The Guardian has published an incredible story about a fisherman, Salvador Alvarenga, who encountered a storm and found himself 6,700 miles from home. He was lost at sea for 438 days. It sounds impossible but Alvarenga and his inexperienced companion, 22-year-old Ezequiel Córdoba, basically survived by learning to catch fish with bare hands and drinking their own urine while waiting for fresh rain water.
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. With the fishing knife, Córdoba expertly cleaned and sliced the flesh into finger-sized strips that were left to dry in the sun. 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.
Within days, Alvarenga began to drink his urine and encouraged Córdoba to follow suit. 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.
“I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails, swallowing all the little pieces,” Alvarenga later told me. He began to grab jellyfish from the water, scooping them up in his hands and swallowing them whole. “It burned the top part of my throat, but wasn’t so bad.”
After weeks at sea, Alvarenga and Córdoba became astute scavengers and learned to distinguish the varieties of plastic that bob across the ocean. 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.
But perhaps the more amazing thing isn’t just how Alvarenga survived physically but emotionally. After Córdoba passed away, Alvarenga’s imagination became his salvation as he continued to talk to Córdoba’s corpse as if he were alive and paced the length of the 12 foot boat, pretending he was somewhere else:
He imagined an alternative reality so believable that he could later say with total honesty that alone at sea he tasted the greatest meals of his life and experienced the most delicious sex. He was mastering the art of turning his solitude into a Fantasia-like world. He started his mornings with a long walk. “I would stroll back and forth on the boat and imagine that I was wandering the world. By doing this I could make myself believe that I was actually doing something. Not just sitting there, thinking about dying.” With this lively entourage of family, friends and lovers, Alvarenga insulated himself from bleak reality.
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