Lost at sea for 438 days

Featured Image: Jose Salvador Alvarenga, pictured above, upon his arrival in the Marshall Islands after being lost at sea continuously for 438 days.

Thursday, 2 May 2019, Mexico City, Mexico – World records. There are all kinds of them and pretty much anyone can set one. Most importantly, people try to break world records that have already been set in the past. But one world record that nobody wants to break for sure, is the world record for the longest amount of time spent lost at sea. Jose Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvador native and a fisherman working in Mexico, holds this world record – he was lost in a boat in the Pacific Ocean for a mind-boggling 438 days. That’s over a year! Even more staggering is the distance he ended up travelling – he floated, in a 25-foot-long fishing boat, from Mexico to the Marshall Islands, more than halfway across the Pacific Ocean.

At this point, you probably have a lot of questions. How did Mr Alvarenga survive? Why didn’t he call for help? And how did he even get lost at sea in the first place? On 17 November 2012, a 35-year old Alvarenga planned at two-day fishing trip with his partner, a 22-year old Ezequiel Cordoba. Setting off from the tiny fishing village of Costa Azul, the two men actually knew a storm was coming in the area they wanted to fish in. But they thought it was worth a shot, because a good catch for one day could monetarily support them for weeks at a time. In the early morning while the two men were fishing, the storm struck and it was threatening their boat (which, if you remember from earlier, is only 25 feet long). They were 75 miles off the coast of Mexico at the time. In a frenzied panic, the two men threw everything overboard except for themselves, and headed back toward land.

By sunrise, they were only 15 miles from the coast, and they could actually see mountains on the horizon. Unfortunately, by this point, their motor failed. They didn’t have any paddles or oars to use (because they threw them overboard during the storm). Strong winds began to push them back out into the ocean. The two men still had their radio, though, and they reported their position to their boss, who said that he would send people out to go help them. But then their radio died. At this point, they were toast. Nobody could help them anymore. They were tantalisingly close to land, they could see it. But they had no shot at getting to it. The strong winds would continue to push them further and further out into the ocean, until they were 300 miles from the Mexican coast, where they had started from just days before.

Imagine the situation. Trapped in a tiny fishing boat, just 25 feet long, two people with a slim chance at survival, and everything around you was ocean for as far as the eye can see. And in order to survive, the two men had to eat raw birds and seafood straight from the ocean, including the consumption of turtle blood. Not a great situation. On the bright side, at least the two men could talk to each other, right? Unfortunately, this wouldn’t last for long. Cordoba, just 22 years old, lost his sanity. He became ill from eating the raw food, refused to eat, and eventually starved to death.

At this point, Alvarenga was all alone. He was lost, in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet, with no living human in sight for hundreds of miles in every direction. The idea of suicide was becoming attractive to Alvarenga. “Why wasn’t it both of us? Why am I the one who continues to suffer?”, he complained to himself in jealousy and despair. Why is he dead and not me?” He still didn’t give up on Cordoba, though, even if his body has turned purple because he’s been dead for so long. Alvarenga talked to his partner’s corpse for an entire week until he realised he was going crazy. He tossed the corpse into the ocean, a symbolic gesture of moving on, and finding hope on his own from this point forward.

Alvarenga was lost in the Central Pacific, with few ships passing through the area. One of the few ships that did pass through actually saw him. Alvarenga waved at the ship to get attention, and a few men onboard actually saw him, but the ship kept moving along and didn’t bother rescuing him. They probably thought it was some random Pacific Islander doing some fishing for a few hours, and not someone who had been stuck there for the past few months desperately seeking rescue.

On 30 January 2014, he spotted land on the horizon, and he jumped out and swam to shore. After walking a bit, he found a dwelling and made contact with the first humans since he became lost at sea 438 days before. Alvarenga had landed on the Ebon Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and he had travelled a staggering 7,000 miles on his tiny fishing boat. Had Alvarenga missed this tiny island in one of the most remote corners of the globe, the next closest landmass would be the Philippines, some 5,000 more miles and 240 more days away. Upon making contact with the Marshallese, they offered him fresh water and he was immediately escorted to the local hospital. He eventually made it back home to his native Mexico. Alvarenga describes his initial contact with humans thusly:

“I was so scared. I was afraid of people. I couldn’t find the right words after being alone for so long.”

Upon his return to Mexico, he was not greeted with kindness by everyone. Specifically, the family of Ezequiel Cordoba, his friend who starved on the boat, sued Alvarenga for a million dollars. Why? They allege that Alvarenga ate Cordoba’s corpse to survive. Oh well. I guess there’s no way to avoid people hating you even if you’ve been lost at sea for 438 days. Hopefully Alvarenga will be more careful this time about going too far offshore just to make a killing off of some fish.

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