Lost at sea: the man who vanished for 14 months

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In November 2012, Salvador Alvarenga ran fishing off the coast of Mexico. Two days later, a blizzard make and he made a desperate SOS. It was the last anyone heard from him for 438 days. This is his story

As they motored across the lagoon in the Marshall Islands, deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the policemen stared at the specimen laid out on the deck before them. There was no conceal the fact that this man had been at sea for a considerable hour. His hair was matted upwards like a shrub. His beard curled out in wild disarray. His ankles were swollen, his wrists tiny; he could scarcely stroll. He refused to stimulate eye contact and often hid his face.

Salvador Alvarenga, a 36 -year-old fisherman from El Salvador, had left the coast of Mexico in a small boat with a young crewmate 14 months earlier. Now he was being taken to Ebon Atoll, the southernmost tip-off of the Marshall Islands, and the closest town to where he had washed ashore. He was 6,700 miles from the place he had set out from. He had floated for 438 days.

Floating across the Pacific Ocean, watching the moons light ebb and flow for over a year, Alvarenga had combated loneliness, depression and bouts of suicidal reasoning. But surviving in a vibrant world of wild animals, vivid hallucinations and extreme solitude did little to prepare him given the fact that he was about to become an international celebrity and an object of curiosity.

Days later, Alvarenga faced the worlds press. Garmented in a baggy brown sweatshirt that disguised his reedy torso, he disembarked from a police boat slowly but unaided. Expecting a gaunt and bedridden victim, a rippling of incredulity went through the crowd. Alvarenga cracked a quick smile and waved to the cameras. Several commentators noted a similarity to the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away. The photo of the bearded fisherman shuffling ashore ran viral. Briefly, Alvarenga became a household name.

Who survives 14 months at sea? Only a Hollywood screenwriter could write a tale in which such a journey objective happily. I was sceptical, but as a Guardian reporter in the region, I began to investigate. It turned out there were dozens of witness who had seen Alvarenga leave shore, who had heard his SOS. When he washed ashore( in the same boat that he had left Mexico on ), thousands of miles away, he was steadfast in his rejection of interviews even posting a note on his hospital doorway imploring the press to disappear.

Later, I would sit with Alvarenga for many hours, back at his home in El Salvador, as he described in detail the brutal realities of living at sea for more than a year. Over the course of more than 40 interviews, he described his extraordinary survival at sea. This is his story.

***

On 18 November 2012, a day after being ambushed at sea by a massive blizzard, Alvarenga was trying to ignore the growing pond of seawater sloshing at his feet. An inexperienced navigator might have panicked, started baling and been distracted from his primary undertaking: aligning the boat with the waves. He was a veteran captain and knew that he needed to regain the initiative. Together with his inexperienced crewmate, Ezequiel CA3rdoba, he was 50 miles out at sea, slowly negotiating a route back to shore.

The spray and crashing waves dumped hundreds of gallons of seawater into the boat, threatening to sink or flip them. While Alvarenga steered, CA3rdoba was madly tossing water back into the ocean, pausing only momentarily to permit his shoulder muscles to recover.

Alvarengas boat, at 25 feet, was as long as two pick-up trucks and as broad as one. With no raised structure , no glass and no operating sunlights, it was virtually invisible at sea. On the deck, a fibreglass crate the size of a refrigerator was full of fresh fish: tuna, mahimahi and sharks, their catch after a two-day trip. If they could bring it ashore, they would have enough fund to survive for a week.

The boat was loaded with equipment, including 70 gallons of gasoline, 16 gallons of water, 23 kg( 50 lb) of sardines for bait, 700 hookings, miles of line, a harpoon, three knives, three pails for baling, a mobile phone( in a plastic purse to keep it dry ), a GPS tracking device( not waterproof ), a two-way radio( battery half-charged ), several wrenches for the motor and 91 kg( 200 lb) of ice.

The icebox in which Alvarenga hid from the sunshine. Photo: Matt Riding

Alvarenga had prepared the boat with Ray Perez, his usual mate and a loyal companion. But at the last minute, Perez couldnt join him. Alvarenga, keen to get out to sea, arranged to go with CA3rdoba instead, a 22 -year-old with the nickname PiA +- ata who lived at the far end of the lagoon, where he was best known as a defensive starring on the village football team. Alvarenga and CA3rdoba had never spoke before, much less worked together.

