Jose Salvador Alvarenga was washed out to sea in his tiny boat, and he became a real-life castaway. His story became a best selling book written by the author Jonathan Franklin who had previously written 33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners.
In January 2014, a man stumbled onto a remote island in the Marshall Islands, looking as though he hadn’t seen another living soul for months. He was very hairy, seemed desperately hungry and was obviously dehydrated.
There was just one couple living on the Island, and they weren’t used to having guests. After all, their private island was a long way from civilization. When they saw the crazed stranger, they were bewildered. They had no idea how the man could have gotten there. But the man Jose Salvador Alvarenga, couldn’t stop laughing.
Venturing Out to Sea
Alvarenga was a Tiburonero, a shark fisherman out of the tiny village of Costa Azul, on the Pacific side of southern Mexico.
Several times a week, he and a single companion would board their 24-foot open boat, loaded with bait, ice, food and water, fuel for the outboard engine, and a 2-mile long trail of hook-studded line, to troll for fish in the treacherous Gulf of Tehuantepec. With luck, they would return after a day or two, the icebox filled with a mixed bag of shark, tuna, and many other sea creatures. On this he earned a precarious living, yet enough to enjoy occasional parties featuring beer, cigars, and other festive delights.
On this occasion, Alvarenga had planned an ambitious overnight trip in order to catch some huge fish, which he would be able to sell at the market for a good sum of money. It was a risky journey, but if he succeeded in catching enough shark, tuna, and mahi-mahi, he would make enough money to live comfortably for a while.
Although Alvarenga was an experienced fisherman, he knew that he couldn’t head out alone, it was far too dangerous for that. Unfortunately his usual fishing mate, another seaworthy fisherman, backed out at the last minute.
Alvarenga wasn’t worried though, and selected a young fisherman named Ezequiel Cordoba. Though he had never worked with Cordoba, or even spoken to him, Alvarenga deemed the inexperienced young man fit for the journey. After all, it was to be a short one, just over a day long, and they should be relatively close to shore throughout.
On November 17, 2012, the pair set out in the fiberglass skiff with a small motor. On board were various fishing tools, a portable electronic radio, a non-waterproof GPS, and a large icebox to hold the fish. The trip seemed like it would be as Alvarenga hoped, as before long the two had caught over 1,000 pounds of fish, almost overloading the icebox.
A few hours into the last leg of the fishing trip Alvarenga and Cordoba got caught in an unexpected and dangerous storm. It was uncommon at that time of the year, but it came so quickly there was nothing they could really do to prepare themselves.
The fishing boat wasn’t strong enough to withstand such towering and powerful waves, so the boat got pushed in the wrong direction. Hit again and again by waves, the men were terrified the boat would flip over or break in half. However, this was just the beginning of the dangers the fisherman would face.
Have No Fear
The inexperienced Ezequiel Cordoba started panicking and frantically bailed the water out of the boat and even held on to the rail with both hands and screamed when his resolve faltered. Alvarenga on the other hand knew he had to stick to the primary task of steering them to safety, so he bravely navigated and aligned the boat through the storm.
They were about 50 miles out at sea, and Alvarenga was determined to get them back to shore. He maneuvered the boat through the waves while being tossed and turned violently.
Just when Alvarenga and Cordoba spotted the silhouette of a mountain on the horizon, the engine started making all kinds of noises. The engine was crucial because it would take two hours to reach land. They tried to fix it but it soon broke down, leaving them stranded in the middle of the ocean. Up until this time Alvarenga hadn’t shown any weakness but when their engine gave up on them, he also started to panic. He knew he had to act immediately, it was then that he recalled they had the radio on board.
“Willy! Willy! Willy!”
Jose Alvarenga frantically turned on the radio to send out an SOS to his boss, Willy. He had no time to waste as the radio’s battery was only half charged. Luckily, William answered immediately and heard Alvarenga screaming, “Willy! Willy! Willy! The motor is ruined.”
“Calm down, give me your coordinates,” Willy replied after he realized what happened. He wanted to send out a search team immediately but needed their location. Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t going to happen.
Their GPS wasn’t waterproof and had gotten wet during the storm. It wasn’t working at all, so the men had no idea where they were. With no GPS they couldn’t navigate or even give Willy their location.
Without knowing their location, Willy said the only thing the fisherman could do now was to lay their anchor, which would fix them to one spot and hopefully make them easier to find.
Unfortunately, there was no anchor on the small fishing boat, since Alvarenga had not anticipated needing one. Without an anchor, Willy knew that the men were in great danger of drifting far out to sea, so he sent for immediate help.
A Search Party
Willy informed the authorities about the missing boat, and they quickly formed a search party. It didn’t take long for several boats and aircraft to begin scanning the area, desperately trying to find Alvarenga and Cordoba. They searched for 48 hours without any luck before they had to call off the search. The weather was just so bad that they couldn’t identify anything on the water.
Alvarenga and Cordoba’s story spread to the local news, and people on land were listening for any updates as to their whereabouts. Time continued to pass, and an entire year went by without any news from the missing fishermen.
