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Book tells castaway’s story

Saturday 21 November 2015 | Published in Regional

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438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea is the miraculous account of the man who survived alone and adrift at sea longer than anyone in recorded history—as told to journalist Jonathan Franklin in dozens of exclusive interviews.

On January 29, 2014, When fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga washed ashore on a remote island deep in the Pacific Ocean, he was 10,700 kilometres from home, having survived 14 months lost at sea.

It was a record of endurance never equaled by another castaway.

Alvarenga was 36. His hair and beard were a matted thicket, his wrists impossibly small, his ankles grotesquely swollen.

When he set out from the small Mexican village of Costa Azul on November 17, 2012, he was at his physical prime, with a compact, muscled physique shaped by his rugged life as a fisherman.

How could Alvarenga have possibly survived more than a year adrift in the ocean?

Jonathan Franklin, who documented the ordeal of the trapped Chilean miners in the book 33 Men, tells the fisherman’s story in the new literary effort entitled 438 Days.

Even Franklin, who was reporting for The Guardian newspaper at the time, had trouble believing Alvarenga was who he claimed. The tale was just too incredible. But supporting evidence bore the fisherman out.

Alvarenga arrived in Mexico in 2008, on the run from the village of Garita Palmera in El Salvador after a vicious bar fight left him with 11 stab wounds and multiple broken ribs.

Fearing for his life, he fled, leaving behind his baby daughter, Fatima, and his parents.

With few options available to him, Alvarenga became a fisherman. And he revelled in it.

A 60-hour run could yield as much as $150, enough to live on for a week and party hard. Alvarenga was no one’s idea of a hero, but a cruel fate was about to anoint him a true-life seafaring legend.

That November, a huge norteño – a killer windstorm from the north – was predicted. Alvarenga had already made one lucrative haul of shark, mahimahi and tuna that week. But he was greedy for one more trip while the fish were running.

Unable to find an experienced crewman, Alvarenga hired 22-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba, better known as the star of the local soccer team. It wasn’t a good match for the risk-taking Alvarenga, known to travel farther and stay out longer than other, possibly wiser, men.

The two set out in a 7.6-metre fibreglass fishing boat. In the evening, the two men threw out a three-kilometre longline baited with 700 hooks.

In the wee hours, Alvarenga woke up as the storm turned ugly. He ordered Cordoba to reel the line in.

Cordoba, who had signed up for $50 and two days’ work, froze with panic as Alvarenga fought to bring the vessel home through three metre high waves. Alvarenga battled through the night and was only 24km from the coast when the outboard motor died.

Frantic, he radioed the boat’s owner and demanded to be rescued. His last words to land were, “Come now, I am really getting f----d out here.” His boss replied on the radio that he was sending help.

By noon, the radio had died and Alvarenga had to wrest Cordoba from the sea by his hair when he was swept overboard by a wave that also took their food and water supply, according to the book.

When the storm was at its height, they were forced to jettison their haul – some 500kg of fish – to lighten the strain on the small craft.

Without any radio contact rescuers had no idea where to search.

As the storm continued through the next day, the men spent hours dumping water out of the boat. Despite the hours of work, the boat was still half-filled with water.

It didn’t take long for their situation to grow dire in the open sea. Aside from a small knife, they were left with no tools, no food and no water. They were now prey for what had been their prime catch as sharks circled the boat.

Days into their odyssey, Alvarenga improvised an ingenious means to catch fish. He leaned from the boat, always alert for fins, and dangled his hands. When a fish swam between, he would slam his muscled arms shut, digging his fingernails into the flesh.

Alvarenga stuffed the raw fish into his mouth by the handful. He started drinking his own urine, and urged Cordoba to do the same. It was a mistake. The salt exacerbated the dehydration, torturing both men.

Their next meal was salvaged from the flotsam of garbage that floated around them. A green bag yielded a wad of used chewing gum, half a cabbage, some limp carrots and a quart of rancid milk. The men feasted.

By 10 days out, without bait or a hook to catch the abundance of fish around them, Alvarenga hit on the idea of harvesting sea turtles, using a tube from the outboard motor to suck them dry of blood. The more delicate Cordoba couldn’t bring himself to do the same.

A rainstorm finally gifted them with an abundance of water that they caught in plastic bottles snatched from floating garbage piles.

Alvarenga used the lunar cycle to keep track of the passing days. On what they estimated to be Christmas Eve, the men enjoyed a meal made from their only food supply – birds that came to rest at night on the side of the boat.

Within hours, Cordoba was writhing in pain. They split open the gut of the bird and found the skeleton of a snake. Enough of the skin was left to identify it as a venomous, yellow-bellied sea snake.

Cordoba survived being poisoned, but ultimately lost his sanity and his life to the doldrums, a stretch of sea so still that sailors from earlier times considered it a death sentence.

At one point, Cordoba tried to throw himself overboard to commit suicide by shark attack, according to the book.

Then he refused to eat, growing increasingly emaciated and deranged as the days passed. Before he died with his eyes open, he extracted two promises from Alvarenga.

One was that Alvarenga not eat his corpse. The other was that he find Cordoba’s mother and tell her what happened.

Alvarenga befriended the dead body and chatted to it for six days before he realized his own insanity.

Cordoba’s corpse went overboard with little ceremony. Alvarenga was alone now and would be for the rest of the year, and then some.

He developed a rich fantasy life in which he enjoyed gourmet meals and good company. When his boat nuzzled up against a whale shark, the ocean’s largest creature, he befriended the monster, chatting to it through the week they kept company.

Later, experts were able to track Alvarenga’s path, a drift westward, then a wild zigzag, for days travelling at a crawling two kilometres per hour. He became the first person in history to have survived a year lost at sea.

Simple body movements were beyond him, and despair had beset him.

“I could see my death was going to be very, very slow,” he said when he first spotted land.

A strong wind caught the vessel and brought Alvarenga ashore island an outpost of the Marshall Islands.

Although he first thought the island was a hallucination, his prayers were answered when he realized that actual land was on the horizon.

Naked, and covered with leeches, the desperate man crawled across the reef. A red shirt on a clothesline alerted him to the fact that civilization was near.

The couple that took him in, the only residents on the remote atoll, didn’t speak his language, but in their company he began his journey back to the world.

Deeply traumatized, Alvarenga returned to El Salvador and his daughter. He made the promised journey to Cordoba’s mother and received her blessing, although the family is now suing for a share of profits from the book.

When the fisherman first appeared on the Marshall Islands, there was plenty of scepticism about his story. But oceanographers, doctors and survival experts said it was plausible, and lawyers said he passed a lie detector test.

A study from the University of Hawai’i about prevailing wind and current conditions suggests that Alvarenga was extremely lucky to have passed within sight of Ebon Atoll, which is the southernmost land mass in the Marshall Island.

Had he missed this tiny dot in the Pacific, he would have faced another 4800 kilometres of empty ocean between the Marshalls and the Philippines.

- PNC