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Survival of the Fittest

It’s harder than ever to get famous drifting around at sea
Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham in the recently released movie Adrift

Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham in the recently released movie Adrift

What does it say about bluewater sailing that its most intriguing facet in the popular imagination is the post-shipwreck survival drift? I was wondering this while watching the movie Adrift, Hollywood’s latest addition to a seemingly burgeoning genre. (Beware, spoilers ahead.) The film is based on the story of Tami Oldham, who in 1983 spent 41 days drifting alone on a ruined 44ft yacht after it was dismasted and her fiancé was lost overboard during a Category 4 typhoon. This may sound inherently dramatic, but the cinematic visuals consist mostly of a young woman, actress Shailene Woodley, staring anxiously at the horizon. To liven up the story the screenwriters had to keep the fiancé aboard as an injured hallucination.

Adrift, at least, was much better than 2013’s All is Lost, wherein Robert Redford, with no hallucination to keep him company, looked mostly confused and aggravated as a fictional (and nameless) yachtsman suffering silently through an improbable shipwreck and survival drift in a liferaft. I know I got pretty confused and aggravated trying to figure out where the director got his strange ideas about ocean sailing.

Bestselling books about ocean sailing are also usually survival tales. Steve Callahan’s Adrift (there’s that word again!), about his 76 days in a liferaft, was a huge hit back in the 1980s and is still in print today. A decade earlier the most popular sailing book was Dougal Robertson’s Survive the Savage Sea, about his family’s 38-day drift in a liferaft and dinghy, which was also made into a TV movie in the 1990s. Hollywood producers looking for more heroes in this vein have a few others to choose from—Bill and Simonne Butler, who spent 66 days in a raft in 1989, or perhaps Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, who spent 117 days adrift back in 1973—but it seems the supply may be getting thin.

That the public craves tales like these was made readily apparent just last year when the media jumped like starving dogs on the story of Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava, who were rescued after supposedly spending five months drifting helplessly aboard their crippled 47ft sloop. When it turned out they weren’t so helpless, that they weren’t exactly drifting, and that they had an EPIRB and could have called for help whenever they wanted, everyone just got mad at them.

For that’s the problem, you see: those damn EPIRBs. Back when I started ocean sailing we only had 121.5-MHz EPIRBs, which sent out signals that were picked up by overflying aircraft. Chances then were pretty good your distress call would never be heard and that you might find fame and fortune by having to languish for weeks in a liferaft or on a crippled boat. Nowadays, unfortunately, modern 406-MHz EPIRBs, which signal orbiting satellites, are so effective you’re unlikely to spend too much time alone.

This sad fact is reflected in the makeup of modern-day ditch kits. Back in the good-old days you packed things like fishing lines, knives, medical kits, dehydrated food and extra foil packets of drinking water. Now you pack mostly communications gear to coordinate your prompt rescue, most likely by a passing freighter that would have once steamed right by you. Talking recently with sailing friends who are preparing a kit for a long cruise, I was amused to find them worrying over what board game to pack, in case they had to wait more than a day to get picked up and got bored.

As far as Hollywood is concerned, this is a disturbing trend. These days the people most likely to get caught in protracted survival drifts are not glamorous yachting folk, but poor Latino fishermen working just a few miles off the west coast of the Americas in small open skiffs. These guys, who never carry EPIRBs, never mind liferafts, are not wrecked, but are simply blown offshore and can’t get back. In the past 10 years, there have been at least four episodes like this. The most renowned involved José Alvarenga, a Salvadoran fisherman who survived a 13-month drift across the Pacific during 2013-14, making him the first person in recorded history to spend more than a year lost at sea.

Alvarenga did get a book written about him—438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea, by journalist Jonathan Franklin—but so far no one has offered him a movie deal. 

December 2018

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