A New Plan of Action
When the stranded fishermen realized there was no help on the way, they knew they had to think of another plan. The weather was still very bad, so for the first few days they just had to do their best to keep the boat intact.
Losing Their Catch
Alvarenga and Cordoba were in such a dire situation that they had to make some hard decisions to ensure that they would survive as long as possible.
Their boat wouldn’t stop rocking in the water, so in an attempt to help stabilize it, they threw their huge haul of fish overboard. After they tossed the fish they also had to get rid of the ice and gasoline. Luckily, they had three buckets to bail the water out of the boat, hour after hour in a repetitive motion. In order to keep warm the men huddled together in the icebox meant for their fish.
Heading Nowhere Slowly
The choppy waters drove the boat in random directions. Without any navigation equipment, Alvarenga and Cordoba had no idea where they were. With hardly any resources left, like bait or hooks, Alvarenga had to adopt a new fishing technique. Being an experienced fisherman, he had to call on all his knowledge to keep bringing food onto the boat for him and Cordoba to eat. He learned how to catch fish with just his bare hands, a move that undoubtedly saved his life.
He would simply dangle his arms into the water and then wait for a fish to swim by. It might take him hours but eventually something would find its way into his grasp and he’d quickly scoop it on board. Cordoba would then clean and slice the fish into strips with a fishing knife, and then dry the raw pieces out in the sun. Alvarenga even caught turtles and flying fish.
Quenching Their Thirst
Alvarenga and Cordoba had an ocean full of fish, other marine life, and even seabirds, but there was nothing available to quench their thirst. Alvarenga was well aware of the dangers of drinking seawater and how it could destroy their kidneys and cause dehydration. This meant the men had to drink their own urine or drink the blood from the turtles they had caught. Alvarenga believed the urine would provide them with a bit of hydration, but in fact was exacerbating their longing for water.
There was a stroke of luck coming Alvarenga and Cordoba’s way. As they were drifting through the ocean, they would occasionally come across discarded garbage just floating on the surface. They would find bottles and even garbage bags with carrots and other vegetables inside that they would eat.
A Blessing From Above
After two weeks of being stranded, the men heard the sound of splatting while resting in the icebox. They counted their blessings when they discovered it was raining and ran across the deck to collect the rainwater using their buckets and bottles.
When days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, the castaways continued to survive on the food caught, hoping to catch a break. They even ate their own fingernails at one point. Alvarenga also caught jellyfish, putting them straight into his mouth to swallow them whole. It would burn his throat but they were running out of options and it helped to stave off his hunger.
Survival of the Fittest
Right from the beginning Cordoba would cry a lot and fall into a deep depression. He completely shut down and lost hope they’d ever survive. At around two months in, he began refusing to eat. Alvarenga had become used to eating turtles and fish, but Cordoba was in a mental and physical decline.
Cordoba got really sick from eating raw seabirds and turtles and eventually stopped eating anything. He gripped his bottle of water in his hands, but slowly he lost all energy and the will to live.
Goodbye, My Friend
One morning Cordoba murmured, “I am dying, I am dying, I am almost gone.” Alvarenga suggested they take a nap to forget about it and tried to give him some water, but Cordoba wouldn’t swallow. A few minutes later his body convulsed and tensed up. Alvarenga panicked and begged his friend not to give up. “What am I going to do here alone,” he screamed. However, it was too late and Cordoba passed away.
Hard to Let Go
It was tough for Alvarenga to come to terms with losing his only companion on the boat. Cordoba was the only person Alvarenga could talk to, but now he was gone.
Despite Cordoba’s passing, Alvarenga claims that he continued to speak to him for several days, unable to accept he was alone. Finally on the sixth day, Alvarenga got the courage to throw him overboard, burying him at sea. He was forced to acknowledge that from now on he would be alone in the boat.
Dealing with Loneliness
Alvarenga was incredibly lonely after Cordoba’s passing. There was nothing for him to do to distract himself from the misery of the situation and there were times when he considered just giving up and ending his life.
But Alvarenga, a religious man, vowed that he wouldn’t give up. He believes he kept going because of his faith. His mind would wander and he would imagine exploring the world, eating, drinking, and speaking with people in his mind.
Time Goes By
When he saw large container ships in the distance, he got so excited and tried to wave them down, but with no sign of activity on deck, they just disappeared into the horizon.
He used the phases and cycle of the waxing and waning of the moon to keep track of time, which his grandfather taught him how to do when he was just a boy. As far as he knew, Alvarenga was adrift as a castaway for at least 14 lunar cycles since the beginning of the fishing trip and 10 since Cordoba had passed.
Land At Last
While floating along the smooth currents one morning. Alvarenga looked up to see a sky full of birds and when he looked straight ahead, he spotted a small tropical atoll, no bigger than a football field, in the middle of turquoise waters. At first he thought he was hallucinating.
