Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

Adventures in (Indoor) Climbing

I’m afraid of heights. Actually, I’m afraid of lots of stuff. If we’re going in order of most severe to least severe, my fears are tight spaces, dying with regrets, drowning, spiders, and then heights. I might have forgotten a few of them. Not important.

My claustrophobia is the worst of them. When I was young and needed stitches on my face after a nasty fall, the doctor offered to “show me a cool trick” and put my arms into an empty pillow case and then a nurse pushed down on my shoulders to pin me. I lost my fucking mind and thrashed until I forced my way out of the pillow case. After that, I was completely calm and they were able to stitch me up, which ironically would have happened in the first place had that bastard not tried to restrain me. Regardless, tight spaces or having my arms pinned freaks me out.

The problem is that I like going on adventures and so, in my teenage years, it so happened that one of those adventures was in a cave. If you’re curious, it’s considered a “primitive cave” which is another way of saying you bring your own damn lights and such. No guided tours here!

I’ve been back to that cave many times since then, but one thing has never left: always, always there is a little undercurrent of panic at the back of my mind. The trick, of course, is to keep it at bay and under control, but it’s never really gone. You just learn to deal with it and manage it.

I was invited to go indoor climbing yesterday, which is another one of those adventure things I’ve always wanted to do but never actually got around to doing. I said yes and then immediately had profound misgivings about my decision. But, shit, I thought, little kids do this for their birthday parties. It was going to be fine.

When we arrived, I was feeling pretty good. It wasn’t until I had the harness on that the little panic wave started. However, I very, very badly did not want to show this to either of my friends.

I started on the easy wall and tied my figure-eight knot (is there another name for it? I don’t know) and I grabbed the first few rocky bits and pulled myself up. No big deal. This is easy. It wasn’t until I got about halfway up and I looked down and realized I was something like 30 feet up that the little panic current surged into something like a wave. Well, shit. Now what?

“I’m good!” I called. This was a lie. When in doubt, bluff, even if it’s to yourself. My fear stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know what to expect from the belayed rope that I would be using if I fell or when I started to come down. What if it didn’t work? How could I trust it?

Well, the rope worked and down I came, admitting to no one that I basically came down because of fear. But to carry the bluff through and make it believable, I said, “okay, I’m ready for a real route. Let’s do this.”

My friends led me over to the real face. It’s, I dunno, 40 or 50 feet? It was tall. Once again, I was tied on and ready to go. But this time, I had a flash of brilliant insight! I climbed up a few feet and then leaned back to test my rope for my own peace of mind. I dangled a few feet off the ground just to make sure it would all work and it would support me and I hadn’t tied the knot wrong or broken something.

And up I want. It was slow at first and I doubted everything I was doing. At the halfway point, the panic returned. And at the 2/3rds marker, I lost my grip and fell about a foot before the rope caught me. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to fall when you’re 35 feet in the air. But the rope worked and I didn’t die and soon after that, I made it to the top. And literally as soon as my hand reached the top edge, I said “okay, good, bring me down” and I was lowered back to the ground because really, I didn’t want to stay up there a second longer than I needed to be.

And so it went for the rest of the day. I had fun but there was still that little fear, the little current of terror. It wasn’t until my last climb of the day that I conquered it.

I chose a tough (for me) route that had a textured surface to resemble a real mountain cliff. There was a ledge that I had to pull myself up over, maybe about 10 or 15 feet up? I lunged for it, lost my grip and swung in the air for a while before trying again and failing. My arms had given out completely at that point but I kept lunging, falling, and swinging. And I realized at that moment that I was too goddamned tired to be afraid and as I made my last attempt and felt my arms burning, I figured what the hell and let myself fall back so I could relax my now-noodley arms.

And just like that, the fear was broken. I was simply too tired to be afraid of it. It was a profound and amazing experience, one that I couldn’t really articulate to my friends because it would mean admitting that I’m a big chicken and that wouldn’t work with the whole image I was trying to create.

But it was fun and I can’t wait to give it another try. I really want to make it to the top of that one route.