As they motored across the lagoon in the Marshall Islands, deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the policemen stared at the specimen laid out on the deck before them. There was no hiding the fact that this man had been at sea for a considerable time. His hair was matted upwards like a shrub. His beard curled out in wild disarray. His ankles were swollen, his wrists tiny; he could barely walk. He refused to make eye contact and often hid his face.
Salvador Alvarenga, a 36-year-old fisherman from El Salvador, had left the coast of Mexico in a small boat with a young crewmate 14 months earlier. Now he was being taken to Ebon Atoll, the southernmost tip of the Marshall Islands, and the closest town to where he had washed ashore. He was 6,700 miles from the place he had set out from. He had drifted for 438 days.
Floating across the Pacific Ocean, watching the moon’s light ebb and flow for over a year, Alvarenga had battled loneliness, depression and bouts of suicidal thinking. But surviving in a vibrant world of wild animals, vivid hallucinations and extreme solitude did little to prepare him for the fact that he was about to become an international celebrity and an object of curiosity.
Days later, Alvarenga faced the world’s press. Dressed in a baggy brown sweatshirt that disguised his reedy torso, he disembarked from a police boat slowly but unaided. Expecting a gaunt and bedridden victim, a ripple of disbelief went through the crowd. Alvarenga cracked a quick smile and waved to the cameras. Several observers noted a similarity to the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away. 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.
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