Sur­vival of the Fittest It’s harder than ever to get fa­mous drift­ing around at sea

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EPRBs make sail­ing safer than ever, but also ruin a good story

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. s

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