This Real Life Castaway Survived Over A Year Drifting In The OceanStories
Don’t you wish that you could just disappear some days? Escape the monotony of it all and find yourself peacefully drifting away into the sunset. Jose Salvador Alvarenga has done exactly that, and he may warn you that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
In his lifetime, Alvarenga has had the great displeasure of being lost on the deep blue. While we’ve all marvelled at stories of people vanishing at sea for days, the Salvadorian fisherman took it up a notch when he disappeared from the coast of Costa Azul, Mexico only to resurface 438 days later, miraculously alive in the middle of the Pacific.
It’s a harrowing tale that admittedly sounds like some Pacific Island legend, but Alvarenga is a man of flesh and blood. Set adrift across the vast expanse of cobalt, battling dehydration and deteriorating sanity, Alvarenga let his instincts and imagination take over to survive the more than 14 months at sea.
How long the average adult can survive without water is a rough estimate at best, but as Randall K. Packer, professor of biology at George Washington University, claims, it only takes a few hours for someone exerting themselves in a sweltering environment to die from dehydration. Alvarenga may have been in the cooler November air, but surviving 438 days without a constant supply of H20 and, at times, only his urine to drink while battling the elements and exhaustion is borderline miraculous.
You may be wondering if, in a survival situation, you could polish off a bottle of urine, but it’s ill-advised. The bodily waste is a blend of water, sodium, chloride and, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, upwards of 85 different species of bacteria. In fact, it’s akin to drinking seawater, which left sporadic rainfall as the sailor’s only suitable source of hydration.
Along with the threat of dehydration, Thalassophobics can tell you that there are many dangers out at sea. The modern-day Robinson Crusoe risked hypothermia as the bitter cold of night and wet clothing created a deadly perfect storm. He was on the brink of dehydration and, as you’ll find out later, insanity. And yet the 36-year-old fisherman from El Salvador travelled 6,700 miles with no lifeline and lived to tell his incredible tale.
When he first set sail on November 17, 2012, Alvarenga wasn’t leaving behind much. Estranged from his parents for eight years and having given up custody of his daughter to them, he only seemed to have the sea. As a four-year professional fisherman working for Villermino Rodriguez, he knew the pitfalls of his job, but none of that could have prepared him for the unexpected events that unfolded after his departure.
Joined by 24-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba, who only joined the expedition after Alvarenga’s friend, Ray Perez, backed out, Alvarenga set out on a fishing trip expected to last 30-hours. Expecting no rain and little else to get in their way, the duo packed light for their trip and failed to check their equipment properly. Their overconfidence left them with half-empty radio batteries and a GPS that wasn’t waterproof.
The beginning of the trip was a stark contrast to what would come. They carried along a haul of over 1,000 pounds of fish, which would have been a hefty payday for the small fishing charter. Not long into their trip, clouds rolled in over the horizon, bringing with them a destructive, unanticipated storm that ravaged the boat. The two struggled against the rough seas and the seawater that threatened to flood the 25-foot vessel, but the damage had already been done and they were off course.
Though the seasoned fisherman kept his resolve, his inexperienced shipmate, a man he met only shortly before departing, was shaken by the experience and reacted as many would. He panicked at the thought of being devoured by sharks and froze in place at the fear of sinking. His screams didn’t faze the coolheaded Alvarenga, who was able to navigate to a patch of clear sky where he spotted land in the distance.
Hope returned and he took the moment of respite to radio his boss. The exchange was brief and spawned a rescue party that was confident it would bring the pair home. Instead, it was the last time anyone would hear from Alvarenga for more than 430 days.
The relief was brief as waves continued to crash against the boat, tossing it every which way. It nearly sunk, but Alvarenga made the call to release their huge catch to lighten their load. When that wasn’t enough, ice and spare gasoline went next. With no anchor, the captain MacGyvered 50 buoys together to create a makeshift drag that helped give the ship some stability. The harder they seemed to fight, the more Mother Nature pushed back.
A failed engine, a malfunctioning GPS, a dead radio - these only compounded the gravity of their situation, sending the once calm skipper into a frenzy. In a rage, he bashed at the dead engine with a club and threw the useless equipment overboard so the seas would swallow them.
When the air grew cold and the rain refused to give them a moment to dry off, the sailors flipped over the large icebox and used it as shelter. Huddled together, they struggled to keep warm while taking turns to bale out the rain and seawater that formed a sizeable puddle at their feet. In the chaos of the storm, they drifted further out to sea and with no means of measuring distance, it was clear that the worst had happened. They were lost at sea.
If not for Alvarenga’s expertise, their outlook may have been even bleaker. He knew how to try and catch fish barehanded by keeping his hands steady, only inches apart so a fish could swim beneath them. At the first touch of anything, he gripped his hands tight, digging fingernails into scales. It wasn’t an infallible method, but it worked and provided him and his mate sustenance for the time being. Along with the many fish that he caught and Cordoba cleaned and left to dry in the sun, they survived on the occasional curious turtle that swam too close or flying fish with unfortunate aim.
