Clip: Flying fish scene from 'The Life of Pi'

January 11, 2013

Lamoine mariner's trials lend realism to Oscar nominee 'Pi'

By Ray Routhier
Staff Writer

LAMOINE — Steven Callahan often says that while others go to church, he goes to sea.

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Steven Callahan served as marine consultant on the movie "Life of Pi." Steve Callahan of Lamoine, in cap, working on filming of "Life of Pi."

Peter Sorel / 20th Century Fox

Steven Callahan, of Lamoine, served as marine consultant on the movie "Life of Pi."

Courtesy photo

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More Maine connections

Thursday’s announcement by the Academy included another nominee with Maine ties – Gorham High School alumnus Eric Saindon, 43, of Wellington, New Zealand.

Saindon is on the team nominated for best visual effects for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the new film by director Peter Jackson.

Spending more than two months adrift in a rubber raft – followed by sharks and other menacing creatures – is likely to have a spiritual impact on someone.

And so it did on Callahan, a writer and marine designer living near Ellsworth, who spent 76 days adrift following a shipwreck more than 30 years ago.

It made sense, then, when director Ang Lee tapped Callahan to be the marine consultant for his epic shipwreck film “Life of Pi.”

On Thursday, the film was nominated for a raft full of Oscars, including best picture. The critical acclaim that the nominations signify are particularly rewarding to Callahan because of his very personal connection to the story and with the film.

And because he’s currently facing another life-changing crisis – a battle with leukemia and recovery from a stem-cell transplant in June.

“The film was an exhausting project, but it’s like any project or voyage, being on a raft or having leukemia. You might start out in the wrong direction, you might ask why you’re doing it, but there are always positives to be found,” said Callahan, 60, from his home in Lamoine.

“My wife tells people that my experience was a view of heaven from a seat in hell. There are always negatives existing simultaneously with positives.”

Because of his weakened immune system, Callahan can’t be in large crowds of people or use public transportation, so he’s not sure if he’ll be able to attend the Academy Award ceremonies in Los Angeles Feb. 24.

But he says he already feels rewarded because of how well the film came out, and because moviegoers and critics alike seem to love it.

“I never expected people to be flocking to see it like this, so of course I’m very proud of my involvement,” he said.


Callahan’s own story of survival at sea began in January 1982. The 30-year-old left Spain as part of a solo journey across the Atlantic on a 21-foot-sloop he had built himself, the Napoleon Solo.

Callahan had grown up near Boston sailing out of South Shore towns, and became a self-described “addict” of sailing by his teens. He worked in a variety of marine-related jobs until one day he decided to fulfill a lifelong dream by sailing the Atlantic alone.

“My life was falling apart, I had separated from my wife, so I decided it was the time to do this,” said Callahan, who has since remarried.

A week into the journey, about 450 miles west of the Canary Islands, something hit his sloop, and it sank. Callahan thinks it might have been a whale.

He survived 76 days living a life he describes as that of an “aquatic caveman” on a 6-foot-long raft he named “Rubber Ducky.” He ate barnacles, birds and fish that he speared. He built crude devices to catch rain water he could drink, and was almost done in by sharks and holes in his raft.

Callahan was finally rescued by fishermen who saw the swarm of birds that were following his raft because of the “ecosystem” that had built up on and around the raft during the two months he was adrift.

“Life of Pi” is also about being adrift at sea for weeks. Based on a novel by Yann Martel, it follows the story of a young man, Pi, whose family runs a zoo in India. The family leaves for Canada with some animals on a cargo ship, which sinks. Pi is cast adrift on a small boat with a tiger.

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