Lost at Sea

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The photo of the bearded fisherman shuffling ashore went viral. Briefly, Alvarenga became a household name. Who survives 14 months at sea? Only a Hollywood screenwriter could write a tale in which such a journey ends happily. I was sceptical, but as a Guardian reporter in the region, I began to investigate. It turned out there were dozens of witnesses who had seen Alvarenga leave shore, who had heard his SOS. When he washed ashore in the same boat that he had left Mexico on , thousands of miles away, he was steadfast in his rejection of interviews — even posting a note on his hospital door begging the press to disappear.

Later, I would sit with Alvarenga for many hours, back at his home in El Salvador, as he described in detail the brutal realities of living at sea for more than a year. Over the course of more than 40 interviews, he described his extraordinary survival at sea. This is his story. On 18 November , a day after being ambushed at sea by a massive storm, Alvarenga was trying to ignore the growing pond of seawater sloshing at his feet. An inexperienced navigator might have panicked, started baling and been distracted from his primary task: aligning the boat with the waves.

He was a veteran captain and knew that he needed to regain the initiative. The spray and crashing waves dumped hundreds of gallons of seawater into the boat, threatening to sink or flip them. With no raised structure, no glass and no running lights, it was virtually invisible at sea.

On the deck, a fibreglass crate the size of a refrigerator was full of fresh fish: tuna, mahimahi and sharks, their catch after a two-day trip. If they could bring it ashore, they would have enough money to survive for a week. The boat was loaded with equipment, including 70 gallons of gasoline, 16 gallons of water, 23kg 50lb of sardines for bait, hooks, miles of line, a harpoon, three knives, three buckets for baling, a mobile phone in a plastic bag to keep it dry , a GPS tracking device not waterproof , a two-way radio battery half-charged , several wrenches for the motor and 91kg lb of ice.

Alvarenga had prepared the boat with Ray Perez, his usual mate and a loyal companion. Alvarenga tensely negotiated their slow advance toward the coast, manoeuvring among the waves like a surfer trying to glide and slice his way through. At times he refused to bale and instead held the rail with both hands, vomiting and crying. He was capable of working 12 hours straight without complaining and was athletic and strong. But this crashing, soaking journey back to shore?

He was sure their tiny craft would shatter and sharks would devour them. He began to scream.

Alvarenga remained sitting, gripping the tiller tightly, determined to navigate a storm now so strong that harbourmasters along the coast had barred fishing boats from heading out to sea. Finally he noticed a change in the visibility, the cloud cover was lifting: he could see miles across the water. Around 9am, Alvarenga spotted the rise of a mountain on the horizon. They were approximately two hours from land when the motor started coughing and spluttering. He pulled out his radio and called his boss. The motor is ruined! These were his final words to shore. With the morning sun, they could see the waves approaching, rising high above them and then splitting open.

Each man would brace and lean against a side of the open-hulled boat to counteract the roll. But the waves were unpredictable, slapping each other in midair, joining forces to create swells that raised the men to a brief peak where they could get a third-storey view, then, with the sensation of a falling elevator, instantly drop them.

Their beach sandals provided no traction on the deck. Alvarenga realised their catch — nearly kg 1,lb of fresh fish — was making the boat top heavy and unstable. With no time to consult his boss, Alvarenga went with his gut: they would dump all the fish. One by one they hauled them out of the cooler, swinging the carcasses into the ocean. Falling overboard was now more dangerous than ever: the bloody fish were sure to attract sharks.

Next they tossed the ice and extra gasoline. But at around 10am the radio died. It was before noon on day one of a storm that Alvarenga knew was likely to last five days. Losing the GPS had been an inconvenience.

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The failed motor was a disaster. Now, without radio contact, they were on their own. The storm roiled the men all afternoon as they fought to bale water out of the boat. The same muscles, the same repetitive motion, hour after hour, had allowed them to dump perhaps half the water.

Castaway José Salvador Alvarenga's tale speaks to our deep fears of being adrift | Philip Hoare

They were both ready to faint with exhaustion, but Alvarenga was also furious. He picked up a heavy club normally used to kill fish and began to bash the broken engine. Then he grabbed the radio and GPS unit and angrily threw the machines into the water. They turned the refrigerator-sized icebox upside down and huddled inside. Soaking wet and barely able to clench their cold hands into fists, they hugged and wrapped their legs around each other. But as the incoming water sank the boat ever lower, the men took turns leaving the icebox to bale for frantic or minute stints.

