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Survival, Safety & Seamanship Stories

I present two categories of books in this section. One is strictly marine oriented; the other general. General survival stories encompass narratives and texts relating to such topics as airplane crashes and concentration camps. For those drawn to these survival stories, even the marine-oriented books should stimulate your interest. How people live offshore—a very isolated environment—with limited resources can be applied to any survival experience. Conversely, the general survival texts can inform mariners about elements of survival and safety essential to anyone who takes to a liferaft or lifeboat.

Marine Survival & Extreme Seamanship Stories

117 Days Adrift117 Days Adrift by Maurice and Marilyn Bailey: Ten years before my own survival drift, the Baileys found themselves in a four-person Avon liferaft and inflatable dinghy in the Pacific. Like the Robertsons before them, they proved incredibly inventive and resilient, and greatly inspired me to hang on and work toward my own survival. Eventually, they became so well adapted and felt such masters of their new world that rescue arrived with a sense of loss for them as well as relief. In my view, this is a wonderful companion to Roberston's tale and shows how a couple can work together to fashion a new life from the wreckage of their old one. Find out more and Buy.

AlbatrossAlbatross by Deborah Kiley: The boat delivery business can be an odd one in which folks who have never sailed together can find themselves managing a big boat in dangerous weather without proper leadership. After Trashman got knocked down, its large deck salon windows smashed and its lifeboat lost to the wind, the crew found themselves in the Atlantic clutching an uncovered dinghy. With injuries, no protection from exposure, and little to no leadership, they experienced a survival voyage of extreme suffering and desperation. Some of the crew perished. This is an essential read for anyone planning to voyage because it imparts pretty much everything that can go wrong offshore if sailors are not well prepared. Find out more and Buy.

Endurance: Shakleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing: Among survivors, Shakelton stands virtually without peer. The polar explorer found his most appropriately named ship, Endurance, trapped and eventually crushed by Antarctic ice. For two years he led his crew to survive on the ice. Finally, he set off in a rudimentarily covered open boat across the Southern Ocean, itself another impossible feat, to find help for the men he left behind. After navigating to a Southern Ocean island, he and the men whom he took on this adventure had to first scale, without any mountain climbing equipment, alpine-like mountains. In the end, Shackelton succeeded and his entire crew were saved. Simply beyond imagination, this tale has been used widely as an example of supreme leadership and toughness of the human spirit. Find out more and Buy.

Fastnet Force TenFastnet Force Ten by John Rousmaniere: A venerable sailboat race, the Fastnet, shocked the world in 1979 when a meteorological bomb hit the fleet, resulting in 136 sailors being rescued, 15 dying, 24 boats being abandoned, and 5 sinking. The event inspired numerous inquiries and changes to both boat and liferaft designs. Rousmaniere's book takes us on board to feel the power of the storm, the dynamics of crews and boats, and the challenges facing rescuers. It is an incredible inside view with innumerable lessons about boat design, storm management, and survival revealed through fascinating narrative. Find out more and Buy.

In the Heart of the Sea In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick: The true story of the Essex more than mirrors the creation and destruction that we see daily in our world, news, and wildest dreams. This gripping tale of survival can only be matched by its details of life aboard a nineteenth-century whaling ship. No wonder this story inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. In both this book and Melville's fiction, we become part of the crew and experience this wrenching adventure firsthand. Find out more and Buy.

Once Is EnoughOnce Is Enough by Miles Smeeton: Talk about resilience; when Tsu Hang is pitchpoled, its cabin completely swept away and the boat half full of water, Meryl Smeeton gives the boys buckets and inspires them to snap out of it and get to work. How the crew saves the boat and then goes to sea again only to face another shocking drama is a real lesson about self-reliance and tenacity for all sailors. Fortunately for us, the Smeeton's vigor, in addition to the book's literary quality, has stood the test of time, is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, and is still in print. Find out more and Buy.

Practical Guide to Lifeboat SurvivalA Practical Guide to Lifeboat Survival by the Center for Study and Practice of Survival (with a forward by yours truly): There are a number of survival manuals in print, and some, like Michael Greenwald's Survivor, are excellent references. But few would fit into a ditch kit conveniently, or if they do, I have found that they contain some pretty flawed information. This thin guide offers a large format with good illustrations that covers succinctly all the essential bases—leadership in a survival situation, weather conditions, life-saving fishing methods, medical emergencies, and much more. It also contains some very useful charts. I'd read it, pack it, and hope never to have to employ it. Find out more and Buy.