Alvarenga tensely negotiated their slow advance toward the coast, manoeuvring among the waves like a surfer trying to glide and slice his route through. As the weather worsened, CA3rdobas resolve disintegrated. At days he refused to bale and instead held the rail with both hands, vomiting and screaming. He had signed up to stimulate $50. He was capable of running 12 hours straight without complaining and was athletic and strong. But this crashing, soaking journey back to shore? He was sure their tiny craft would shatter and sharks would devour them. He began to shrieking.

Alvarenga remained sitting, gripping the tiller tightly, determined to navigate a blizzard now so strong that harbourmasters along the coast had barred fishing boats from heading out to sea. Ultimately he noticed a change in the visibility, the cloud cover was lifting: he could see miles across the water. Around 9am, Alvarenga spotted the rise of a mountain on the horizon. They were approximately two hours from land when the motor started coughing and spluttering. He pulled out his radio and called his boss. Willy! Willy! Willy! The motor is ruined!

Calm down, man, give me your coordinates, Willy responded, from the beachside docks in Costa Azul.

We have no GPS, its not functioning.

Lay an anchor, Willy ordered.

We have no anchor, Alvarenga said. He had noticed it was missing before setting off, but didnt think he needed it on a deep-sea mission.

OK, we are coming to get you, Willy responded.

Come now, I is certainly get fucked out here, Alvarenga hollered. These were his final words to shore.

As the waves thumped the boat, Alvarenga and CA3rdoba began working as a team. With the morning sunshine, they could see the waves approaching, rising high above them and then splitting open. Each man would brace and lean against a side of the open-hulled boat to counteract the roll.

But the waves were unpredictable, slapping each other in midair, joining forces-out to generate swells that created the men to a brief peak where they could get a third-storey view, then, with the sensation of a falling elevator, instantaneously falls them. Their beach sandals no traction on the deck.

Alvarenga realised their catch virtually 500 kg( 1,100 lb) of fresh fish was building the boat top heavy and unstable. With no time to consult his boss, Alvarenga ran with his gut: they would dump all the fish. One by one they carried them out of the cooler, swinging the carcasses into the ocean. Falling overboard was now more dangerous than ever: the bloody fish were sure to attract sharks.

Next they tossed the ice and extra gasoline. Alvarenga strung 50 buoys from the boat as a makeshift sea anchor that floated on the surface, providing drag and stability. But at around 10 am the radio died. It was before noon on day one of a blizzard that Alvarenga knew was likely to last five days. Losing the GPS had been an inconvenience. The failed motor was a disaster. Now, without radio contact, they were on their own.

The storm roiled the men all afternoon as they fought to bale water out of the boat. The same muscles, the same repetitive motion, hour after hour, had allowed them to dump perhaps half the water. They were both ready to faint with exhaustion, but Alvarenga was also furious. He picked up a heavy club normally used to kill fish and began to bash the broken engine. Then he grabbed the radio and GPS unit and angrily threw the machines into the water.

The sun sank and the blizzard churned as CA3rdoba and Alvarenga succumbed to the cold. They turned the refrigerator-sized icebox upside down and huddled inside. Soaking wet and scarcely be permitted to clench their cold hands into fists, they hugged and wrap their legs around each other. But as the incoming water sank the boat ever lower, the men took turns leaving the icebox to bale for frantic 10 – or 15 -minute stints. Progress was slow but the pond at their feet gradually grew smaller.

Darkness shrank their world, as a gale-force gust ripped offshore and drove the men farther out to sea. Were they now back to where they had been fishing a day earlier? Were they heading north towards Acapulco, or south towards Panama? With only the stars as guides, they had lost their usual means of calculating distance.

Without bait or fish hookings, Alvarenga fabricated a daring strategy to catch fish. He kneeled alongside the leading edge of the boat, his eyes scanning for sharks, and shoved his arms into the water up to his shoulders. With his chest tightly pressed to the side of the boat, he maintained his hands steady, a few cases inches apart. When a fish swim between his hands, he smashed them shut, excavating his fingernails into the rough scales. Many escaped but soon Alvarenga mastered the tactic and he began to grab the fish and fling them into the boat while trying to avoid their teeth. With the fishing knife, CA3rdoba expertly cleaned and sliced the flesh into finger-sized strips that were left to dry in the sunshine. They eat fish after fish. Alvarenga stuffed raw meat and dried meat into his mouth, barely noticing or caring about the difference. When they got lucky, they were able to catch turtles and the occasional flying fish that landed inside their boat.

