, miraculously, those little things added up.”
After 76 days at sea, fishermen picked him up off the island of Marie-Galant in the French Caribbean. Only the fact that you are listening to the man himself tell this, the most riveting sailor’s story, after the fact, makes the viewing bearable. If we did not know how it came out, the tale would be nerve-wracking and anxious. There was some chance he’d drift too far north and be swept into the gulf stream back to England, which would mean certain death.
In 2002, Callahan published his book documenting the journey. While making the movie Life of Pi, director Ang Lee asked Callahan to be a consultant on living aboard a life raft. He has also been consulted on ways to improve life raft design. Callahan continues to write about and speak publicly about his journey and has been frequently interviewed.
There’s a confusing note about this film in the title: the marketing team should have used the book title Adrift instead because 76 Days is also the name of a well-known award-winning documentary about the first days of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. That makes for a search engine (SEO) nightmare for anyone trying to find the film.
A documentary, by nature, breaks the movie script “show, don’t tell” rule when people involved in an event are interviewed and discuss their experiences. Wein masterfully weaves together shots of Callahan speaking directly into the camera with subtle musical cues, still images, and various film clips to tell the tale. He keeps a tight pace flowing, and the film stays lively. In the wrong hands, 76 Days could have come out like a long, dull TED talk. Instead, the viewer experiences this terrifying, thrilling story as if they were in the raft with Callahan.
Cinematically, there’s just enough material to set the stage and make the viewer question how they would survive not knowing if rescue was ever coming. From the comfort of a movie seat, one can ponder whether you would have the will to continue day by day. This is a journey worth making. The film is a gem of a ripping tale and a great example of human persistence in extreme circumstances.
The inspiration for making the film came to Wein during troubles in his own life, and he reached out to Callahan after reading his book to see if he’d be open to making a film. Wein compares the making of the film to Callahan’s journey, “It is a great privilege that I was able to reach out to Steven and get his support and the rights to make this film. It has been a tremendous journey putting this together, step by step, getting it across the ocean.”
76 Days screened at the 2024 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
"…surviving in a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean for 76 days..."