The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest of Earth’s oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south. Pacific covers about one-third of Earth’s entire surface and it is bigger than all of the land on earth combined. This means that if you are ever unfortunate enough to get lost here, there’s a very good chance that nobody will ever find you, which makes the story of José Salvador Alvarenga and his rescue all the more fascinating.
José Salvador Alvarenga is a Salvadoran fisherman and author who currently holds a world record that he achieved on accident, and that probably nobody wants to beat, the longest time spent being lost at sea. Against all odds, he somehow survived 438 days in the vast Pacific. Here is his extraordinary true story of survival at sea.
On 17 November 2012, Alvarenga set out from the fishing village of Costa Azul, near Pijijiapan, off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico, accompanied by a 23-year-old co-worker whom he knew only as “Ezequiel”. Alvarenga, an experienced sailor and fisherman, was intent on a 30-hour shift of deep-sea fishing during which he hoped to catch sharks, marlins, and sailfish, but his usual fishing mate was unable to join him. He arranged instead to bring along the inexperienced Ezequiel Córdoba, with whom he had never worked or even spoken.
Their boat was pretty small, not at all equipped for the nightmare that was about to come. It was basically a canoe with no roof or cabin, was only 7 meters (23 feet) long and only had one outboard motor, and a refrigerator for storing the fishes they will catch.
They knew that a storm was coming near the area but decided to take their chances and travelled 120 Kilometres (75 mi) away from the coast to work. At 0100 AM, the storm hit them and was threatening to sink their boat. In order to make the boat maneuverable in the bad weather, they had to dump nearly 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of fresh fish which they caught. The bad weather also forced them to cut their fishing lines, and other gears.
They were 6 hours away from the coast, so they travelled through the storm and the night in a desperate attempt to get back by 0700 AM. They were only 24 Kilometres (15 mi) away from the coast and could see mountains on the horizon, but then awful luck struck them and their motor died. Without any paddle oars or sails, the strong wind began pushing their boat back out towards the ocean.
Alvarenga managed to call his boss on a two-way radio and request help before the radio’s battery died. Imagine the frustration that they must have both felt in that moment as they lost contact with the outside world. Their boss did organize a search party to look for them but the search party failed to find any trace of the missing men and gave up after two days because visibility was poor.
Five days later, the winds has already blown them 450 Km (280 mi) off the coast before finally settling down. They were surrounded by nothing but ocean, and their boat was so small, they knew they probably would never be spotted from the air. They had no flare gun or any other way to signal for help, other than by waving. So, they knew that their chances of survival were going to be slim.
As days turned to weeks, Alvarenga and Córdoba learned to scavenge their food from whatever sources presented themselves. Alvarenga managed to catch fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands, and the pair occasionally salvaged bits of food and plastic refuse floating in the water. They collected drinking water from rainfall when possible, but when there was no rain, they were forced to drink turtle blood or their own urine.
According to Alvarenga, Córdoba lost all hope around four months into the voyage after becoming sick from the raw food and eventually died from starvation by refusing to eat. Alvarenga was then left all alone in the middle of nowhere with no other human in sight. Alvarenga claims that Córdoba made him promise not to eat his corpse when he died, so he kept Córdoba’s corpse on the boat, and even spoke to it. After six days, Alvarenga realized his descent into insanity and threw the corpse overboard. Alvarenga also stated that, while at sea, he frequently dreamed about his favorite foods, as well as his parents.
Alvarenga claimed to have seen numerous ships while drifting alone. He claims that a cargo ship apparently passed right by him and four men on board spotted him and waved but they just kept moving past him and never even bothered to stop.
He kept track of time by counting the phases of the moon. After counting his 15th lunar cycle, he spotted land: a tiny, desolate islet, which turned out to be a remote corner of the Marshall Islands. Finally on 30 January 2014, he abandoned his boat and swam to shore, where he stumbled upon a beach house and made contact with the first other humans since he left his village in Mexico 438 days ago and after travelling nearly 11,000 Km (6,800 mi).
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Alvarenga ended up washing ashore on the Ebon Atoll, which is the southern tip of the Marshall Islands, one of the most remote spots on the planet. Later he was flown back to his home in El Salvador where he published a book and got himself sued for $1,000,000 by the family of his friend who died on the boat. Wondering why? Because he claimed that he probably ate him.
Here is a very interesting video narrating the incredible survival story of José Salvador Alvarenga: