What do you like most?
Beaches or mountains.
I am a beach lover. Looking at the open ocean feels me with great exhilaration.
In fact, it’s always one of my fantasies to be somewhere in an ocean from where I wouldn’t be able to see anything except water.
I thought it would be cool until I heard the story of José Salvador Alvarenga, a mexican fisherman. His scary as well as inspiring story makes me think about human capabilities in a newer way.
So what’s his story and why it is so scary?
This story is about survival of a man who was drifting in the pacific ocean for record 438 days. Just imagine!
Can you even imagine how big is pacific ocean. It’s bigger in area than the entire land on earth. It’s one third of the earth’s total area. It is that big.
November 17, 2012 begun like any other day for expert fisherman Salvador Alvarenga. He was from a small coastal village named Costa Azul in Mexico. Having little formal education, Alvarengo found a way to make money in that coastal village through fishing. Moreover, he found a theme to lead rest of his life: Play hard, work hard, fish deep.
Alvarengo, 35 years old then planned a 30 hour fishing trip with his 22 year old friend Córdoba. In a 25-foot fishing boat without a sail or motor, which neither had roof nor cabin they started their journey on pacific ocean with an electronic radio, bucket and a large icebox to store their fishes.
Alvarenga had been warned that a storm was coming. But it was nothing new for him, he had faced storms before also. With the hope that in one day, he’d make enough money to survive for a full week they started their journey on 17th November 2012 at 10 a.m.
Everything went well for first few hours. They were able to catch almost 1000 pounds of fish, almost overloading their icebox.
However, at around 1 a.m they first felt the storm when waves rocked the small boat. The amateur fisherman Córdoba started panicking. He said to Alvarengo-
“Get us out of here! Let’s go back!”
The boat began to fill with water. Both of them started to empty the water, but the strong waves filled the boat faster with water than they could empty it. The boat started almost sinking. Alvarenga forced to take a radical decision then, he threw all the fish they caught and other equipments worth of thousand dollars into the ocean.
They tried very hard to turn the boat towards home. With the electronic radio Alvarenga called his boss, Willie, to report his position. They were 15 miles away from where they started and tried to figure out a way to reach there faster. Just then an unexpected thing happened, the motor of the boat stopped working. This was the start of their suffering in the sea. It was clear when Alvarenga said in a melancholy voice-
“I couldn’t believe it. We were 15 miles off the coast, and the motor died.”
Alvarenga yelled into the radio for help before the radio died. His boss replied that they were coming for help. But Alvarenga knew that with no flare gun, nothing to signal, no way to call for help, it was very difficult to find a tiny boat in the vast pacific ocean.
After five days the storm finally eased. Alvarenga and Córdoba were now around 280 miles away from the land and the sea wind pushing them farther away. Córdoba started panicking with the fear of death. In numb voice he said-
“We are going to die”
Alvarenga tried to console him saying that a rescue mission will find them. However, Alvarenga himself knew that they are in a place where no fisherman go and chances of finding them is very little.
The sun during the day made them feel as if they were being cooked alive. The cold nights also started haunting them. To get the the warmth during the night they climb on the icebox and slept holding each other.
In the initial few days more than hunger, thirst had become an obsession for them. Having no water to drink they had to drink their own urine. Starvation became routine for them. Alvarenga said-
“I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails,”
Finally after four days (on the 11th day of the journey) the rain finally came. Both men collected 5 gallons of freshwater before it stopped in the plastic bottles they’d found floating in the ocean. It was enough atleast for a week.
Sea birds began lingering around their tiny boat. Alvarenga grab one of them and ripped it apart like raw chicken. His mate Córdoba stared at him in horror. They drank the blood of that sea bird. Alvarenga remembered that as-
“We cut their throats and drank their blood. It made us feel better.”
Alvarenga spent his days hunting for turtles, birds, seaweed. When felt hunger, they used to eat turtle/bird meat and then it’s blood for quenching their thirst. However, managing food was becoming a huge challenge for them. Thanks to Alvarenga’s skill of cathing fish with bare hand. Some days he would able to catch some fish to eat, then some days they had to starve.