Within days, Alvarenga began to drink his urine and encouraged CA3rdoba to follow suit. It was salty but not revolting as he drank, urinated, drink again, peed again, in a cycle that felt as if it was providing at the least minimal hydration; in fact, it was worsening their dehydration. Alvarenga had long ago learned the dangers of drinking seawater. Despite their longing for liquid, they defied swallowing even a cupful of the endless saltwater that surrounded them.

I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails, swallowing all the little pieces, Alvarenga later told me. He began to grab jellyfish from the water, scooping them up in his hands and swallowing them whole. It burned the top part of my throat, but wasnt even worse.

After roughly 14 days at sea, Alvarenga was resting inside the icebox where reference is heard a voice: splat, splat, splat. The rhythm of raindrops on the roof was unmistakable. PiA +- ata! PiA +- ata! PiA +- ata, Alvarenga screamed as he slipped out. His crewmate awoke and joined him. Rushing across the deck, the two men deployed a rainwater collect system that Alvarenga had been designing and imagining for a week. CA3rdoba scrubbed a gray five-gallon pail clean and positioned its mouth skyward.

Dark clouds stalked overhead, and after days of drinking urine and turtle blood, and virtually dying of thirst, a blizzard ultimately bore down on the men. They opened their mouths to the falling rainfall, stripped off their clothes and rained in a glorious spate of fresh water. Within an hour, the pail had an inch, then two inches of water. The men laughed and drank every couple of minutes. After their initial attack on the water supplies, however, they vowed to preserve strict rations.

Alvarengas journey from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. Illustration: Guardian Graphics

After weeks at sea, Alvarenga and CA3rdoba became astute scavengers and learned to distinguish the varieties of plastic that bob across the ocean. They grabbed and stored every empty water bottle they discovered. When a stuffed green rubbish purse floated within reach, the men snared it, carried it aboard and rent open the plastic. Inside one purse, they discovered a wad of chewed gum and divided the almond-sized hunk, each man feasting on the wealth of sensorial pleasures. Underneath a layer of sodden kitchen oil, they discovered riches: half a head of cabbage, some carrots and a quart of milk half-rancid, but still they drank it. It was the first fresh food the two men had seen for a very long time. They treated the soggy carrots with reverence.

When they had several days worth of backup food, and especially after they had caught and eaten a turtle, CA3rdoba and Alvarenga briefly received solace in the magnificent seascape. We would talk about our moms, Alvarenga remembered. And how badly we had behaved. We asked God to forgive us for being such bad sons. We imagined if we could hug them, give them a kiss. We promised to work harder so they would not have to work any more. But it was too late.

After two months at sea, Alvarenga had become accustomed to capturing and eating birds and turtles, while CA3rdoba had begun a physical and psychological decline. They were on the same boat but headed on different routes. CA3rdoba had been sick after eating raw seabirds and made a drastic decision: he began to refuse all food. He gripped a plastic water bottle in both hands but was losing the energy, and motivating, to set it up to his mouth. Alvarenga offered tiny chunks of bird meat, occasionally a bite of turtle. CA3rdoba clenched his mouth. Depression was shutting his body down.

The two men made a pact. If CA3rdoba survived, he would travel to El Salvador and visit Alvarengas mother and father. If Alvarenga made it out alive, hed go back to Chiapas, Mexico, and find CA3rdobas devout mother who had remarried an evangelical evangelist. He asked me to tell his mother that the report was sad he could not say goodbye and that she shouldnt make any more tamales for him they should let him run, that he had gone with God, Alvarenga told me.

I am dying, I am dying, I am nearly gone, CA3rdoba said one morning.

Dont think about that. Lets take a nap, Alvarenga replied as he lay alongside CA3rdoba.

I am tired, I want water, CA3rdoba moaned. His breath was rough. Alvarenga retrieved the water bottle and set it to CA3rdobas mouth, but he did not swallow. Instead he stretched out. His body shook in short convulsions. He groaned and his body tensed up. Alvarenga abruptly panicked. He screamed into CA3rdobas face, Dont leave me alone! You have to fight for life! What am I going to do here alone?

CA3rdoba didnt reply. Moments later he died with his eyes open.

I propped him up to keep him out of the water. I was afraid a wave might clean him out of the boat, Alvarenga told me. I screamed for hours.

The next morning he stared at CA3rdoba in the bow of the boat. He asked the corpse, How do you feel? How was your sleep?

I slept good, and you? Have you had breakfast? Alvarenga answered his own topics aloud, as if he were CA3rdoba speaking from the afterlife. The easiest route to deal with losing his only companion was simply to pretend he hadnt died.

