Friday, March 31, 2023




There are stories of triumph over adversity due to the strength of the human spirit, of people being unwilling to surrender to physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual depths . . . Helen Keller, Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz), Alfred Dreyfus (sentenced to Devil’s Island incarceration despite being innocent).

Such a man was also Salvador Avarenga (1975 - ), who spent 14 months adrift on a small boat in the Pacific Ocean beginning on November 17, 2012. Imagine it: day in, day out, no food or water except what you could obtain or produce, the endless ocean stretching out to the horizon, nothing to break the monotony of each day’s sameness and extreme solitude.

His story:

Alvarenga was born in El Salvador and left El Salvador in 2002 for Mexico, where he worked as a fisherman for four years. He has several brothers who live in the US.

On November 17, 2012, Alvarenga set out from the fishing village of Costa Azul, off the coast of Mexico. An experienced sailor and fisherman, he was intent on a 30-hour shift of deep-sea fishing, during which he hoped to catch sharks, marlins, and sailfish. His usual fishing mate was unable to join him, so he arranged instead to bring along the inexperienced 23-year-old Ezequiel Córdoba, with whom he had not previously spoken, and whose surname he did not know.

Their boat was a seven-meter (23-foot) topless fiberglass skiff equipped with a single outboard motor and a refrigerator-sized icebox for storing fish,

Shortly after embarking, their boat was blown off course by a storm that lasted five days, during which the motor and most of the portable electronics were damaged. Though they had caught nearly 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of fresh fish, the pair were forced to dump it overboard to make the boat maneuverable in the bad weather. Alvarenga managed to call his boss on a two-way radio and request help before the radio's battery died. Having neither sails nor oars, no anchor, no running lights, and no other way to contact shore, the boat began to drift across the open ocean. Much of the fishing gear was also lost or damaged in the storm, leaving them with only a handful of basic supplies and little food.

The search party organised by Alvarenga's employer failed to find any trace of the missing men and gave up after two days because visibility was poor.

As days turned to weeks, Avarenga and Cordoba learned to scavenge their food from whatever sources presented themselves. Alvarenga managed to catch fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands, and the pair occasionally salvaged bits of food and plastic refuse floating in the water. They collected drinking water from rainfall when possible, but more frequently were forced to drink turtle blood or their own urine. Alvarenga frequently dreamed about his favorite foods, as well as his parents.

According to Alvarenga, Córdoba lost all hope around four months into the voyage after becoming sick from the raw food, and eventually died from starvation by refusing to eat. Alvarenga has said that he contemplated suicide for four days after Córdoba died, but his Christian faith prevented him from doing so. He related that Córdoba made him promise not to eat his corpse after he died, so he kept it on the boat. He sometimes spoke to the corpse, and after six days, feared he was becoming insane, he threw it overboard.

Alvarenga reported that he saw numerous transoceanic container ships but was unable to solicit help.

He kept track of time by counting the phases of the moon. After counting his 15th lunar cycle, he spotted land: a tiny, desolate islet, which turned out to be a remote corner of the Marshall Islands. On January 30, 2014, he abandoned his boat and swam to shore, where he stumbled upon a beach house owned by a local couple. Alvarenga's journey had lasted 438 days.

The length of his voyage has been variously calculated as 8,900 to 10,800 km (5,500 to 6,700 miles).

Alvarenga's vital signs were all "good", with the exception of blood pressure, which was unusually low. Alvarenga had swollen ankles and struggled with walking. On February 6 the doctor treating him reported that his health had "gone downhill" since the day before and that he was on an IV drip to treat his dehydration.

The implausibility of someone surviving so long at sea on a small craft led a number of commentators to doubt Alvarenga's story, though investigators were able to confirm some of the basic details. Initial questioning of Alvarenga upon his arrival in Majuro and found him to be truthful. Experts supported the fact of the currents, timing, ocean conditions, ability to survive and that Alvarenga’s story was consistent with the truth. In April 2014, Alvarenga's lawyer told a press conference that he had passed a polygraph test while being asked about his voyage.

After 11 days in a hospital, Alvarenga was deemed healthy enough to return to El Salvador. However, he was diagnosed with anemia, had trouble sleeping and developed a fear of water. In 2015, he gave a series of interviews about his ordeal to the journalist Jonathan Franklin, who published his story as the book 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea.

Shortly after the release of Alvarenga's book, the family of Ezequiel Córdoba sued Alvarenga for $1,000,000, accusing him of cannibalizing their relative in order to survive, despite their pact that Córdoba would not be eaten after death. Alvarenga's lawyer has denied this accusation.

(I have not been able to find the outcome of the court case).

From Franklin's book:
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 lights on and needed 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 lawsuit demanding a million-dollar payout for an alleged breach of contract.

It wasn’t until a year later, when the fog of confusion 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 didn’t take my life,” Alvarenga says. “You only get one chance to live – so appreciate it.”
Today, Alvarenga lives in El Salvador, in a small town surrounded by land, as far from the water as he can get.

Alvarenga gets a haircut after rescue in the Marshall Islands, Feb. 4, 2014.

José Salvador Alvarenga after a shave, a shower, and some much needed recovery time in the hospital.

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

The family of castaway fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga -- (L-R) his sister Fatima Orellana, father Jose Ricardo, and mother Maria Julia Alvarenga -- pose for a picture in their fishing hometown of Ahuchapan February 4, 2014.

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