On a tiny, remote island in the Pacific Ocean, a wild and ragged man stumbles ashore. Then as rescuers subsequently cluster around him, it’s clear that he’s been at sea for a very long time. However, as José Salvador Alvarenga’s story begins to unfold, few can believe the epic journey that’s taken him some 6,700 miles from home.
On November 17, 2012, José Alvarenga was preparing to leave the village of Costa Azul in Chiapas, Mexico, for a fishing trip. Usually, his friend Ray Perez went with him on such expeditions, but that day Perez was unable to make it. Instead, then, Alvarenga asked a 22-year-old local soccer player, Ezequiel Córdoba, to go in Perez’s place.
Córdoba and Alvarenga had never chatted, let alone worked together, prior to then. But the fisherman promised him $50, and Córdoba agreed. So, together, the pair left Costa Azul aboard Alvarenga’s 25-foot fishing boat. And, for the next 30 hours, they planned to fish for sharks, sailfish and marlins in the deep ocean.
Alvarenga’s boat was low and open, without any raised structure or working electricity. And although the vessel contained plenty of essentials, such as gasoline, fishing line and a cell phone, the GPS wasn’t protected from water, and the two-way radio was only partially charged.
At first, in any case, the trip seemed to go well. Together, the pair managed to catch more than 1,000 pounds of fish, including sought-after tuna, sharks and mahi-mahi. However, later that day they were hit by a storm and blown off their intended course.
As massive waves continued to batter the tiny boat, the inexperienced Córdoba reportedly began to panic. Finally, though, there was a lull in the storm, and Alvarenga sighted land. But then there was another dire misfortune at hand: the struggling motor sputtered and died. So, grabbing the radio, Alvarenga sent an SOS message to Willy, his boss.
Immediately, Willy requested coordinates for Alvarenga and Córdoba’s location. However, the GPS was no longer working, and the fishermen were unable to identify their position. Willy therefore ordered them to lay anchor – but Alvarenga had neglected to bring one on the trip.
Still, undaunted, Willy reassured the two men that help was on its way. And after receiving a report of the missing boat, Chiapas authorities launched a search and rescue mission. Yet according to official Jaime Marroquín, poor visibility meant that they were forced to cancel search flights after just 48 hours.
As days and then weeks passed with no sign of Alvarenga and Córdoba, the chances of the two men being found alive grew ever more remote. Meanwhile, in the fishing community of Costa Azur, life slowly returned to relative normality. And yet then, some 14 months after the pair had first set sail from Mexico, a couple living on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands made a startling discovery.
Emi Libokmeto and her husband, Russel Laikidrik, live on Tile Islet – one of 22 small islands that make up the Pacific Ocean’s Ebon Atoll. Normally, the couple’s days are spent stripping the husks from coconuts and drying them outside their island home. However, on January 30, 2014, their routine was broken by the arrival of a mysterious stranger.
“As I’m looking across, I see this white man there,” Libokmeto recounted to Jonathan Franklin for the journalist’s 2015 book, 438 Days. “He is yelling. He looks weak and hungry. My first thought was, this person swam here; he must have fallen off a ship.” Then after taking the man into their home, Laikidrik sailed to a nearby town for help.
A nurse and a policeman then arrived and brought the wild-looking man back to the main port of Ebon. And, slowly, the man was able to relate the details of how he had come to be washed up on Tile Islet. Journalists and researchers subsequently started to suspect that he was Alvarenga – and that he had sailed some 6,700 miles across the Pacific Ocean.
But had Alvarenga really survived at sea for 438 days? And what had been the fate of Córdoba, his unfortunate crew mate? At first, the fisherman was unwilling to open up to the press; but over time, reporters and investigators began to piece the story together.
After losing radio contact with his boss in Costa Azur, Alvarenga had realized that he and Córdoba were on their own. Then for days, the storm had continued to batter the tiny boat. And in order to make the vessel more stable, the pair apparently had to dump their valuable catch overboard.
At night, it’s reported, the two men had huddled inside a large, upside-down icebox for warmth, while by day Alvarenga had apparently caught fish with his bare hands. In fact, he later claimed that his severe dehydration saw him resort to drinking his own urine in order to survive. Then, after around two weeks at sea, it started to rain, blessing the pair with much-needed drinking water.
Gradually, the weeks turned into months, and still no sign of rescue arrived. It’s said the pair therefore survived by scavenging garbage bags from the ocean and through Alvarenga’s growing ability to capture turtles and birds. Córdoba, however, apparently began to decline both mentally and physically.
Indeed, it seems that after some four months at sea, Córdoba passed away. For six days, Alvarenga apparently continued to talk with his crew mate’s corpse, treating him as if he were alive. Then, he reportedly buried his friend in the ocean, terrified at the prospect of continuing his ordeal alone.
For the next ten months, Alvarenga drifted with only his imagination for company. And he has said that although he considered killing himself, his religious faith would not allow him to do so. Instead, he apparently disappeared into a rich fantasy world in which he took walks around the world, enjoyed good food and met with a variety of lovers.
Then, at last, Alvarenga spotted land. Amazed, he slashed away the buoys that had been keeping the boat stable on the ocean and guided it towards Tide Islet. And there, he stumbled on Emi and Russel’s island home – and walked into the history books. After camera crews then descended on Ebon and snapped pictures of the heavily bearded castaway, his image quickly went viral.
Today, Alvarenga lives with his family in El Salvador, his ordeal having mended a rift that saw them estranged from each other for eight years. Córdoba’s family, meanwhile, seemingly took a contentious approach to dealing with their loss. Apparently, after Franklin’s 438 Days was released, the dead man’s relatives tried to sue Alvarenga, suggesting that he’d cannibalized Córdoba in order to survive. Alvarenga, however, denies these claims.