Six days after CA3rdobas death, Alvarenga sat with the corpse on a moonless night, in full dialogue, when, as if waking from a dreaming, he was abruptly shocked to find he was conversing with the dead. First I washed his feet. His clothes were useful, so I stripped off a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt. I set that on it was red, with little skull-and-crossbones and then I dumped him in. And as I slid him into the water, I fainted.

***

When he awoke just minutes later, Alvarenga was terrified. What could I do alone? Without anyone to speak with? he told me. Why had he died and not me? I had invited him to fish. I blamed myself for his death.

But his will to live and fear of suicide( his mother had assured him that the individuals who kill themselves will never go to heaven) maintained him searching for solutions and scouring the oceans surface for ships. Sunup and sunset were best, as blurry shapes on the horizon were transformed into neat silhouettes and the sunshine was bearable. With his eyesight fine-tuned, Alvarenga could now identify a tiny corpuscle on the horizon as a ship. As it approached, he would identify the type of vessel usually a transpacific receptacle ship as it growled by. These sea barges ploughed the sea effortlessly, and with no visible crew or activity on deck, they were like dronings at sea. Every sighting pumped Alvarenga with an energy boost that jolted him to wave, leap and flail for hours. About 20 separate receptacle boats paraded across the horizon, yet the maddening ship-tease still aroused him. Cyclones battered his small boat, but as he got farther out to sea, the storms seemed to become shorter, more manageable.

Alvarenga let his imagination run wild in order to keep sane. He imagined an alternative reality so believable that he could later say with total honesty that alone at sea he savor the greatest meals of his life and experienced the most delicious sexuality. He was mastering the art of turning his solitude into a Fantasia-like world. He started his mornings with a long stroll. I would stroll back and forth on the boat and imagine that I was wandering the world. By doing this I could stimulate myself believe that I was actually doing something. Not only standing here, thinking about succumbing. With this lively entourage of family, friends and fans, Alvarenga insulated himself from bleak reality.

When he was a small boy, his grandpa had taught him how to keep track of hour using the cycles of the moon. Now, alone in the open ocean, he was always clear as to how many months he had been adrift; he knew he had seen 15 lunar cycles while floating through unknown province. He was persuaded his next destination was heaven.

He was whizzing along on a smooth current, when abruptly the sky filled with coast birds. Alvarenga stared. The muscles in his neck tightened. A tropical island emerged from the fog. A green Pacific atoll, a small mound surrounded by a kaleidoscope of turquoise waters.

Hallucinations didnt last this long. Had his prayers ultimately been answered? Alvarengas racing mind imagined multiple calamity scenarios. He could blow off course. He could drift backward it had happened before. He stared at the land as he tried to pick out details from the coast. It was a tiny island , no bigger than a football field, he calculated. It looked wild, without roads, vehicles or homes.

With his knife, he cut away the ragged line of buoys. It was a drastic move. In the open ocean, with no sea anchor, he could readily flip during even a moderate tropical storm. But Alvarenga could see the shoreline clearly and he gambled that velocity was of greater importance than stability.

In an hour he had floated near the islands beach. Ten yards from coast, Alvarenga dove into the water, then paddled like a turtle until a large wave picked him up and tossed him high on the beach, like driftwood. As the wave pulled away, Alvarenga was left face down in the sand. I held a handful of sand like it was a rich, he later told me.

Making radio contact after landing on Ebon Atoll. Photo: Ola Fjeldstad

The famished fisherman crawled naked through a carpet of sodden palm fronds, sharp coconut shells and tasty flowers. He was unable to stand for more than a few seconds. I was altogether destroyed and as skinny as a board, he said. The only thing left was my bowels and gut, plus skin and bones. My arms had no meat. My thighs were skinny and ugly.

Although he didnt know it, Alvarenga had washed ashore on Tile Islet, a small island that is part of the Ebon Atoll, on the southern tip of the 1,156 islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands, one of the most remote spots on Earth. A boat leaving Ebon searching for land would either “re going to have to” churn 4,000 miles north-east to hit Alaska or 2,500 miles south-west to Brisbane, Australia. Had Alvarenga missed Ebon, he would have drifted north of Australia, possibly operating aground in Papua New Guinea, but more likely continuing another 3,000 miles towards the eastern coast of the Philippines.

As he stumbled through the undergrowth, he abruptly received himself standing across a small canal from the beach house of Emi Libokmeto and her husband Russel Laikidrik. As Im appearing across, I see this white man there, said Emi, who works husking and drying coconuts on the island. He is screaming. He seems weak and hungry. My first thought was, this person swim here, he must have fallen off a ship.

