Call it a modern day version of the movie “Cast Away”. But Salvador Alvarenga spent 428 days adrift in the Pacific in a 25-foot fishing boat without a sail or motor. Admittedly, the number seems too large to comprehend. But he lived through it.
On November 17, 2012 Alvarenga of Costa Azul, Mexico and a shark fisherman, lit out in the risky deep-sea circuit waters 50 to 100 miles offshore. An El Salvador native with little formal education, he found a way to make money in the Mexican coastal village. The 35 year old left with Córdoba, an inexperienced 22-year-old – who died on the savage journey.
With a storm approaching, his engine gave out along with his radio and fishing gear.
The boat had no cover — just an icebox and a trunk used by the fishermen to store their catch until they got to shore. The men also had a bucket, which they used to bail water out of the boat.
By the time the storm lifted, Alvarenga knew they had drifted far from Mexico. He could see airplanes flying overhead. But with no mast and no flares, the tiny boat was invisible in the vast ocean.
After 438 days of floating on endless water, he saw mountains. When he felt he was close enough, Alvarenga dove into the water, swimming toward what he would later learn was one in the string of the Marshall Islands.
He soon connected with residents near the beach where he landed on January 29, 2014, but no one spoke Spanish so they resorted to pictures and hand gestures to communicate. They gave him water but he immediately began to bloat, so the residents called the mayor’s office and Alvarenga was ushered onto a big shipping boat that transported him to the Marshall Islands’ biggest hospital.
Wearing tattered clothes and with his hair and beard matted wildly from 14 months at sea, Alvarenga stepped off the boat to news cameras and reporters. In days, he went from the most solitary existence imaginable to the most-wanted interview on the planet.
Alvarenga didn’t care that journalists didn’t believe his story. The University of Hawaii and a number of independent oceanographers would later say his improbable survival was entirely possible. Buoys and weather models show an ocean drift matched his 6,000-mile journey west. He’s collaborated with journalist Jonathan Franklin in a book about his remarkable survival, called “438 Days.”
Alvarenga kept his promise to Córdoba’s mother. He visited her in Mexico and delivered her son’s dying message. He now lives in El Salvador, mending a relationship with his daughter, Fátima, whom he had abandoned as a child. He doesn’t drink and continues to pray every day.
The man who once reveled in his life as a member of “Los Tiburoneros” now can’t bear to enter the ocean.