A man who was lost at sea for 438 days said imagining sex and food helped him to survive.
José Salvador Alvarenga had been fishing for sharks in Mexico for decades, but on one fateful day in November 2012, a doomed fishing trip would go on to become a barely believable tale of survival.
José – who was 33 on the day of that trip – normally fished the Pacific Ocean for a couple of days at a time with his friend; however, his pal was unavailable, so he took inexperienced dayworker Ezequiel Córdoba, who was 22.
Initially, the trip was proving to be surprisingly fruitful, so when a storm began to set in they decided to keep fishing. But this proved to be a very bad decision indeed.
As they attempted to return to land, waves flooded the engine and they drifted out to sea, where they were battered by the storm, losing most of the equipment they had on board.
The storm didn’t let up for a whole tortuous week, and by the time it had passed, they were completely lost in their small, camouflaged, blue and white boat. And in the week that followed, they nearly died of thirst as they had no water and it didn’t rain.
But while plastic pollution may be killing our planet, it actually helped to save José and Ezequiel, who collected more than 70 bottles, which they filled when it finally rained.
As for their diet, they had to be resourceful.
Speaking on the How To! podcast, journalist Jonathan Franklin – author of 438 Days – explained: “The first month they were eating turtles because they were close to shore and there were lots of sea turtles.
“They would grab the sea turtles, kill them, and then collect the blood and drink glass after glass of the blood, which turns out is extremely healthy and gives you energy. And then they would cook the meat.
“There were also little sharks that would follow them and if the sharks were small enough, less than maybe two or three feet, Alvarenga would wait until they were next to the boat and grab them by the back fin.
“They would eat the shark livers because it turns out that the shark liver is full of all sorts of oils and nutrition. They just had this crazy diet of turtles and shark liver.”
As they drifted further out, they had to be more creative – and cruel – to survive.
They would wait till birds landed on a stick on their boat, and after waiting patiently to strike, they would grab the bird and break one of its wings. This way, they were able to amass dozens of birds on the boat, so they had an ongoing food supply.
But beyond all this, a key to survival was staying sane, and it didn’t help that José and Ezequiel were very different people – the former a party animal, and the latter an evangelical Christian.
As such, it was vital that they used their imaginations, and Jonathan said that José told him he actually had the best meals and the best sex of his life all in his mind during those 438 days at sea.
He said: “It was funny because basically the guy who has deep faith was seeing all sorts of spiritual images and the other guy who is a party monster was probably seeing tequila bottles.
“When they saw airplanes go by, they would imagine out loud, ‘What do you think they’re having?’ They would create these amazing feasts imagining that the people in the airplanes were eating.
“Alvarenga would imagine that he’s walking down the beach and seeing some girl he’s always been flirting with—it’s this alternative reality that keeps him alive. And he said, “Jonathan, the best meals of my life were those imaginary meals I had at sea. The best sex I had in my life was the imaginary sex’.”
Sadly, Ezequiel died 10 weeks in, after a poisoned bird made him fearful of eating and he wasted away.
José was eventually found in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific, 6,700 miles from where he had set off from 438 days earlier.