Salvador Alvarenga became lost in the ocean on a small fishing boat with one crewmate off the coast of Mexico in November 2012. Alvarenga would remain lost at sea for 438 days until he washed ashore on the Marshall Islands, 6,700 miles away. During a press conference after his rescue, the 36-year-old native of El Salvador was so overcome with emotion that he could not speak (video below).
His amazing survival story has been recounted in an upcoming book entitled "438 Days" by Jonathan Franklin. An excerpt from the book was published by The Guardian on Nov. 7.
While Alvarenga was an experienced fisherman, his crewmate, Ezequiel Cordoba, was not. They had reportedly gone about 50 miles off shore and were trying to navigate back when huge waves nearly sunk their 25-foot boat.
They had a crate on board that was filled with their catch: tuna, mahimahi and sharks. The boat had 70 gallons of gas, 50 pounds of sardines (bait), a GPS device, a two-way radio with half its battery gone, and a mobile phone.
It was Cordoba's first trip out with Alvarenga, and he was a 22-year-old novice who found himself vomiting, crying and simply holding on to a railing for dear life.
Alvarenga called his boss, Willy, and told him the GPS wasn't working, the motor had failed, and that they didn't have an anchor to drop.
Willy promised to have them rescued; meanwhile, waves pounded the boat and were starting to sink it.
Alvarenga decided to toss his catch, about 1,000 pounds of fish, to keep the boat afloat. Alvarenga and Cordoba also lightened the load by dumping their extra gas and ice. However, help did not come.
With no food or hooks, Alvarenga began catching fish with his bare hands. He would put his hands in the water and slam them together when a fish swam through. Occasionally, they would catch a turtle. Alvarenga even grabbed jellyfish out of the water and ate them whole.
“It burned the top part of my throat, but wasn’t so bad," Alvarenga said of consuming the unusual cuisine.
For liquid, the men drank their own urine, turtle blood and rainwater when it fell.
"I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails, swallowing all the little pieces," Alvarenga added.
Sometimes rotten food would drift by -- gum, cabbage, carrots, milk -- which they gladly consumed.
“We would talk about our mothers,” Alvarenga said. “And how badly we had behaved. We asked God to forgive us for being such bad sons. We imagined if we could hug them, give them a kiss. We promised to work harder so they would not have to work any more. But it was too late.”
After two months, Cordoba got sick from eating a raw seabird and refused to eat any food. The men promised to seek out each others' families if only one survived.
“I am dying, I am dying, I am almost gone,” Cordoba told Alvarenga. After some short convulsions, the young man passed away.
“I propped him up to keep him out of the water. I was afraid a wave might wash him out of the boat,” Alvarenga said. “I cried for hours.”
Alvarenga had one-way conversations with the corpse by answering his own questions. Six days after the young man died, Alvarenga buried him at sea.
“What could I do alone?” Alvarenga said. “Without anyone to speak with? Why had he died and not me? I had invited him to fish. I blamed myself for his death.”
Alvarenga would spot sea barges in the distance, but they had no crew on the decks.
One day, he washed ashore on the Tile Islet, which is part of the Ebon Atoll, one of the many islands that make up the Marshall Islands
Alvarenga found a beach house that belonged to Emi Libokmeto and Russel Laikidrik, a married couple.
“As I’m looking across, I see this white man there,” said Libokmeto. “He is yelling. He looks weak and hungry. My first thought was, this person swam here, he must have fallen off a ship.”
“Even though we did not understand each other, I began to talk and talk,” Alvarenga said. “The more I talked, the more we all roared with laughter. I am not sure why they were laughing. I was laughing at being saved.”
Laikidrik sailed to the main town on the island of Ebon, and got help for Alvarenga.
After recovering from his ordeal, Alvarenga went to Mexico to explain what happened to Cordoba’s mother, Ana Rosa, for two hours.
“I suffered hunger, thirst and an extreme loneliness, and didn’t take my life,” Alvarenga concluded. “You only get one chance to live – so appreciate it.”
Uproxx.com notes that Alvarenga reconciled with his estranged daughter in a story that is likely to go from book to movie in the near future.