Where did it start?
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.
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All part of the plan
438 days earlier, in November 2012, Jose Salvador Alvarenga embarked on a fishing trip from Mexico with his fishing partner, Ezequiel Córdoba.
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 great deal of money. It was a risky journey, but if he succeeded in catching enough tuna, shark, 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 on this trip alone – it was far too dangerous for that. Unfortunately, his regular fishing buddy was unable to go with him.
Alvarenga knew that going out alone would be incredibly foolish, so he decided to find somebody else to go on the trip with him. Eventually he found a willing volunteer named Ezequiel Córdoba to join in on the dangerous fishing mission.
A short trip
Alvarenga and Córdoba decided to spend a total of 30 hours at sea, allowing them enough time to catch plenty of fish.
They set out in a small, uncovered fishing boat, that provided them little shelter from the elements. They knew that spending more than one night on the water in this boat would be incredibly hard, especially if there was bad weather.
Since they had embarked during the dry season, Alvarenga and Córdoba weren’t expecting rain. But unfortunately, a storm cloud had formed, and a storm hit. In their small, uncovered fishing boat, the two men were at the mercy of nature.
The wind flung their little boat left and right, and there was nothing that the men could do about it. Their boat was being battered by the waves and was in real danger of capsizing and breaking.
Would they get out safely?
Alvarenga was doing his best to navigate his way through the storm. Before long, he spotted land ahead, and it gave the men hope.
As they began heading in the direction of the shore, however, they ran into more difficulty – their engine started faltering. Then, it broke down completely. The fishermen were unable to do anything but let the sea take them where it wanted.
Things weren’t looking good, and even Alvarenga was starting to worry that they might not make it out of this situation.
Knowing that now was the time for action, Alvarenga decided to call for help. He turned on his radio and tried to get in contact with his boss, Willy. The radio was only half charged, but Willy answered right away.
Looking for an escape route
Willy immediately understood that the fishermen were in real danger and asked for their location so he could send out a rescue team. However, Alvarenga soon realized that even this was impossible.
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 fishermen could do now was to lay their anchor, fixing them to one spot and making them easier to find.
Unfortunately, there was no anchor on the small fishing boat, since Alvarenga hadn’t 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 Córdoba.
They searched for 48 hours without any luck before they had to call off their search. The weather was just so bad that they couldn’t identify anything on the water. It seemed as though the fishermen were out of luck and were going to have to drift to safety.
Alvarenga and Córdoba’s story had 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.
After so much time, people weren’t too optimistic that the pair were still alive. The locals didn’t believe that Alvarenga and Córdoba would ever return. But 14 months after their disappearance, there was a huge shock in store.
After the weather had taken the two fishermen out to sea, they soon realized that only with incredible luck would somebody find them.
Once they lost contact with Willy, Alvarenga and Córdoba knew that they would have to fend for themselves, as help wouldn’t be coming. However, stuck in the middle of the ocean, there wasn’t much they could do. They focused all of their attention on making sure the boat stayed intact during the storm.
Losing their catch
Alvarenga and Córdoba were in a dire situation so they had to make some crucial decisions to ensure that they would survive for 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. In order to keep warm, the two men would huddle together in the icebox meant for their fish. As time went on, they also learned how to catch fish with their bare hands.
They were surrounded by water, but of course, it was sea water so they couldn’t drink any of it. The only thing they were able to drink was their own waste fluid, but finally, after a couple of weeks living off their own bodies, there was a saving grace. Rain!
The rain water helped keep them alive, but they were already in pretty rough shape. The fishermen had been stranded for months, without even a glint of hope of being found.
The sea is pretty cold
Living in a small boat at sea exposes you to some rough climates. In fact, it is possible to get into real trouble due to hypothermia. There is no protection from the bitter cold winds and rains that are found out there.
The two men were soaked after each day spent floating in an uncovered boat, and would have to cover themselves in the icebox at night, huddling together trying to keep warm. They were so cold they couldn’t even make fists.
Unable to make it
Miraculously, the pair were able to survive for a while off of fish and sea birds, but sadly for Córdoba, things were about to take a turn for the worse.
Both Alvarenga and Córdoba were getting really weak, and one day, Córdoba got sick. Without the proper care, the man was unable to recover. After spending many weeks out at sea, Córdoba sadly passed away, leaving Alvarenga all on his own on the small fishing boat.
Hard to let go
It was tough for Alvarenga to come to terms with losing his only companion on the boat. Córdoba was the only person Alvarenga could talk to, but now his companion was not responding to him.
Despite Córdoba’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.
A final wish
Alvarenga spoke of Ezequiel Córdoba’s final request and wanted to make sure he fulfilled his promise once he was healthy enough. Córdoba sunk into depression during their time stranded on the boat and he didn’t believe they would be able to survive their struggle.