Progress was slow but the pond at their feet gradually grew smaller.

Survivor recounts 3 days lost at sea in 2010

Darkness shrank their world, as a gale-force wind ripped offshore and drove the men farther out to sea. Were they now back to where they had been fishing a day earlier? Were they heading north towards Acapulco, or south towards Panama? With only the stars as guides, they had lost their usual means of calculating distance. Without bait or fish hooks, Alvarenga invented a daring strategy to catch fish.

He kneeled alongside the edge of the boat, his eyes scanning for sharks, and shoved his arms into the water up to his shoulders. With his chest tightly pressed to the side of the boat, he kept his hands steady, a few inches apart. When a fish swam between his hands, he smashed them shut, digging his fingernails into the rough scales. Many escaped but soon Alvarenga mastered the tactic and he began to grab the fish and toss them into the boat while trying to avoid their teeth. They ate fish after fish. Alvarenga stuffed raw meat and dried meat into his mouth, hardly noticing or caring about the difference.

When they got lucky, they were able to catch turtles and the occasional flying fish that landed inside their boat. It was salty but not revolting as he drank, urinated, drank again, peed again, in a cycle that felt as if it was providing at least minimal hydration; in fact, it was exacerbating their dehydration. Alvarenga had long ago learned the dangers of drinking seawater. Despite their longing for liquid, they resisted swallowing even a cupful of the endless saltwater that surrounded them.

He began to grab jellyfish from the water, scooping them up in his hands and swallowing them whole. After roughly 14 days at sea, Alvarenga was resting inside the icebox when he heard a sound: splat, splat, splat.


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The rhythm of raindrops on the roof was unmistakable. His crewmate awoke and joined him. Rushing across the deck, the two men deployed a rainwater collection system that Alvarenga had been designing and imagining for a week. Dark clouds stalked overhead, and after days of drinking urine and turtle blood, and nearly dying of thirst, a storm finally bore down on the men.

They opened their mouths to the falling rain, stripped off their clothes and showered in a glorious deluge of fresh water. Within an hour, the bucket had an inch, then two inches of water. The men laughed and drank every couple of minutes. After their initial attack on the water supplies, however, they vowed to maintain strict rations. They grabbed and stored every empty water bottle they found. When a stuffed green rubbish bag drifted within reach, the men snared it, hauled it aboard and ripped open the plastic. Inside one bag, they found a wad of chewed gum and divided the almond-sized lump, each man feasting on the wealth of sensorial pleasures.

Underneath a layer of sodden kitchen oil, they found riches: half a head of cabbage, some carrots and a quart of milk — half-rancid, but still they drank it. It was the first fresh food the two men had seen for a long time. They treated the soggy carrots with reverence. We asked God to forgive us for being such bad sons.

We imagined if we could hug them, give them a kiss. We promised to work harder so they would not have to work any more. But it was too late. They were on the same boat but headed on different paths. He gripped a plastic water bottle in both hands but was losing the energy, and motivation, to put it up to his mouth. Alvarenga offered tiny chunks of bird meat, occasionally a bite of turtle. Depression was shutting his body down. The two men made a pact.

His breath was rough. Instead he stretched out. His body shook in short convulsions. He groaned and his body tensed up. Alvarenga suddenly panicked. You have to fight for life! What am I going to do here alone?

Lost at Sea | Scanner

How was your sleep? I joined forces with pupils of Waid Academy in Anstruther to create a memorial in sound for men of the East Neuk fishing industry lost at sea. The work draws on the stories of the men out at sea, field recordings and interviews to evoke the men and their lives. The work was premiered at Waid Academy on 28 June as a live performance but an alternative version was installed at the Scottish Fisheries Museum.

No physical memorial to these men currently exists — something that retired local fisherman, Ronnie Hughes, is campaigning for. You can hear his stories throughout the work. Listen and immerse yourself in the stories and sounds of the fishing industry.

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