When Jose Salvador Alvarenga appeared ashore on a tiny remote island in the Pacific Ocean one day, he looked like a man who had a story to share.
Man Found At Sea
This wild-looking and ragged man, who definitely looked like he had been at sea for a very long time, shared a story no one was expecting. Since he was some 6,700 miles from home, the truth that was to unfold about Alvarenga’s epic journey was what people were desperate to know since his disappearance 438 days prior.
His story began on November 17, 2012, when Alvarenga was preparing for a fishing trip. He planned to leave the village of Costa Azul in Chiapas, Mexico and would be returning after his trip. This wasn’t the first time he set off, and usually his friend Ray Perez would go with him. This time round, however, Ray was unable to make it so Alvarenga decided to look elsewhere for someone to accompany him and take Perez’s place.
Seeking A Companion
He decided to ask local soccer player, 22-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba, to accompany him. However, these two soon-to-be fishing buddies had never even spoken before, let alone worked together. For his efforts, Alvarenga offered him $50 and Cordoba agreed for the promised amount. The newly formed fishing partners left Costa Azul that day, aboard the 25-fishing boat owned by Alvarenga, on an intended 30-hour mission to fish for sharks, sailfish and marlins in the deep ocean.
The trip may have been well thought out in terms of fishing for livestock, with plenty of equipment such as gasoline, fishing lines and a cell phone. However, Alvarenga’s boat was not completely cut out for what was to come. With a boat low and open, the duo were probably hoping for calm weather conditions; and, without any raised structure or working electricity on the boat, the pair were not intending to stay there longer than the planned 30 hours.
Started Off Well
However, the GPS was not waterproof and the two-way radio was only half-charged. So, the fishermen could only rely on what they had, and for everything to go the way they hoped. Luckily, it all started off well. They had caught more than 1,000 pounds of fish, including sought-after tuna, sharks and mahi-mahi. However, while the day may have started off well, the conditions later that day took a turn for the worst, and the pair were hit by a vicious storm.
Blown Off Course
The storm hindered their intended course, and the pair were blown in the wrong direction. Massive waves battered the tiny boat, and with its low and open design, it was unknown if it could survive such conditions. An inexperienced Cordoba began to panic, but fortunately, Alvarenga had more knowledge of what to do and took charge. When there was finally a lull in the storm, Alvarenga sighted land, which the pair hoped to settle on and find shelter.
While spotting land may have been a fortunate sighting, one they thought would be their saving grace, it wasn’t long till disaster struck once again. After momentarily surviving through the storm, the motor of the boat was struggling and could no longer handle the conditions. It began to sputter and then eventually died. In their moment of panic once again, Alvarenga grabbed their radio -which was only half charged when they set out into the ocean – and sent an SOS to his boss, Willy.
Working Out Their Location
Immediately, Willy was desperate to be notified of Alvarenga and Cordoba’s coordinates to figure out their exact location. But just when things were going bad, they became even worse. The GPS was no longer working when the fisherman were trying to identify their position, and they could not report to Willy where they were. It was then down to Plan B to help the fishermen in their time of need, but once again, they weren’t so lucky.
Help Is On Its Way
Willy had ordered the fisherman to lay anchor when he discovered that their GPS was no longer working. However, Alvarenga, who had not planned for this to happen on their fishing venture, had neglected to include one on the trip. With Willy still in contact, he tried to reassure the men that help was on the way and they had nothing to worry about. It was at this time that a report was given of a missing boat to the Chiapas authorities.
The Rescue Mission Had To End
The authorities launched a search and rescue mission to find the fisherman and his crew mate, Cordoba. The search mission went on for 48 hours before it came to a halt. Official Jamie Marroquin claimed that poor visibility meant that they had to cancel flights after just two days. Days began to pass with no sign of the men or their boat, but days turned into months and the chances of finding the men alive grew increasingly unlikely.
After months of no sign from Alvarenga and Cordoba, life in Costa Azur and the fishing community there returned to normal. In fact, it had unsurprisingly been assumed that there would that neither of the men would return ever, especially with no contact being made since they last spoke to Willy. However, 14 months later, the people in Costa Azul received some news that they never would have expected…
The Middle of Nowhere
14 months after the pair set sail from Mexico, a couple on a remote island in the Marshall Islands were left startled when they spotted someone ashore. The couple were not used to people just turning up unannounced, like a local neighbor. After all, they were on an island in the middle of the ocean. How many people could just suddenly turn up? But here they were, witnessing a rugged-looking man turning up at their home in the middle of nowhere.
Finding Tile Islet
This man had stumbled upon one of 22 small islands that make up the Pacific Ocean’s Ebon Atoll. That island was Tile Islet, where Emi Libokmeto and her husband Russel Laikdrik live. On January 30, 2014, while the couple were doing their usual daily tasks of stripping the husks from coconuts and drying them outside their island home, they noticed their unexpected guest. Their usual daily routine was broken when they noticed this mysterious stranger coming their way.
