438 Days

Salvador Alvarenga would not have survived for fourteen months in an open, twenty-five-foot boat if not for the voluminous amounts of trash in the Pacific Ocean.

Salvador  Alvaregna
The first picture of Salvador Alvarenga after washing ashore. Photo by Ione deBrum, courtesy of Atria Books.

On January 29, 2014, fisherman Salvador Alvarenga washed ashore on a tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands, sporting a wild beard and half-crazed look reminiscent of a young Charles Manson. For fourteen months—or 438 days, to be exact—he had been drifting across the Pacific Ocean in an open, twenty-five-foot boat after the craft’s outboard engine failed during a particularly violent storm off the coast of Costa Azul, Mexico. At first glance, observers had little reason to believe Alvarenga’s survival story; after all, at the time of his ‘rescue’ his boat contained little more than a light-blue cooler box and assorted trash.

As it turns out, Alvarenga survived the experience by utilizing his skills as a fisherman and hunter to catch fish, turtles, and birds with his bare hands. Alvarenga’s boat mate, Ezequiel Córdoba, fifteen years younger, didn’t adapt to the challenges nearly as well and died just a few months into their ordeal. (Notably, Córdoba’s family recently brought a lawsuit against Alvarenga, claiming that he ate Córdoba following his boat mate’s death.)

Regardless, it’s clear that neither Alvarenga nor Córdoba would have survived more than a few weeks if not for the trash that floated within reach of the pair’s boat. In the book “438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea” (Atria Books), author Jonathan Martin notes that “garbage was so prevalent that trash became a constant source of possibilities.” In particular, “Alvarenga … grabbed and stored every empty water bottle [he] found bobbing in the water,” which allowed him to collect the rainwater he desperately needed to stave off dying from dehydration.

In the following interview, Martin relates: the myriad challenges faced by Alvarenga and Córdoba as they drifted away from shore and out into the open ocean; how and why Alvarenga survived; and how Alvarenga is faring today in the wake of his ordeal, which made him an international media sensation—attention he never sought or embraced.

Why did you decide to pursue Salvador Alvarenga’s story?
I write about people who should be dead. My previous book, “33 Men,” was about the rescue of the Chilean miners. No one thought they could survive for ten weeks, nearly a kilometer underground. But they did. When I heard about a man who claimed to have floated seven-thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean in an open boat … the curiosity was too much.

After Alvarenga washed ashore, there was considerable skepticism about his tale. Did you have any doubts?
Initially I had serious doubts. But the more I investigated the less it seemed like a hoax. Alvarenga had been reported missing. There had been an emotional and extensive search & rescue effort. And he was a rough-and-tumble fisherman living on the edge of poverty and the edge of civilization, the kind of guy who just might be able to survive month after month on the open ocean.

As soon as I met Alvarenga, I began to see he was telling the truth. An hour into our first interview, I believed him. After dozens of hours and days hanging out with his colleagues, I concluded that Alvarenga was—and is—a rugged outdoorsman, and long before he went adrift he was regarded as a skilled hunter and known for eating raw food.

There has been significant coverage of Alvarenga’s story. What does “438 Days” add to the narrative?
There have been countless articles about Alvarenga, but very little reporting. This is the first time Alvarenga felt comfortable sitting down and telling the story of his entire journey, from Day 1 to Day 438, when he washed ashore on Ebon Atoll. When he first landed on solid ground, Alvarenga was in shock and practically unable to speak. In those first photographs he looks like a scared animal. His hair is wild, his eyes dull and stuck. It was not until seven months later that I first interviewed Alvarenga at length. Even then we rarely went more than an hour at a time; he would often say, “My head hurts, that’s enough.”

Who else did you interview for the book?
I spent a month living on the Mexican coast and conducted countless interviews with fishermen [from the Costa Azul area]. I went out with the fishermen to hunt sharks, drank beers with them at night inside the beach cantinas, and [basically] asked them to bring me into the world of modern-day shark hunting.

I also interviewed oceanographers and climate scientists. I asked: Would ocean currents take a small boat from Mexico to the Marshall Islands? If so, would the time line fit with Alvarenga’s story? Through a dozen interviews with scientists I was able to not only confirm that his journey was plausible, but that [for much of the time] he was adrift in one of the rainiest areas on the planet.

I also interviewed psychologists who study extreme survival, and it turns out that Alvarenga has many of the characteristics you want if you hope to survive for a long time at sea. At thirty-five years old, he was neither so young as to be reckless nor so old as to be weak. He was strong but not so large and muscled that he required massive caloric intake. And he focused on the positive. During one interview with a Navy SEAL trainer it seemed like every time the SEAL described the perfect survivor he was in fact describing Alvarenga.

Also, Alvarenga has an unflagging optimism about life, always seeing the glass not as half-empty or half-full but as “a beautiful glass.” Long before he was lost at sea he was famously generous with his friends, sharing food, money, and fishing tips. Whenever he struck a pod of fish that were biting he would call his colleagues and invite them to share the bonanza. That spirit was a key to his survival.

How was Alvarenga able to survive for as long as he did?
The open Pacific is so barren that floating objects, especially if they are moving slowly, become the epicenter of a huge variety of sea life. That is why some fishermen dump old Christmas trees in the water; then they wait a few days before returning to the area, at which point they encircle the trees with nets and simply scoop up the fish that have gathered beneath. Alvarenga’s boat was just such a nucleus of a growing ecosystem.