After tentatively approaching each other, Emi and Russel greeted him into their home. Alvarenga drew a boat, a man and the coast. Then he gave up. How could he explain a 7,000 -mile drift at sea with stick figures? His impatience simmered. He asked for medication. He asked for a doctor. The native couple smiled and kindly shook their heads. Even though we did not understand each other, I began to talk and talk, Alvarenga told me. The more I talked, the more we all roared with laughter. I am not sure why the latter are laughing. I was laughing at being saved.

After a morning of caring for and feeding the castaway, Russel sailed across a lagoon to the main town and port on the island of Ebon to ask the mayor for help. Within hours a group, including police and a nurse, had come to rescue Alvarenga. They had to persuade him to get on a boat with them back to Ebon. While they nursed this wild-looking man back to health and tried to coax out details of his journey, a visiting anthropologist from Norway alerted the Marshall Islands Journal.

El Salvadors castaway JosA( c) Salvador Alvarenga returns home last year video

Written by Giff Johnson, the first story used to go for the purposes of the Agence France-Presse( AFP) banner on 31 January and outlined the remarkable contours of Alvarengas story. Reporters in Hawaii, Los Angeles and Australia scrambled to reach the island to interview this alleged castaway. The single phone line on Ebon became a battleground, as reporters tried to discover tantalising details. Alvarengas story “ve had enough” hard facts to make it plausible: the initial missing person report, the search-and-rescue operation, the correlation of his drift with known ocean currents, and the fact that he was extremely weak.

But a debate erupted online and in newsrooms around the world: was this the most remarkable survivor since Ernest Shackleton, or the biggest scam since the Hitler diaries? Officials tracked down Alvarengas supervisor, who confirmed that the registration number of the boat he had washed up in was the same as the one that had left port on 17 November 2012, and faded. Guardian reporter Jo Tuckman interviewed Mexican search-and-rescue officer Jaime MarroquAn, who detailed the desperate hunt for Alvarenga and CA3rdoba that followed. The gales were high, MarroquAn said. We had to stop the search flights after two days because of poor visibility.

I began to investigate, talking to people up and down the coast of Mexico. I looked at medical record, studied maps, and spoke to survival experts, ranging from the US Coast Guard to the Navy Seals, as well as Ivan MacFadyen and Jason Lewis, two adventurers who have intersected that stretch of the Pacific. I spoke with oceanographers and commercial anglers familiar with the region. Everyone confirmed that Alvarengas version of life at sea was in line with what they would expect. When he arrived at hospital in the Marshall Islands, he was debriefed by US embassy officials who described multiple scars on Alvarengas very damaged body. He was out there for a very long time, the US ambassador said.

Back home in El Salvador. For months he was in shock, afraid of the water. Photo: Oscar Machon

Meanwhile back in the Marshall Islands, Alvarengas medical condition steadily worsened. His feet and legs were swollen. The doctors suspected the tissues had been deprived of water for so long that they now soaked up everything. But after 11 days, doctors determined that Alvarengas health had stabilised enough for him to travel home to El Salvador, where he would be reunited with his family.

He was diagnosed with anaemia and doctors suspected his diet of raw turtles and raw birds had infected his liver with parasites. Alvarenga believed the parasites might rise up to his head and assault his brain. Deep sleep was impossible and he thought often of CA3rdobas death. It was not the same to be celebrating survival alone. As soon as he was strong enough, he travelled to Mexico to fulfil his promise and deliver a message to CA3rdobas mother, Ana Rosa. He sat with her for two hours, answering all her questions.

Life on land has not been straightforward: for months, Alvarenga was still in shock. He had developed a deep fear of not only the ocean, but even the sight of water. He slept with the sunlights on and necessary constant company. Soon after coming ashore, he appointed a lawyer to handle the media requests that came in from all over the world. He later changed representation, and his former lawyer filed a suit demanding a million-dollar payout for an alleged breach of contract.

It wasnt until a year later, when the fog of disarray subsided and he scanned the maps of his drift across the Pacific Ocean, that Alvarenga began to fathom his extraordinary journey. For 438 days, he lived on the edge of sanity. I suffered hunger, thirst and an extreme loneliness, and didnt take my life, Alvarenga says. You only get one chance to live so appreciate it.

This is an edited extract from 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin, is issued by Macmillan at APS1 6.99. To order a copy for APS1 2.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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