There have been numerous books written about unfortunate souls who got knocked off course at sea, ending up on deserted islands and survived through a sheer mix of desperation, will, and a wee bit of insanity. Tom Hanks’ Cast Away is a really famous example of a movie like that. But it’s not always confined to the realm of fiction.
José Salvador Alvarenga is a man who actually survived 438 days lost at sea – starving, lonely, and losing his mind. But he lived.
An intrepid fisherman, Alvarenga’s story begins on 17 November 2012, when he set out from a village in Mexico to embark on what was supposed to be a 30-hour shift of deep-sea fishing. An experienced sailor, he was accompanied by a newcomer named Córdoba.
Soon after they left, their boat, a topless fiberglass skiff was attacked by a 5-day storm, destroying the motor, radio, and blowing them wildly off course.
They had to dump all the fish they had caught – almost 500 kgs – so they could maneuver better. They had nor oars, no anchor, no lights, no food, and no way to contact shore. Stranded in the void, they drifted across the open ocean with no land in sight.
Over the next weeks, Alvarenga caught fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands. They ran out of drinkable water, and were forced to drink turtle blood or their own urine.
Rainwater was scarce, and would not last long enough, so they were forced to go to these extremes. They would also salvage bits of food and plastic refuse that floated by. This went on for many days.
Around 4 months in, Córdoba got sick from the raw food, became hysterical, and finally died by refusing to eat. Alvarenga even considered killing himself, and slowly started losing his mind.
For at least 6 days, he would speak to the dead body on his boat, having seamless conversation with the lifeless being. However, he realised he was starting to lose his grip on reality, and threw the body overboard as Cordoba had asked him not to eat his remains.
Alvarenga would keep track of time by counting the phases of the moon. He would pass the time by singing hymns, praying, and sitting in the boat’s ice box.
He apparently saw several ocean liners and ships over the course of his journey, but they did not spot him, and he had no flares or any way to catch the attention of planes flying overhead.
On 30 January 2014, after 438 hellish days adrift, Alvarenga spotted mountains in the distance. It was a tiny corner of the Marshall Islands, and he abandoned his boat and swam to shore. He was finally on land.
As his feet touched the sand, he fainted. Soon after, he came to, and found a beach house owned by a local couple that helped him and alerted the necessary authorities. Apart from swollen ankles and low blood pressure, Alvarenga was found to be relatively healthy, at least in regards to someone who has just been presumed dead for the last 14 months.
Alvarenga’s family, consisting of his parents and a daughter, were all overjoyed upon learning that he was found. They had long presumed that he was dead.
He now goes to a therapist to help him acclimatise back to the world, and come back from the solitary existence that was forced upon him. He can’t go near the ocean anymore, and doesn’t touch fish. He’s even haunted by nightmares of the ocean, but he is a happy man – grateful to be alive, and aware of the fact that his is a story for the ages.