Within days of going adrift, schools of fish were gathering in the shade and sense of protection afforded by the hull of the boat. Then barnacles and a greenish mold began to grow inside and outside his boat. Crabs hatched from God-only-knows-where and birds—exhausted by the ocean crossing—landed on the boat in droves. Like the [main character in the] movie Life of Pi, Alvarenga was accompanied by a menagerie during his journey.

Alvarenga’s boat mate died during their time adrift. Why did Alvarenga survive when his mate did not?  
Alvarenga and Córdoba were a total mismatch. Alvarenga was the veteran fisherman who loved life at sea, and even preferred the stormy waters of the Pacific to the comforts on shore. Córdoba was a rookie. Unlike Alvarenga, Córdoba never felt comfortable out at sea and by the first day was crying, vomiting, and unable to adapt to the ferocious storm that trapped the men.

Furthermore, the two men were strangers. Prior to their ordeal they had never worked together, never had a conversation, and had previously seen one another only through a few chance encounters on the local soccer field. Córdoba also believed he was cursed. A member of a local evangelical church had warned him that she had a vision that he would soon be lost at sea. She shared this vision with him and young Córdoba began to see death at sea not as a tragedy but as fate. He gave up hope early on, and despite prodding by Alvarenga, Córdoba was never able to find his “sea legs.”

He was also unable to stomach the harsh diet of raw turtle meat and raw seabirds. While Alvarenga drank pint after pint of fresh turtle blood and actually enjoyed the merlot-tinted liquid, Córdoba was disgusted by the food. While Alvarenga gained strength and at times cherished the challenge of survival, Córdoba was convinced that his death was just a matter of time.

Other sailors and fishermen who have been adrift at sea have written about how their mental state was one of constant instability, careening between extreme highs and extreme lows. What were some of the most memorable high and low points for Alvarenga?
Alvarenga saw the ocean as his caretaker. He was rarely angry or belligerent towards the ocean; instead he maintained a reverence for its beauty and majestic strength. Throughout his months at sea, Alvarenga held long conversations with the ocean. He spoke to her as a living companion with whom he could commiserate and share emotions. To hear this simple fisherman wax poetic about his gratitude to the ocean reinforced my faith in the power of human instincts.

The lowest points for Alvarenga were the stretches where he had no water. During the first weeks he was living without fresh water and was suffocating as his body dried up. Hallucinations and dizzy spells sapped his energy. He couldn’t concentrate enough to hunt. 

In spite of his positive outlook, on several occasions during his ordeal Alvarenga apparently considered suicide. How was he able to fend off thoughts of killing himself?
When he was dying of thirst, Alvarenga decided to throw himself to the sharks. To make it quick, he chummed the water with bloody chunks of fish meat. When a pack of sharks was roiling, he prepared to jump. “They would eat me before I sunk into the water,”Alvarenga assured himself. Then he stopped. Not out of fear but because his mother always preached that God would never save the soul of anyone who committed suicide. He was more afraid of Hell than death. Furthermore, he re-examined his family life and acknowledged that he had recklessly abandoned his daughter Fatima when she was an infant. Alone at sea, he craved a relationship with Fatima, by this time a teenager. Alvarenga’s faith that he could rekindle a bond of paternal love for his daughter was a key reason he never threw himself to the sharks.

Has Alvarenga been able to re-establish a relationship with his daughter?
Yes, he returned to his family’s village in his native El Salvador and has established a relationship with Fatima. The last time I visited them, it was a beautiful sight to see Alvarenga teaching her to drive and planning her fifteenth birthday party.

You write about the problems Alvarenga had adjusting to life after his ordeal and finding his footing again, both physically and psychologically. What sort of difficulties did he have? And is he still suffering any kind of post-traumatic stress?
For the first six months after his remarkable journey, Alvarenga was lost. He tried at all costs to avoid talking about his ordeal and avoided the memories. Only after a half-year on land did he have enough stability—physically and emotionally—to begin a more thorough analysis of what he had lived through. I saw this transformation before my eyes. At first Alvarenga would speak as if he was in a trance-like state, his eyes distant, his emotions flat, his voice weak. Now he is a gregarious friend, a huge smile on his face and barely a flicker of his deeply held trauma. In regards to the ocean he has migrated from a total phobia of the water to a deep desire to return to a life at sea. He now wants to return to fishing, despite protests from his mother and daughter, who are terrified by the thought. 

According to the experts you interviewed, people like Alvarenga—who have gone through sea survival ordeals, been through a POW camp, or been taken hostage—don’t bounce back to who they were before. How have Alvarenga’s experiences changed him?
Alvarenga left shore as a party animal, a good-natured but hard-drinking fisherman. By the time he hit shore on the other side of the Pacific, he had found a more sensitive side. He lives life at a far slower pace now.

What do you want readers to take away from “438 Days”?
I asked Alvarenga why he wanted to work on a book with me. He said, “Perhaps if someone who is considering suicide reads this, then they won’t kill themselves. After all, I didn’t kill myself after everything that I went through. If I can make so can they. If one person decides not to kill themselves the book is a success for me.”

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