According to Alvarenga, Córdoba got sick and refused to eat. He made Alvarenga promise to visit Córdoba’s mother if he got lucky enough to survive. This was a promise made to a dying man, and it was one that Alvarenga fully intended on keeping.
Dealing with loneliness
Alvarenga was incredibly lonely after Córdoba’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 own life.
But Alvarenga is a religious man, and he vowed that he wouldn’t give up. He believes that 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.
An angry man
As the reality of being stranded hit home with Alvarenga, he told people about how he lost it. He started throwing stuff overboard, including the broken GPS and the radio that had long been drained of its battery.
Finally, he took a club that normally was saved for hitting fish with and turned it onto the broken motor of the boat. As far as Alvarenga was concerned, it was never going to work again anyway, so why not get some of his frustrations out on it?
Alvarenga was an experienced fisherman, and he had to call upon all of his knowledge to keep bringing food onto the boat for him and Córdoba to eat. He learned how to 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.
Although he was having to eat anything that came by as a necessity, there was one sea creature many people wouldn’t have even thought was edible. Alvarenga found himself eating jellyfish, such was his desperation to stay alive.
He would grab these jellyfish and just put them in his mouth, swallowing them whole. Although the jellyfish hurt his throat on the way down, Alvarenga said he was just happy to be eating something, it didn’t really matter what it was at that point.
There was a stroke of luck coming Alvarenga’s way, but it was also a sad sign of the times. As he was drifting through the ocean, he would occasionally come across discarded garbage just floating on the surface.
He used as many of the bottles as he could find to gather the rainwater anytime it came down, giving him a vital supply of water to drink when the rain was gone. He even managed to find garbage bags with carrots and other vegetables inside that he could eat.
Ten months adrift
Alvarenga continued surviving this way for ten whole months. Then suddenly he spotted something on the horizon – it was land! Alvarenga was overcome with joy and cut off the buoys that he had attached to the boat to keep it stable.
Now he was able to lead the boat toward the little island he saw, which was of course, Tile Islet in the Marshall Islands. It seemed that finally, after a full 438 days out at sea, Alvarenga would once again feel land beneath his feet.
In January 2014, a strange man appeared on Tile Islet, an island where Emi Libokmeto and Russel Laikidrik lived.
The island is part of a cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean known as the Marshall Islands, and it is much closer to Australia than to Mexico, where the fishermen set off from. Emi and Russel were not expecting any guests, and were in for the shock of their lives.
Did this guy swim here?
To Emi and Russel, this man was pretty strange to encounter. He was really skinny, with a massive beard, and he was weakly stumbling around their beach. Emi thought that Alvarenga had swum to their island after falling from a ship.
She knew he looked incredibly weak and hungry but wasn’t sure about anything else. Somehow, Alvarenga had drifted over 5,000 miles from off the coast of Mexico, nearly making it all the way to Australia.
Although a little concerned by his behavior, the couple took the man into their home before seeking some help for him. Russel took a boat to a nearby island where they could get some help for the man.
After some time, Russel returned to Tile Islet with a nurse and a police officer. Alvarenga was taken to Ebon, which was the nearest main port. When he got to Ebon, he told them his tale and soon there were rumors around the media that the man was Alvarenga.
Not in a good way
As he was rescued, it was apparent that Alvarenga was not in good condition. The first stop for Alvarenga was the hospital to have a doctor look him over.
After so long at sea, he was in poor condition physically. In addition to being anemic, his liver was infected, and his legs and feet were very swollen. Doctors thought that the reason why Alvarenga’s liver was filled with parasites was because of all the raw fish he had to eat to survive.
Became a little kooky
Alvarenga had spent over a year adrift in the middle of the ocean, and it seemed that time in the boat had gotten to him a little. He appeared to be a bit crazed to the couple on the island. Of course, if you think about it, it’s pretty understandable that Alvarenga wasn’t in the best shape mentally.
He was cut off from everybody, living every day worrying it might be his last. When he arrived on the island, he wasn’t wearing any clothes and was jumping around holding onto his knife.
Finally, some luck
It is likely that if Alvarenga hadn’t managed to wash up on the shore of Tile Islet when he did, he probably wouldn’t have lived to tell his tale. He was lucky to manage to catch a break and get washed in the direction of the small island, if he had missed it he would have continued drifting.
His path would have taken him above Australia and it is likely he wouldn’t have found land again until reaching the Philippines some 3,000 miles away.
Laughing it off
When he landed on the beach of Tile Islet he initially began trying to explain himself to Emi and Russel, but it soon became clear there was a breakdown in communication. The couple who lived on the island were English speakers, but Alvarenga only spoke Spanish.
He sounded like a crazed madman, and even tried drawing pictures to try and help explain himself. Eventually, Alvarenga just burst out laughing because he realized that he was now saved, no matter what.
What day is it?
Having spent so long out at sea, it wouldn’t be surprising if Alvarenga lost track of time. Pretty soon he could have lost track of the days, that following to weeks, months, and whether he was still in the same year as when he left.
