How long could you survive being a castaway?
It doesn’t get much more desperate than the plight of 36-year-old Salvador Alvarenga, who survived a mind-blowing 14 months adrift at sea after a storm wrecked the engine of his fishing boat off the coast of Mexico, almost sinking it.
Finally found by police, Alvarenga had matted hair, swollen ankles, and was barely able to walk or even make eye contact. He was extremely lucky to have survived his horrifying ordeal.
So far gone
Alvarenga had drifted an incredible 6,700 miles from where he’d started, spending night after night in the inky blackness of the Pacific ocean with only the stars for company, experiencing depression, hallucinations, and terrible loneliness.
Although, initially, he was adrift with his crewmate Cordoba. At first they survived on fish Alvarenga caught with his hands – after much practice. He even managed to catch turtles to eat. But, deprived of drinkable water, Alvarenga soon resorted to drinking his own urine, which he urged Cordoba to do, too – but this did little for their hydration.
Luckily, both men resisted drinking the salty seawater, despite their extreme thirst. Soon, a rainstorm relieved their condition after 14 days, and they were able to drink something other than urine or turtle blood.
They also became expert at scavenging on human debris that had floated out into the ocean – a bag containing rotten carrots and rancid milk, for example, which bobbed past their vessel.
“I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails, swallowing all the little pieces,” Alvarenga later said. He even caught jellyfish, which “burned the top part of my throat” when he swallowed them whole.
No more hope
Sadly, depression soon had Cordoba in its grip, and he slowly deteriorated, refusing food and becoming too weak to even drink. His body shook in convulsions on one occasion after he tried to drink some water, and he soon died.
Alvarenga kept his corpse from washing away and talked to it, asking it how he’d slept and how he felt.
Finally, after six long days, Salvador Alvarenga realised what he was doing was crazy, and committed his friend’s body to the water.
Terrified and alone, Alvarenga watched massive ships pass by on the horizon, oblivious to his presence, since he would have been invisible to them at such a distance. Eventually, Salvador Alvarenga sunk into a fantasy world that helped him to keep his sanity.
Miraculously, Alvarenga eventually spotted an atoll – toward which his boat was heading. Meters from the coast, he jumped into the water and started swimming, and a wave pushed him onto the sandy beach. Hardly able to stand, he crawled up the shore, emaciated and exhausted beyond belief.
He’d washed up on Tile Islet – part of the Marshall Islands, an extremely remote stretch of islands between Hawaii and the Philippines. Amazingly, he came across a couple, Emi Libokmeto and her husband Russel Laikidrik, who had a beach house there. Soon, Alvarenga was nursed back to health on the nearby island of Ebon.
However, he understandably developed a severe fear of water, slept with the lights on, and was terrified of being alone.
“I suffered hunger, thirst and an extreme loneliness, and didn’t take my life,” Alvarenga says. “You only get one chance to live – so appreciate it.”