The Tile Islet
It took Alvarenga an hour to reach the shore of the island. He dove like a turtle into the water and paddled his way into a wave which pushed him on the sand. Alvarenga had landed on the Tile Islet, a small island part of the Ebon Atoll, which inturn is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Had he missed this island, he would have continued drifting north of Australia past Papua New Guinea and toward the Philippines.
No Man Is an Island
It was January 30, 2014 when Alvarenga landed on Tile Islet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As he walked further into the island he spotted a beach house and a man husking and drying some coconuts. The beach house belonged to Emi Libokmeto and her husband Russel Aikidrik, the only inhabitants of the island.
When Emi caught a glimpse of Alvarenga she thought he must have fallen off a ship and swam there, but she noticed how weak and hungry he looked, so she knew something was wrong. There was no denying he was lost at sea for a long time because of how tangled his hair was and how swollen his ankles looked.
The media were expecting a gaunt and anorexic man, so when Alvarenga emerged from the boat they were taken aback. Some people doubted his story was real because he looked too healthy to have been a castaway at sea for 13 months. However there were dozens of witnesses who saw Alvarenga and Cordoba leave Mexico, so that speculation was thrown out the window.
Some other naysayers believed Alvarengo had actually eaten Ezequiel Cordoba because of how healthy he looked, which would later be a difficult accusation for Alvarenga.
When Jose Alvarenga’s family in El Salvador heard the story they were so happy to know he was still alive. The news was mixed because they actually had been estranged from him for eight years after he left El Salvador for Mexico to pursue better fortune as a fisherman.
Laughter At Last
The couple didn’t understand Spanish and Alvarenga couldn’t speak English, so he drew pictures to try and communicate what he had been through. He drew some stick figures, and after he realized that he was no longer in danger, he burst out laughing which made Emi and Russel laugh as well.
While Emi attended to Alvarenga, Russel took a boat to get help from across the lagoon. He returned with a police officer and a nurse from Ebon, who took Alvarenga to the main island’s town to record the details of the story and to tend to his health. He was taken to a hospital where doctors discovered he was dehydrated, anemic, had low blood pressure, and his liver was infested with parasites. Alvarenga’s name wasn’t released to the media yet, but speculations ran wild
When the media caught wind of this castaway story reporters and journalists swarmed onto the island scrambling for information. Alvarenga was in no condition to be interviewed at the moment, so he posted a note on his hospital door begging the press to disappear.
Fulfilling a Promise
As soon as he recovered, Alvarenga traveled to Mexico to fulfill a promise he made to Cordoba. He went to see his mother Ana Roseto to deliver her son’s message of love to her. She received him warmly and they spoke for hours.
However, some of Cordoba’s relatives were less sympathetic and have even accused Alvarenga of killing Cordoba in order to eat him so he could survive. They even believe Alvarenga owes them some kind of compensation, especially after Jose Alvarenga decided to tell his story in full book form.
A Survival Story
After so many people wanted to know exactly what Alvarenga went through out at sea he decided to tell his full story to journalist Jonathan Franklin and turn it into a book. It was meant to be a new form of income as well as a way to deal with the trauma of being lost at sea for so long.
The book, titled 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea, was incredibly successful. That meant Ezequiel Cordoba’s family began demanding half the money from the book, or around $1 million. They believe Alvarenga is only alive and well to tell the tale because he ate Cordoba. Alvarenga denies this accusation wholeheartedly. The litigation is ongoing.
Life After the Ordeal
Following the ordeal, Alvarenga has developed trouble sleeping and leaves the lights on at night. He has developed a fear of seeing any form of water, let alone the ocean. It took him about a year to even fathom what he had been through and what an extraordinary journey he had made across the Pacific Ocean.
In an interview with the author, Jonathan Franklin, he was asked if he had any doubts about the story. “Initially, I had serious doubts. But the more I investigated the less it seemed like a hoax. Alvarenga had been reported missing. There had been an emotional and extensive search and rescue effort. And he was a rough and tumble fisherman living on the edge of poverty and the edge of civilization, the kind of guy who just might be able to survive month after month on the open ocean.”
Several maritime experts pointed out that one would have to sail in a particularly straight line to reach the point of the Marshall Islands, which would have been near impossible with no steering mechanism or navigation system. Also doctors indicated that surely a year and a few months with little food or fresh water Alvarengo would at the least have scurvy.
However, several doctors pointed out that the sea diet, which consisted mostly of bird and sea turtle meat, actually contained high amounts of vitamin C, which would have done well to prevent scurvy. The discrepancy over his route was also cleared up when a University of Hawaii study proved that ocean currents would have directed him right to the island he landed on.
Today, Alvarenga lives in El Salvador, in a small town, with family, surrounded by land, and as far from the water as he can get.
What a story! As Outside magazine has said, this book “…reads like a mezcal hallucination that starts in mythic gear and escalates into sheer madness.”
A must read.
Alan Dale is an experienced backpacker and adventure sports athlete who pays the bills by writing. Married with a small brood, Alan often has his kids in tow on many of his adventures.