With no water aboard the ship, it only took days before Alvarenga turned to drinking his own urine in a disturbing cycle. To stave the pangs of hunger, he ate his fingernails and muscled through the burning of swallowing jellyfish whole. Then, after about two weeks at sea, they hit their first stroke of luck when the skies darkened and the pattering of rain caught his attention from inside the icebox. It was a moment Alvarenga had prepared for with a rainwater collection system he had been constructing. It would have been too easy to drink it all in one sitting, and though they did splurge at first, the two ultimately agreed to impose a strict ration on the freshwater supply.
Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, and the men continued to survive. They collected and stored plastic containers and bottles that floated by them and found what seemed to be a small treasure of supplies in a drifting garbage bag. In it, a wad of chewed gum, half-rancid milk, half a head of cabbage, and carrots - all a gold mine for men that had been surviving on scraps of fish, raw turtle, seabirds, and urine.
With their new supplies, they had a reserve of food that would last them for several days, and in that time there was a moment of comfort between the two. As Alvarenga recalled after his rescue, at that time they spoke of their mothers and their regrets. Had Alvarenga died at sea, he would have done so having not spoken to his parents for nearly a decade. Unfortunately, the brief lapse of peace they had was short-lived as, after eating raw seabird meat, Cordoba grew ill. In the wake of his illness, he refused all food and his mental state deteriorated further.
While Alvarenga stayed resilient, his shipmate’s physical and mental health steadily declined. Hopelessness soured the two seafarers and they made a pact. In the event of their death, the other would visit their parents to tell their story and say goodbye. It wasn’t long before one would find themselves having to follow through.
On a morning like any other, Cordoba’s body finally gave up. As Alvarenga recalled, the young man could feel himself slipping away. When the captain tried to help with water, Cordoba’s body went rigid and convulsed. “Don’t leave me alone!” Alvarenga cried “What am I going to do here alone?” It was a reality he would have to face moments later when his friend went limp.
Though they were strangers when this trek began, Alvarenga valued the friend he had made through adversity. As much as Alvarenga knew his shipmate was dead, he wasn’t willing to let him go. For six days, the lone survivor spoke with the lifeless Cordoba, asking how he slept and if he had eaten. It wasn’t until a quiet night beneath the moon that Alvarenga really realized what he was doing. And so, rather than use his body for food as some believe, he gave his friend a proper burial at sea.
As much as the sailor blamed himself for Cordoba’s death, he pressed on. Ending his own life was a lingering thought but Alvarenga believed that it would bar him from heaven. So, he pressed forward, alone, keeping up hope that there would be an end to his long misfortune. During sunrise and sunset, he scoured the horizon to spot the silhouettes of ships in the distance. On several occasions, he spotted container ships and found the energy to jump up and down. On all of those occasions, the ship continued to steam ahead unaware of the lost traveller. With no one to talk to, Alvarenga got lost within his imagination.
Like a self-defence mechanism to pass the time and keep some semblance of sanity, his mind created a reality that, he says, was so believable he could taste and feel every aspect of it. In the mornings he’d pace the ship, but in his mind, he was on a leisurely walk across the world. These alternate realities distracted him until one day while riding a steady current, his eyes saw the greatest hallucination of all. From a thin mist that coated the Pacific, the profile of an island formed.
He was used to seeing things by now but knew that his hallucinations were temporary. The longer he stared at this image, the more he realized, if it were real, he had to ensure his boat continued drifting toward it. Rushing across the ship, he cut away the buoys dragging behind him to pick up speed. It took only an hour for his boat to reach the shore. Without hesitation, he dove off the boat and swam to the coast of what he would later find to be Tile Islet of the Ebon Atoll.
Naked and overjoyed to be on solid ground, Alvarenga crawled along the soft sand before being spotted by locals Emi and Russel Libokmeto from across a small canal. According to some reports, Alvarenga was jumping up and down, holding a knife he had taken from the boat. Still, Emi and Russel invited the emaciated man into their home.
Alvarenga didn’t know where he was and, at the time, it didn’t really matter. His 438-day nightmare was finally over. Unfortunately, the hardships didn’t stop entirely. After his return to land, Alvarenga faced accusations of cannibalism by Ezequiel Cordoba’s family and was sued for $1 million for eating their relative. The lawsuit came shortly after he received a book deal for Jonathan Franklin’s “438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea.”
There was one family member of Cordoba happy to invite the fisherman into her home. Just as he had promised in their pact, once recovered, Alvarenga made the trip to Mexico to visit the young man’s mother.
Though the $1 million lawsuit - which never really panned out - may leave you thinking Alvarenga’s story made him a millionaire, that’s far from the reality. According to Alvarenga’s lawyer in 2015, Ricardo Cucalon, Franklin’s book only sold 1,500 copies in the United States originally and Hollywood has yet to option a full-length movie.
Just as quickly as he became a sensation and an inspiration, the world slowly forgot about Jose Alvarenga. But not everybody. In 2017, he was on the guest list of PrepperCon, a convention dedicated to disaster preparedness and survival.
Alvarenga’s ordeal isn’t one so easily forgotten, but he wasn’t willing to let it cripple him. Whispers in 2015 were that he was still optimistic about returning to his life as a fisherman.