But Alvarenga is an experienced fisherman and knew how to keep a up with the time by using the moon. It was Alvarenga’s grandfather who showed him how to tell the time by monitoring the phases of the moon.
Not ready to share
The story of the missing fishermen had already received a lot of attention. The media began to swarm around, all fighting to be the first to break this man’s tale. Alvarenga had been through a lot, and it took him time to share the story of his adventure.
He was reluctant to give up his version of his story, but that didn’t stop the media from covering it. There were two questions on everyone’s mind: how did Alvarenga manage to survive out there for so long, and where was Córdoba?
The media scramble
Everyone was trying to find out the answers to these questions. When Alverenga was finally ready to talk, there were plenty of news outlets around to cover the story, as reporters from all over the world were flocking to the Marshall Islands to try to get an interview with the weary traveler.
The story was first broken by Giff Johnson, who wrote for the Agence France Presse, an outlet considered to be one of the three largest media outlets.
Lots of people have questioned whether the entire ordeal truly happened or if Alvarenga had just made it all up. Lots of people claimed that Alvarenga looked far too healthy to have survived 14 months stranded in a boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean.
Many people were questioning whether he wasn’t just trying to scam people into thinking he was Alvarenga to get himself a free holiday to the Marshall Islands.
Putting his story to the test
Although it seemed as though it was unlikely he was making it up, some people were doubting his story. As a way to try and prove whether it feasibly could have happened, some expert oceanographers decided to conduct an experiment to see if it was possible for him to drift from Mexico to Tile Islet.
The scientists put some buoys directly into the water and amazingly they drifted right out to the Marshall Islands, also taking roughly the same amount of time Alvarenga took to get there.
A true story?
Despite being hounded for his version of events straight after getting on land, Alvarenga kept much of his experiences to himself. Recently, he released a book to let the people who have been so curious know more details of his survival.
Alvarenga decided that writing the book would probably help him come to terms with the entire thing, as well as help him make some money from the tragic event. There are even talks that the book could be made into a movie in the future.
Since Alvarenga’s story has come out, there have been some conflicting reports of the details surrounding his and Córdoba’s time stranded out at sea. Some say the GPS and radio were washed overboard, while others claim there wasn’t enough battery in the radio.
There was one question that more and more people kept asking though, what exactly happened to Córdoba? Some people were beginning to doubt Alvarenga’s version of the story, wondering if he really threw Córdoba overboard after his death.
Some of the reports had claimed that Córdoba passed away because he got sick and refused to eat, and Alvarenga himself said that the pair had been eating seabirds when Córdoba got ill.
He thought one of the birds they ate might have eaten a venomous snake, or perhaps they just ate too many of them. While this is Alvarenga’s version of the story, Córdoba’s family believe their family member was executed by Alvarenga so he could eat him.
Family back in his life
It was a tough time for Alvarenga following his ordeal. Although he had finally been rescued, he was being hounded by the media to share his story, and they were taking lots of pictures of him as he was beginning his recovery from the worst fishing trip in his life.
All of the attention did prove to be good for one thing though, his family had learned of his fate and were desperate to reunite themselves with him.
Not a Mexican native
Although he and Córdoba set off from Mexico, Alvarenga was not a Mexican native. Originally he comes from a small village called Garita Palmera in El Salvador.
Like lots of people around the world, he chose to leave his small hometown in search of more work, and he set his sights on living in Mexico, assuming he would have better fortune as a fisherman. After living in Mexico for a while, Alvarenga had a falling out with his family and stopped going to visit them.
Putting the past in the past
Although his relationship with his family was pretty much non-existent after eight years of refusing to speak with them, there was a sign that things would get better between them.
Alvarenga had a strained relationship with his family at the best of times, and that was part of the reason why he left for Mexico in the first place. The United States actually paid for Alvarenga to fly back home to El Salvador to be reunited with his family, learning that he had a daughter back home.
A promise to keep first
Before he could even think about going to be reunited with his own family, Alvarenga was all too aware that he had made a promise to Córdoba that he had no intention of breaking. As soon as he was healthy enough, Alvarenga paid a visit to the mother of Ezequiel Córdoba, Ana Rosa.
He wanted to do whatever he could to help them and spoke with them for hours answering whatever questions Córdoba’s family had about the whole thing.
How had Córdoba ended up on the boat with Alvarenga anyway? When Alvarenga was looking for a partner, Ezequiel Córdoba agreed to go to sea with Alvarenga for the small fee of just $50.
Córdoba was a local soccer player who was fit enough to handle some of the tough tasks that would be expected of him on the boat. He would have to help run the boat, and both catch and carry the fish that were supposed to be huge.
Barely knowing Córdoba
It was a difficult decision for Alvarenga to make as he didn’t know much about Córdoba, so he couldn’t really assess whether the soccer player would be there if things got tough on the boat.