Inexperienced Córdoba’s health was deteriorating very fast. He was sick of eating those raw turtle, birds, etc. His stomach was fed up of those raw foods.
“I’d heard about Mexicans who’d done this before,” Alvarenga said. “How did they do it? How come they were spared? ‘I shouldn’t be a coward,’ I told myself. I prayed a lot. And I asked God for patience.”
On the other hand patience had long left Córdoba. Alvarenga said-
“He would cry a lot, talking about his mama”
Alvarenga tried to help him. He would hug him and told him that they will soon hit an island. Córdoba’s mental stablity also worsened day by day. At times he became violent and used to scream, saying that they were going to die.
Few days later, Córdoba announced, “I am dying.” Alvarenga put freshwater to Córdoba’s mouth, but his mate did not swallow.
“Don’t die,” said Alvarenga, panicked. “Don’t leave me alone!”
It was raining the day Córdoba died, recalls Alvarenga. The two men, as they’d done almost daily for weeks, were huddled inside the icebox. They prayed. Córdoba asked Alvarenga to visit his mother and said that he was now with God. Alvarenga said-
“We said our goodbyes. He wasn’t in pain. He was calm. He didn’t suffer.”
Finally six days after Córdoba’s death, Alvarenga slid his friend’s body into the ocean with heavy heart.
Alvarenga was then all alone in that mammoth sea. He described his experience as-
“Sometimes I climbed inside the icebox and cried,”
Thoughts of suicide came to his mind very often. Only the fear that God would condemn his soul to hell stopped him from killing himself. He often saw cargo ships passing by his tiny boat and would shout for help. But he is not sure whether those ships were even real or just his hallucination.
Alvarenga imagined his life if he could ever make it home. He would be a family man with a clutch of children and a field full of animals. He begged to the heavens for a final chance, an opportunity to salvage the relationship with Fatima, his 14 year old daughter.
On January 30, 2014, after drifting 438 days in the pacefic ocean Alvarenga finally saw same 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, one of the most remote spots on the earth. Alvarenga described as-
“I hit the ground first. My boat hit the ground second. I felt the waves, I felt the sand, and I felt the shore. I was so happy that I fainted on the sand. I didn’t care if I died at that point. I was so relieved. I knew at that point I didn’t have to eat any more fish if I didn’t want to.”
Had he missed that tiny marshal island by any chance, next land is philippines, 3000 miles away from there.
Finally, a couple rescued Alvarenga in that island and took him to a local hospital. After 11 days of treatment he was ready to go home. When Alvarenga saw Fatima, he grabbed his daughter saying“I love you”. Alvarenga then found a new meaning of his life.
Thus Alvarenga made a world record of surviving longest in the sea. He didn’t navigate or sail, he was just drifting for record 438 days in that huge ocean, where except water nothing is visible.
Today Alvarenga question, if his journey was a life lesson sent by God. By all reasonable standards, he should have been dead months earlier. Was he being allowed to live for a reason?
Had he been chosen to bring a message of hope to those considering suicide?
What could be worse than being alone at sea? That’s what I could tell someone thinking about suicide. What further suffering could there be than this?
He is a happy man today, probably a better man than before. He know his life’s worth and it is evident when he said-
“I’m happy to be alive. I’m happy to be with my family. I’m proud to be what I am. I am simply glad I’m here.”
Later, there is a entire book written on his extraordinary journey on the ocean named ‘438 days’.
Giving up is probably the easiest option at the time of adversity. But to know this life’s worth one has to go through that adversity. To find your true potential, to get that meaning we search in our life, each one of us has to go through adverse situations.
We always have two options, either give up and see life as meaningless or go through that hardship and find the meaning of your life. Just like the story of Salvador Alvarenga.
Choice is always ours!
A.P.J Abdul Kalam correctly once said-
Have a meaningful week. Until next time. –Joy