Lamoine shipwreck survivor consults on Oscar-nominated ‘Life of Pi’

Posted Jan. 12, 2013, at 12:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 13, 2013, at 8:58 a.m.

LAMOINE, Maine — When Steven Callahan spent over two months at sea after his boat sank in 1982 during a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, he had no idea he would drift to Taiwan 30 years later.

After his 21-foot boat was struck forcefully in the night by an unknown object — presumably a whale — Callahan was able to transfer several items he needed to survive to an inflated life raft before the boat disappeared beneath the waves. A seven-day sail west of the Canary Islands, Callahan spent the next 76 days drifting with the winds, surviving on fish, wits and determination until fishermen in a small boat came upon his raft and towed him to shore.

That was in the West Indies, on an island off Guadeloupe called Marie-Galante. He got to Taiwan to work on a Hollywood film as a result of “Adrift,” a book he wrote about his ordeal.

Callahan’s book caught the attention of Yann Martel, who wrote the fictional ocean survival tale “Life of Pi,” and then that of film director Ang Lee, who in 2010 began shooting the film of the same name, which was released last fall. In fact, Callahan is mentioned by name in the book by the protagonist, an Indian boy named Pi, who lists people who, like him, have survived shipwrecks. The others listed, according to Callahan, now all are deceased.

Callahan, now 60, said during an interview Thursday that people involved in the production of “Life of Pi” had read “Adrift” and suggested to Lee that he contact Callahan. He said that in 2009, when Lee and the film’s scriptwriter, David Magee, asked to visit Maine for a few days, he did not hesitate.

“I love movies,” Callahan said, seated in the study of his home near the tidal Skillings River. “I admired [Lee] as a director and I like his stories.”

Callahan, who has sailed across the ocean a total of seven times, had worked as a boat designer, builder and writer before his misadventure in 1982. Since then he also has worked as a magazine editor and landed speaking and minor consultation gigs about offshore sailing, preparation and safety. Lee and McGee came to Maine in June 2009, he said, to see what he could tell them about survival at sea.

“I guess these guys had zero ocean experience,” he said.

Callahan took the duo out for a day on a chartered sloop out of Northeast Harbor and talked to them about being adrift and what he has learned about ocean survival. Lee wanted to float on a raft at sea overnight to get a sense of what it would be like, Callahan added, but was talked out of it.

They spent more time back on land talking about the ocean, the mindset of castaways and other topics. When Lee and McGee left after the brief visit, he said, he thought he maybe had seen the last of them.

“I didn’t take it too seriously, frankly,” Callahan said.

But he hadn’t seen the last of them. A year passed, during which Callahan was diagnosed with leukemia, but then in the fall of 2010, Lee was given the go-ahead by Fox Pictures to begin production on the film. That’s when Callahan, who has received stem cell therapy for his illness and remains relatively fit, got a call from Lee asking him to travel to Taiwan to consult on the film.

Survival similarities

Callahan said he has been given the book “Life of Pi” by friends in 2003. He said he read the book with a critical eye, thinking some of the scenarios written for it were “preposterous,” but the tale resonated with him as well.

According to Callahan, people are multidimensional — a fact demonstrated by his 1982 ordeal and illustrated in “Life of Pi.” As Callahan drifted across the ocean, he said, he had his immediate physical needs to look after, his emotions to wrestle with, and had to maintain his rationality to make sure he would survive in the long run.

He said he developed an emotional attachment to the dorado fish that started following his raft. Yet he had to kill them and eat them, and had to be careful that, by spearing the large fish and hauling them aboard his raft, he didn’t hurt himself or damage his raft in the process.

“I looked at [the dorados] as my superiors in that [ocean] domain,” Callahan said. “The emotional part of me didn’t want to catch any fish.”

In the book, Callahan said, Pi has to contend with similar complicated relationships with his floating surroundings, which include a castaway tiger. The tiger, Callahan said, was similar to the dorado, and even to the ocean, in his real-life experience — either could have caused a quick death for the person involved, but at the same time they helped sustain him in his quest to reach shore.

“It’s a different kind of relationship [in the book],” Callahan said. “He learns over time that he kind of needs the tiger. It gives him companionship. It gives him purpose.”

The story, like his in “Adrift,” is one worth telling, he added.
“Story is a very important part of life,” he said. “It’s how we make sense of the world.”

So Callahan accepted the consulting job and flew to Taiwan.

Film production

Once there, Callahan quickly realized just how involved he would be. Rather than just sit back and voice an occasional opinion, he ended up spending long hours on the set working closely with the film crew. He helped to craft props, monitor the operation of a giant wave tank built especially for the film, and advised the film’s star, Suraj Sharma, on the mindset and physical challenges of being adrift at sea.

“I didn’t have a clue,” Callahan said of the workload he would assume. “I got sucked in more and more.”

His main task, as assigned to him by Lee, was to advocate for doing whatever was necessary to make the imagery in the film look real.

Callahan’s experience at sea, both in the life raft and in numerous successful sailing journeys, enabled him to tell Lee and wave tank technicians whether the waves looked genuine for whatever type of conditions they were trying to create. He also helped to determine the appearance of ‘makeshift’ rafts, advised Sharma how to move when fighting off sharks, and helped oversee the character’s changing sea-worn look as the movie progresses.

“Ang asked me to make things authentic and convincing,” Callahan said. “So I was always fighting for reality.”

The result, which was filmed in 3D and is enhanced with digital special effects, is “a stunning film,” Callahan said. There is an old maxim in Hollywood, he added, which is that you never make a movie with children, animals or on the water. Lee’s crew did all three.

“This film had so much potential to fall apart,” he said. “I just think it works.”

On Thursday, it was announced that the film had been nominated for several Academy awards, including best picture, best director and best visual effects. Callahan said he was “absolutely delighted” at the nominations.

“It’s an outward sign that what we were doing, and that everyone has put so much effort into, has been successful,” he said.

Callahan said he hopes the movie can help raise awareness, even if indirectly, about the health of the world’s oceans, which he said are “seriously endangered.” He added he is pleased that dorado make an appearance in the film, as food for Pi and the tiger, because it helps to keep alive the spirit of the dorado that sustained him and enabled him to survive to tell his story.

“Their spirit lives on today through all of that,” he said. “That’s important to me.”

Going forward, Callahan said, he would like to consult on other films and to help them accurately portray life at sea. He has his health to consider but, assuming he maintains his relative fitness, he also has home improvement projects to complete, multiple writing concepts that he can pursue and more sailing to do, even if he just stays close to shore.

“I do so many different things, it keeps it interesting,” Callahan said. “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a very, very full life.”

For information about Callahan, visit

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.