9 Nov 2015

Man survives being lost at sea for 14 months


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 hiding the fact that this man had been at sea for a considerable time. His hair was matted upwards like a shrub. His beard curled out in wild disarray. His ankles were swollen, his wrists tiny; he could barely walk. He refused to make 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 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 drifted for 438 days.
Floating across the Pacific Ocean, watching the moon’s light ebb and flow for over a year, Alvarenga had battled loneliness, depression and bouts of suicidal thinking. But surviving in a vibrant world of wild animals, vivid hallucinations and extreme solitude did little to prepare him for the fact that he was about to become an international celebrity and an object of curiosity.
Days later, Alvarenga faced the world’s press. Dressed 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 ripple of disbelief went through the crowd. Alvarenga cracked a quick smile and waved to the cameras. Several observers noted a similarity to the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away. The photo of the bearded fisherman shuffling ashore went 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 ends happily. I was sceptical, but as a Guardian reporter in the region, I began to investigate. It turned out there were dozens of witnesses 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 door begging 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 storm, 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 task: 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 Córdoba, 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, Córdoba was frantically tossing water back into the ocean, pausing only momentarily to allow his shoulder muscles to recover.
Alvarenga’s boat, at 25 feet, was as long as two pick-up trucks and as wide as one. With no raised structure, no glass and no running lights, 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 money to survive for a week.
The boat was loaded with equipment, including 70 gallons of gasoline, 16 gallons of water, 23kg (50lb) of sardines for bait, 700 hooks, miles of line, a harpoon, three knives, three buckets for baling, a mobile phone (in a plastic bag to keep it dry), a GPS tracking device (not waterproof), a two-way radio (battery half-charged), several wrenches for the motor and 91kg (200lb) of ice. 
Alvarenga had prepared the boat with Ray Perez, his usual mate and a loyal companion. But at the last minute, Perez couldn’t join him. Alvarenga, keen to get out to sea, arranged to go with Córdoba instead, a 22-year-old with the nickname Piñata who lived at the far end of the lagoon, where he was best known as a defensive star on the village soccer team. Alvarenga and Córdoba had never spoken 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 way through. As the weather worsened, Córdoba’s resolve disintegrated. At times he refused to bale and instead held the rail with both hands, vomiting and crying. He had signed up to make $50. He was capable of working 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 scream.
Alvarenga remained sitting, gripping the tiller tightly, determined to navigate a storm now so strong that harbourmasters along the coast had barred fishing boats from heading out to sea. Finally 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, it’s not functioning.”
“Lay an anchor,” Willy ordered.
“We have no anchor,” Alvarenga said. He had noticed it was missing before setting off, but didn’t think he needed it on a deep-sea mission.
“OK, we are coming to get you,” Willy responded.
“Come now, I am really getting fucked out here,” Alvarenga shouted. These were his final words to shore.
As the waves thumped the boat, Alvarenga and Córdoba began working as a team. With the morning sun, 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 to create swells that raised the men to a brief peak where they could get a third-storey view, then, with the sensation of a falling elevator, instantly drop them. Their beach sandals provided no traction on the deck.
Alvarenga realised their catch – nearly 500kg (1,100lb) of fresh fish – was making the boat top heavy and unstable. With no time to consult his boss, Alvarenga went with his gut: they would dump all the fish. One by one they hauled 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 10am the radio died. It was before noon on day one of a storm 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 storm churned as Córdoba and Alvarenga succumbed to the cold. They turned the refrigerator-sized icebox upside down and huddled inside. Soaking wet and barely able to clench their cold hands into fists, they hugged and wrapped 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 wind 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 hooks, Alvarenga invented a daring strategy to catch fish. He kneeled alongside the 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 kept his hands steady, a few inches apart. When a fish swam between his hands, he smashed them shut, digging his fingernails into the rough scales. Many escaped but soon Alvarenga mastered the tactic and he began to grab the fish and toss them into the boat while trying to avoid their teeth. With the fishing knife, Córdoba expertly cleaned and sliced the flesh into finger-sized strips that were left to dry in the sun. They ate fish after fish. Alvarenga stuffed raw meat and dried meat into his mouth, hardly 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 Córdoba to follow suit. It was salty but not revolting as he drank, urinated, drank again, peed again, in a cycle that felt as if it was providing at least minimal hydration; in fact, it was exacerbating their dehydration. Alvarenga had long ago learned the dangers of drinking seawater. Despite their longing for liquid, they resisted 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 wasn’t so bad.”

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