Man drifts for 13 months across Pacific Ocean

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Jose Salvador Alvarenga

It’s the classic tale we have all heard many times before. Man leaves Mexico for a day of shark fishing, and washes ashore on the remote Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, thousands of kilometres away, and 13 months later. Wait…what?

Though sounding like a rejected script from Castaway, this is exactly the harrowing adventure that Jose Salvador Alvarenga told the U.S. ambassador in the Marshal Islands during a 30 minute meeting on Monday. The 37-year-old washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean last week, after apparently spending 13 months at sea, surviving on fish, birds and turtles.

“It’s hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea,” said Ambassador Tom Armbruster in the capital city of Majuro. “But it’s also hard to imagine how someone might arrive on Ebon out of the blue. Certainly this guy has had an ordeal, and has been at sea for some time.”

If true, the man’s ordeal would rank among the greatest tales ever of survival at sea.

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department have stated that the man told Mexico’s ambassador to the Philippines, Julio Camarena, that he set out from an area near the coastal town of Tonala in southern Chiapas state, in December 2012. If drifting in a straight line, his journey will have covered a distance of more than 10,460 kilometres.

Armbruster said the soft-spoken man complained of joint pain and had a limp but was able to walk. He had long hair and a beard, and rather than appearing emaciated, as might have been expected, he looked puffy in places, including around his ankles. Other than that, Alvarenga seemed to be in reasonable health.

Back in Mexico, in Costa Azul, a fishing hamlet near Tonala, fishing boat owner Villermino Rodriguez Solis said Alvarenga and a companion had gone missing on Nov. 18, 2012, which would imply the sea odyssey lasted 14 1/2 months.

“Here, his colleagues went out in boats to look for them. They spent four days looking for them,” said Villermino, who expressed surprise that Alvarenga had been found alive in the Marshall Islands.

Residents of Costa Azul added that although not knowing his real name, he had worked at fishing camps along the coast, going by the nickname “La Chancha,” and was clearly an experience fisherman.

Erik van Sebille, a Sydney-based oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, said that although the journey would typically take upwards of 18 months, drifting from Mexico’s west coast by favourable winds and currents to the Marshall Islands could be done in 13 months.

“The way that the currents in the Pacific work is that there is a very strong westerly current just north of the equator and that basically drives you directly from Mexico all the way toward Indonesia and in the path, you go right over the Marshall Islands,” Sebille explained.

There have been other cases of people surviving for months adrift in the Pacific. Three Mexican shark fishermen said they were lost at sea for nine months before being rescued near the Marshall Islands in 2006, and in 1989, four men survived nearly four months near New Zealand after their multi-hulled boat capsized.

Source: The Associate Press

Image: Giff Johnson | Getty

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Andres Markwart Contributor Editor at Vancity Buzz, covering stories pertaining to the environment, politics, and the arts.
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