Sole SurvivorSole Survivor by Ruthanne Lum McCunn: When I was rescued, I tired of people asking me if I had set some kind of record. But for the record, Poon Lim retains the title as the lone survivor whose voyage lasted longer than anyone else's, an astounding 133 days! The Chinese Poon Lim was a steward on an English ship torpedoed off Africa. He found himself alone on a solid raft composed of wood and supported by empty drums, a good platform equipped with gear to which he could not read the directions. Both his inventiveness and his Eastern mind set lent a good deal to his survival, which for decades was virtually eclipsed by the Second World War. Find out more and Buy.

Strange Last Voyage of Donald CrowhurstThe Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall: This story (along with Albatross) is perhaps the greatest cautionary ocean tale since the Titanic sunk. The first singlehanded nonstop around-the-world race, called the Golden Globe, inspired a plethora of fabulous sea stories. Anchoring the tragic end is Crowhurst's tale. A mathematical genius, Crowhurst was not the ideal adventure sailor. Limitations of budgets and time forced him to begin the race ill prepared. Determined to win to fulfill his own and others' expectations and financial entanglements, but falling increasingly behind, Crowhurst ended up never leaving the Atlantic. He kept dual logs and reported how he was gaining on and eventually taking he lead. His split life proved too much in the end. Eventually, he slipped into a mystical mathematical madness. His boat was found floating with no one aboard. Although disturbing, this book reveals the many pitfalls of false expectations and unpreparedness as well as of living alone in a wilderness environment. Find out more and Buy.

Survive the Savage SeasSurvive the Savage Seas by Dougal Robertson: This book was one of the most inspirational survival voyages ever written. Before my own drift in 1982, I read it and, along with 117 Days Adrift, it provided me with critical knowledge and inspiration. After getting their boat holed by a whale, the Robertson family and a young man found themselves adrift in a leaky raft and dinghy. Crowded together in shocking fashion, they proved themselves masters of invention, allowing them to survive for 38 days. The tools they invented and strategies they employed provided future survivors with a guide to how to surive, and their tenacity continues to stand as proof that we're more resilient than we often think and can learn to carve out a new life when the old disappears. Find out more and Buy.

Other Extraordinary Survival Narratives

AliveAlive by Piers Paul Reid: This now-legendary tale chronicles the fate of passengers on an Uraguayan plane that crashed into the Andes in 1972. For months the survivors, primarily a rugby team, struggled to exist in a frigid, snowbound landscape entirely lacking in food. Facing death, the survivors forced themselves to find sustenance from eating their perished comrades, but even that was a temporary respite. Eventually, leaders emerged, the survivors invented required equipment, and in a desperate attempt to find rescuers, a few hiked out of mountain terrain that would challenge fully equipped mountaineers to seek rescue. See also, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home by Nando Parrado and Vince Rause (Nando became a leader of the crew and hiked out to bring help). Find out more and Buy.

Deep SurvivalDeep Survival by Laurence Gonzales: What does it take to survive? Gonzales seeks to give us those answers. By interviewing and dissecting the stories of numerous survivors of diverse catastrophes, Gonzales explores the biological, psychological, and spiritual reasons why some people cope better than others when things go south. His descriptions of life on the edge and the necessary rules of survival when crisis strikes are compelling. Gonzales presents a framework that ties together all the harrowing stories, from airplane crashes to shipwrecks. Anyone can employ his lessons to meet struggles in their own life. Find out more and Buy.

Desperate JourneysDesperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors by Edward Leslie: is a collection of stories involving the psychology and physical prowess that survivors of plane crashes, shipwrecks, and isolated environments used over the past six centuries. Survivors in Leslie‚Äôs well-researched and heart-rendering stories not only struggled with themselves but with the forces of nature—climate, wild animals, and each other. The account of Alexander Selkrik, the "real Robinson Crusoe," has been mirrored in films and books of various titles. One of my favorites is Leslie's account of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's own classic and beautifully wrought story of his Libyan plane crash. Buy.

