In November 2012, Salvador Alvarenga went fishing off the coast of Mexico. Two days later, a storm hit and he made a desperate SOS. It was the last anyone heard from him – for 438 days. This is his story.
On November 17, 2012, Alvarenga set out from the fishing village of Costa Azul, near Pijijiapan, off the coast of Chiapas, 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.
Shortly after embarking, their boat, a seven-meter (23-foot) topless fiberglass skiff equipped with a single outboard motor and a refrigerator-sized icebox for storing fish, 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 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 organized 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, they 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, so 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.