Who Is This Man?
“As I’m looking across, I see this white man there. He is yelling. He looks weak and hungry. My first thought was, this person swam here, he must have fallen off a ship,” recalls Libokmeto to Jonathan Franklin in his 2015 book, 438 Days. After letting this man into their home, Laikdrik decided to sail to a nearby town for help, and figure out who this strange man was. Could he really be the man that had set sail at sea 14 months ago and was assumed dead?
Piecing The Story Together
After setting out to seek help, a nurse and a policeman arrived, bringing the man back to the main port of Ebon. It was here that this mysterious man recited the details of who he was and exactly where he had come from. More importantly, he revealed exact details of how he arrived on the island of Tile Islet. It was from piecing his stories together that people started to guess who this man was.
Journalists and researchers had their theories that this man could actually be Alvarenga. Wondering if he had sailed 6,700 miles across the Pacific Ocean, they questioned if this possibility could be a reality. But there was something missing? The man believed to be Alvarenga arrived on the island alone, having set sail on his fishing trip with his companion, Cordoba. So, questions began to arise if this was the man who was missing-at-sea and believed to be dead, Alvarenga, and what happened to Cordoba?
If this was to be the man journalists and researchers believed, had he really survived an astonishing 438 days at sea? Where in the world was Cordoba? People needed answers, and the media was on to this story hoping to get all the answers from the only man who could give it to them. Alvarenga was reluctant to speak to the media at first, but by putting together the stories he had given, investigators and reporters were able to solve the mystery themselves.
What Really Happened?
The story went like this. After their initial contact with Willy, and then realizing that would be their last, the pair were aware they were fully on their own from then on. After losing contact with his boss in Costa Azul, Alvarenga knew it was for him and Cordoba to figure this out for themselves. But with unfortunate weather conditions, the tiny boat continued to get battered, and the small vessel was not strong enough to weather the storm.
Ways To Survive
To make the vessel more stable, the pair had no choice but to throw their valuable catch overboard. To survive themselves, the two men would huddle at night inside a large, upside down icebox for warmth. Since they could no longer keep their catch on board, Alvarenga spent the days catching fish with his bare hands, and resorted to drinking their own urine to survive. After suffering from severe dehydration, it was a blessing for the pair when it began to rain after two weeks.
The rain gave them the much needed drinking water they needed to help their dehydration, but their weeks at sea turned into months, and neither were sure at how much longer they could go on for. With no sign of a rescue team coming anytime soon, the pair continued to survive by scavenging garbage bags from the ocean. Over time, Alvarenga’s got much better at being able to capture turtles and birds, giving the pair more to feed off and live on.
Cordoba Couldn’t Do It
Despite their capturing of food, things weren’t looking food for Cordoba, whose mental and physical state began to decline. After four months, Cordoba had passed away and Alvarenga actually continued to speak to his crew mate’s corpse for a further six days! Although he was scared to continue his ordeal at sea alone, the fisherman then decided to bury his friend in the ocean, and continued another 10 months with only his imagination for company.
Surviving On His Own
His loneliness, and thoughts of never being rescued, led to the consideration of killing himself. But as a religious man, his faith kept him going and he allowed his imagination to run wild, away from the ocean surroundings he found himself in. He spent his time disappearing into a fantasy world, taking himself away from the situation he was currently in. He imagined himself exploring the world, taking long walks, enjoying good food, and meeting with a variety of lovers.
Sailing Into The History Books
After 10 months alone, he sighted land ahead and headed in that direction. Stunned by his sighting, he slashed away the buoys that were keeping his boat stable that whole time, and guided his boat towards Tide Islet. This was the moment he stumbled upon the island where Emi and Russel live, and this was also the moment that the man who had been at sea for an astonishing 14 months and survived, made his way into the history books.
Reunited With His Family
Once guided by officials to the port of Ebon, camera crews descended to capture shots of the heavily bearded castaway. Of course, such a momentous and historic occasion meant the photo went viral, but the people who were most excited to see Alvarenga were his family in El Salvador. His whole ordeal and astounding return called for a family reunion. In fact, it also saw a mend in his family relationship, after a rift saw them estranged from each other for 8 years.
Not Everyone Was Overjoyed
The reports of a man surviving after 438 days at sea left everyone amazed. However, the extraordinary news of Alvarenga’s unexpected return didn’t have the same excited response from everybody. In fact, Cordoba’s family took a bizarre approach to the news of their loss. After the release of Franklin’s, 438 Days, Cordoba’s relatives decided to sue Alvarenga, after suggesting he survived his time at sea by cannibalizing on Cordoba’s corpse. Such allegations and claims were vehemently denied by the fisherman, however.