Etty HillesumEtty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum and Eva Hoffman: It's incredible to think that somebody who gets carted away to a concentration camp can have empathy for the Nazis, but the young woman Etty Hillesum is just such an amazing individual. This book, composed from her journals, illustrates not only how such horrors as the holocaust can evolve but also how one can maintain, even enhance, one's inner strength and moral compass. Sometimes considered an adult Diary of Anne Frank, this highly inspiring tale reveals a deep soul who can retain the ability to see gifts in life despite the most trying circumstances. Simply astounding and a real wake up call for those days when we complain about the trivial trials of everyday life. See also, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed by Patrick Woodhouse. Find out more and Buy.

Into Thin AirInto Thin Air by Jon Krakauer: In many ways, Mount Everest has become the Disneyland of adventure. It has been trekked so often by so many that, by 1996, amateur climbers were flocking to the mountain, as if attaining its summit was as predictable as catching a train. Long gone were the days of true exploration and full understanding of the risks of such a climb. Krakauer went to cover a routine summit and also found lots of warts in the climbing community surrounding Everest. Indeed, his portrait of modern-day mountain climbing and the pressures and lures of big money are both fascinating and almost nauseous at times; he also discovers and chronicles how others in this community, while in the face of disaster, ascend to the pinnacle of human compassion, courage, and endurance. Find out more and Buy.

Man's Search for MeaningMan's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl: A survivor of none less than four Nazi concentration camps, which claimed the lives of his family, Victor Frankl had every incentive to be angry and bitter, but instead, like Etty Hillesum, he was able to find empathy and sometimes even pity for his captors while developing a remarkable life view in which fulfillment can come from the most heinous experiences. Frankl recognized that pleasure is not our prime motivator, as Freud maintained, but meaning is. He was able to accept that we cannot avoid suffering, but he saw that we can choose how to cope with it. We can lie down and perish, wallow in self-pity and anger, or we can find or create meaning from life's struggles, allowing us to progress with renewed purpose. Frankl went on to found logotherapy, based on this inherent need of the human soul. He outlined a methodology for discovering or creating meaning no matter what situation one has to confront. I consider this one of the most important books I've ever read. Find out more and Buy.

Survival PsychologySurvival Psychology by Dr. John Leach: Dr. Leach has spent his professional career debriefing survivors of all types. This academic book is not just informative but highly readable and well illustrated with fascinating case histories. Dr. Leach discusses the effects of thirst, hunger, isolation, fatigue, and weather—all factors contributing to the extremes of deprivation and loss—on survivors' mental and physical well-being during disasters and following their survival. Within the book, he organizes and lays out the various ways that we can decipher the survival experience, the stages that survivors experience, the psychological and emotional impact disasters have on us, and the tools survivors can use to come away alive. Find out more and Buy.

Touching the VoidTouching the Void by Joe Simpson: There are times when people are forced to choose between saving themselves or sticking with a friend, although it will certainly lead to the death of both. When Simpson and partner Simon Yates fell off an ice ledge in the Andes, hanging there with darkness and weather moving in, they were faced with just such a dilemma. The men made the controversial decision to cut the line, sending Simpson plunging into a deep crevasse. Surprisingly, he survived, but with his friends thinking he was dead, Simpson faced an unimaginable feat to reach base camp before they departed. The tale is the ultimate lesson on how to focus on small, achievable goals that mount to a larger success and provokes numerous questions about commitment, guilt, and the depths of friendship. Find out more and Buy.

UnbrokenUnbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: Louis Zamperini was a definant delinquent in his youth—robbing homes, riding railway cars, fighting anyone in his way. He didn't leave a stone unturned. As a teen, he began running, becoming a champion and participant in the Berlin Olympics. When WW II broke out, he became a young Army lieutenant and bombardier airman. His plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1943, leading to an extraordinary journey, first in a liferaft crossing thousands of miles of open ocean and surviving with a crewmate thirst, starvation, enemy aircraft, and sharks. Finally reaching land, Zamperini and his mate were then captured by the Japanese. Only Zamperini would live through the ensuing years of torturous conditions during which he had little to nourish him but the rebellious, undying wits that he garnered throughout his youth. In Unbroken, Ms. Hilldenbrand chronicles Zamperini's story as a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. Find out more and Buy.

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Copyright © 2011 Steven Callahan